Bend Forest School
Bend Forest School is a nature immersion early childhood program with the goal of bringing the natural wildness back into the lives of young children. The school is located on just over 200 acres of natural space and currently serves 50 children (between Bend and Sunriver programs), 3-6 years of age, with dreams of growing into a pre-k to 5th grade program. The school follows the Cedarsong Way Forest Kindergarten model based on the European Waldkindergarten models of early education.
Natural Start chatted with Bend Forest School's Founder, Rae Alberg, to learn more about her inspiration and what makes the school special.
Tell us more about your "why." What does the outdoor preschool model provide for the students in your program?
Bend Forest School was founded in January of 2018 in order to provide children in our community, including my own, a small social setting that allowed a safe and supported space to connect, learn and play in the natural world. Our place-based, child-led, emergent curriculum model allows for children to really become keen observers of our all outdoor classroom and the daily changes that take place. With the children leading the way they gain a strong sense of ownership over their education and in turn have a better understanding of subjects they choose to explore. There is a deep connection to place that occurs within our program, allowing and supporting children to love and protect, themselves and each other as well as the littlest of creatures on the forest floor to the tallest in the sky; growing stewards of the land.
You have several staff members, yourself included, with a background in mental health and therapeutic practices. How does this fit with the goals of the school?
At Bend Forest School we hold high the need to feel safe, respected, and connected. My goal in building Bend Forest School to what we are today is to provide an environment where social emotional learning is first and foremost. This foundation of emotional literacy and leading with the heart, problem solving and community building, while immersed in nature, has shown to be a wonderful pairing.
Hiring teachers/mentors with backgrounds in therapeutic practices and early childhood mental health allows us, from the moment we meet a child, to have a lens of connection, safety, and respect. We are continually meeting the children where they are at, connecting and helping them feel safe so they are able to fully dive into all the incredible learning experiences that the forest classroom has to offer. From there, we are able to support them in age appropriate play and learning; all of this with the natural therapeutic aspect of being immersed in the natural world creates a learning environment where young children thrive.
With programs reopening during a pandemic, there will need to be a growing focus on how to support children recovering from trauma. How do you plan to address children's emotional needs during this challenging time?
As mentioned above, our main goal while at forest school is to meet each child where they are at on any given day they are with us in the forest. Our current practices of connection, following the child's lead in play, noticing (not judging), being present and attuning to where the child is at in the moment, are practices that we will continue when we return in September.
As we start back up in a few weeks we will keep in the forefront the importance that children process experiences and emotions and trauma through their play. So we will be observers and guides and support them in this as needed.
We are very intentional in how we set up our day and every interaction we have with the children while they are with us. We work to provide consistency, clear expectations, knowing each individual child's strengths and interests, predictable routines, support with problem solving, emotional literacy (describing, noticing, and acknowledging), being attuned to each child, noticing and being present with them while allowing them to take the lead on what they are needing in the moment.
Is there any additional advice you would suggest to our members, as we navigate these difficult times, keeping in mind the mental health of our young children?
Children follow our lead so doing our best to slow down with them, take the time to be fully present and explore all the small pleasures in nature is a great way to reset with children at all times but especially right now. Remember that safety, joy, and connection should always lead the way!
About Rae Alberg
Rae is an educator, mother, and lover of all things colorful, creative, muddy and green. She has over 15 years of experience in the early childhood field, many spent working, thinking, dreaming and planning a program that supports the whole child. When not tromping around the woods with a group of children, Rae can be found providing early childhood mental health consultation to families and early childhood programs in the Central Oregon community.
Being inspired by Richard Louv's, “The Last child in the Woods,” and learning about the first Forest Kindergarten in the states, Rae was inspired to take steps to open a Forest School in Bend.
Rae has an Masters Degree and Oregon Teaching License in Early Intervention/Early Childhood Special Education as well as a graduate certificate in Infant Toddler Mental Health from Portland State University. In 2016, Rae became a Certified Forest Kindergarten Teacher through CedarSong Nature School’s Teacher Training program. In addition, Rae is a certified yoga teacher and is certified in Wilderness First aid and CPR.