Sandy Beverly is one happy parent.
Beverly, the mother of Simon Ruland, 3, sends her son to Prairie Moon School, 1853 E. 1600 Road.
"I thought long and hard about where was the best place for him. I chose Prairie Moon because I think they're all about protecting childhood and nurturing children, nurturing the imagination. I have found it to be a wholesome environment," says Beverly, a faculty member of Kansas University's School of Social Welfare.
She wanted Simon to attend the new school - now in the spring semester of its first academic year - because Prairie Moon's philosophy attracted her.
It's a Waldorf school, meaning it's part of an educational movement started by Rudolf Steiner, an Austrian-born scientist, educator, artist and philosopher.
Steiner (1861-1925) founded a movement that now encompasses about 150 Waldorf schools in North America and roughly 800 around the world.
"I read about it (the Waldorf approach). I see it as consistent with being sensitive to environmental issues, paying attention to nature, caring about the food you consume and where it comes from," says Beverly, an assistant professor.
"I've been very happy with it. My son is not one who jumps into new situations. They've been very sensitive and gentle with that, giving him support but also giving him the freedom to wait and watch : giving him the freedom to be himself."
Prairie Moon School currently has a total of 16 students enrolled in its early childhood and kindergarten mixed-age classroom. The number of children in the classroom varies, depending upon the day of the week. Fourteen children attend Monday, Wednesday and Friday, while 16 come Tuesdays and Thursdays.
Prairie Moon School leases a classroom, a bathroom and office space at the Grant Township Community Center, surrounded by farm fields just northeast of Lawrence Municipal Airport.
Things are going so well at the new school that its board is moving forward with plans to offer a first-grade class this fall.
"Whenever I talk to people in the Waldorf community across the country about the number of students we already have, they're astounded. A lot of Waldorf schools start out in someone's basement with four or five students," says Monika Eichler, board president.
"We're getting close to where we want to be. Our enrollment is something that we're looking at, because we do need to have more students to make the school financially viable. We'd like to have 18 children in the classroom on any given day."
Eichler says she believes the school has the support to add a first-grade class.
"We feel that we have gotten enough information from the parent community that a (larger) Waldorf school would be welcomed. We feel that we're ready to move forward," she says.
"We had 20 to 25 families come to our open house in January, which really surprised us. So we're getting a sense that people have at least heard the Prairie Moon School's name. The word is getting out."
The board's goal is to eventually build what Eichler calls a Waldorf grades program, extending all the way up to middle school or even high school.
There is only one other Waldorf school in Kansas, Eichler says - the Lake Farm School for Waldorf Education, located on an organic farm and wildlife habitat near Gardner. It was established in 1994.
Beverly says she doesn't know yet whether her son will attend first grade at Prairie Moon School. But she's glad Simon's there now.
"I think that a lot of programs - preschools and schools - kind of rush kids to grow up, rush them to be smart, rush them to read. I wanted Simon to be in a place where he wasn't going to be rushed to be academic. I feel good about this decision," she says.
Strikingly different approach
More people in town are learning about the Waldorf approach to education, but it's still new to many Lawrence residents.
"A Waldorf education honors the development of a child and meets them where they're at. We tailor the curriculum and activities based on what children are experiencing in all realms - not just what they're able to do, but also what is going on emotionally and physically," says Eichler, whose husband, David Eichler, is the school board's vice president.
"A Waldorf education also integrates the natural world into the curriculum at every stage, particularly in the grades program. Before we ever study the biology of a frog, we would take a field trip to a place that had frogs, and begin to study their habitat : to experience what that is like and how their environment is affecting their biology before we would ever get into the abstract and cognitive aspects of what we're studying."
Learning in the early childhood classroom is done through "circle activities," which are based on the seasons of the year and what is happening in nature. A Waldorf education, Eichler says, is closely in touch with the rhythms and cycles of the year, as well as the rhythm of a particular day or week.
A cornerstone of the Waldorf philosophy is supporting a child's imaginative life.
"Having good imaginative abilities makes for good readers later on. But also, when we think about creating a different world for ourselves, for our families, for our communities, for the world, you have to be able to imagine solutions," Eichler says.
Children at Prairie Moon School have plenty of time for "free play" with toys that are open-ended, or that encourage them to use their imagination.
And the classroom is filled with natural materials, such as wood, silk, cotton and wool - nothing plastic.
"One of the values of a Waldorf education is an appreciation for nature and a sense of stewardship for the natural world," Eichler says.
Waldorf schools, especially in the early childhood programs, incorporate exercise and lots of movement into the day, as well as hands-on activities, such as gardening and knitting.
Children also are introduced to musical instruments, foreign languages, singing and other arts.
And, strikingly, in Waldorf schools it's traditional for the same teacher to stay with his or her students from first grade through fifth grade, or even all the way up through eighth grade.
Ideally, that's the system Prairie Moon School's board is hoping to create, Eichler says.
Among the supporters of the new Waldorf school is Rick Mitchell, director of the art gallery at the Lawrence Arts Center, 940 N.H.
Both his now-grown sons attended the Waldorf School of Princeton, N.J. His older son attended the school for three years in the early childhood program and then three years in the grade school. His younger son was in the school's early childhood program for three years.
Mitchell served on that school's board.
He was the founding president of the board of the Waldorf school in Gardner, as well as the founding president of the board of Prairie Moon School. He still serves on Prairie Moon School's board.
"I'm sort of a grandfather figure in this endeavor. The driving force in these schools is always the parent body," Mitchell says.
"I think that the Waldorf method of education is really very good and beneficial to children. It's based on readiness. It utilizes the arts in the academic curriculum. I'm an artist, so that was one key thing that I picked up on."
Lawrence's Waldorf initiative is going well, according to Mitchell.
"It's our first year, and I think we've made a good, solid beginning. We were fortunate to get the space at the former Grant School. We've got some fantastic, dedicated people involved in this," he says.
"There are an awful lot of schools starting up like ours. Waldorf is the largest independent and unaffiliated school initiative in the world. We're just a little school in Lawrence, but we're connected to a worldwide movement."