Students at Prairie Moon Waldorf School used a recent sunny day to work in their own gardens.
“It’s fun,” said Finn Veerkamp, a second-grader, as he brushed the dirt from his hands. He was planting red romaine lettuce and basil.
Each student has a 3-foot by 3-foot area of land at the rural Lawrence school, and they are completely in charge of it.
Starra Zweygardt, a seventh-grader, was using a ruler to measure how deeply to plant the seeds for chard. She also had a map of her garden plot that she had drawn in class.
“It’s been pretty easy,” she said of gardening. “But, if you don’t take care of it, it’s not that easy.”
She recalled having to pluck a bunch of tiny weeds that had sprouted in her garden last year after she was gone for a period of time.
“That was really hard,” she said.
Nearby, fourth-grader Will Farwell was building a trellis out of sticks for his peas to climb, and fifth-grader Addi Lybarger was planting Forget-Me-Nots.
Kris Carlson, first- and second-grade teacher, said the garden is incorporated into classroom lessons on reading, writing, math, music and art.
For example, Carlson said he recently told the Irish folktale about how ragweed got its name. His students also painted pictures of a seed germinating under the earth and reaching up.
“They are hearing it, seeing it, doing it,” he said, while eating lunch outside on a wooden picnic table.
Prairie Moon’s curriculum is just one of the many reasons the school was named “Kansas Green School of the Year” by the Kansas Association for Conservation and Environmental Education.
Shari Wilson, director of the Kansas Green Schools program for KACEE, applauded the school for the way its curriculum incorporates nature and environment, and for how it uses the garden.
“It’s not about just sitting in a classroom, but it’s also about being outdoors and learning some life skills,” she said.
Prairie Moon, the state’s only Waldorf school, was established in 2001 and opened in 2003. It is located on seven acres of land just northeast of Lawrence Municipal Airport. It has about 60 children, ranging from ages 3 to 13.
“Waldorf schools are very hands-on schools,” said Rick Mitchell, a founder of Prairie Moon. “The slogan is head, heart and hands, and we do those things in equal parts.”
Prairie Moon also has a large garden, called Okanis, where produce is grown and sold to local grocery stores and restaurants. It also is taken to homeless shelters. Last year, the garden provided about 250 pounds of produce.
Mitchell is the garden coordinator, but students, teachers and Lawrence community volunteers help out.
“We have a lot of great partnerships,” Mitchell said.
Prairie Moon is working in cooperation with Kansas University’s Native Medicinal Plant Research Garden, which is adjacent to the school. This year, students will be planting and maintaining a tea garden on the KU land, and will work with KU students and researchers.
The students also designed and built a big tool shed for their expanding garden projects. Thirteen-year-old Starra estimated it took about three months from start to finish. She said they worked on it every morning as part of their main lesson.
It’s another example of how traditional subjects — like math, reading, writing and physical education — are taught differently at Prairie Moon.
“We don’t do outcomes-based education because we don’t have an outcome in mind,” Mitchell said. “We want children to develop into the people they are, but do it in a way where they are completely responsible to the community.”
Recycling, composting and more
Besides its garden projects, the school is green in other ways.
Nick Matthews, a fifth-grader, pointed out how the school saves money on its water bill. It has a system that guides rainwater from the roof into two 450-gallon barrels. The rainwater is then used for the Okanis garden. During a steady rain, it takes only 20 minutes to fill them.
Other green efforts include:
• Recycling. It recycles everything that the Lawrence Recycling Center accepts.
• Composting. Faculty, staff and students compost garden waste, food scraps, leaves and yard trimmings.
• Classroom materials. It only uses natural materials such as wood, wool, cotton, silk, sand, beeswax and clay.
• Food. When possible, it uses local organic ingredients in snacks and lunches.
Prairie Moon was one of three schools named a “Kansas Green School of the Year.” The others were Hesston Elementary School and Tomahawk Elementary School in Shawnee Mission. The awards were presented during a ceremony April 1 in Topeka.
“These schools really are models for how all of us can be more green,” said Wilson, of KACEE.
The state organization will present the students at Prairie Moon with a big green banner on May 7.
“The green school award is not just based on what the adults are doing, but what the students are doing and their involvement is really important for a school to even be considered for the award,” Wilson said. “We value their contribution.”