Prairie Moon Waldorf School marks 10 years of movement

The classroom, its walls painted in a gradient of blue and green, is sparsely decorated. Driftwood hangs above the window, there are potted plants in the corners, and an oak piano stands against one wall. Inside the students’ desks, there are no textbooks, no workbooks.

Instead, in each desk is a recorder in a hand-crocheted case and a slotted canvas pouch filled with stick and block beeswax crayons.

Right now, the pouches are rolled open across desktops, as the class of fourth- and fifth-grade students at Prairie Moon Waldorf School illustrate the Norse myth of Thor they just finished discussing. On their sketchpads, students draw serpents and lightning bolts with crayons.

The beginning of this school year marks 10 years for Prairie Moon, 1853 East 1600 Road, a few miles northeast of Lawrence. Enrollment at the school has increased each year, growing from about a dozen students initially to more than 80 today, said Melissa Watson, the school’s administrator. Watson said students have come to Prairie Moon for different reasons, but they get a lot of parents whose children have burnt out or lost interest at public school.

“Instead of putting more academics in and removing movement and art, we’re finding ways in which they can enjoy their work more by making it more artistic,” she said.

As the school year goes on, the blank sheets of students’ sketchpads will fill page-by-page with illustrations and notes from lessons. Students have sketchpads for each subject, and by year’s end they become self-made textbooks, Watson explained. The use of drawing in the classroom is one element of the Waldorf teaching method, which integrates art, music and activities into each subject.

“They are learning all the different things you see in other schools, but they learn them through activities,” Watson said, noting students learn math by constructing a shelter or methods of measurement by canning vegetables from the school’s garden. “It’s good for kinesthetic learners; it creates an attachment to the material that helps students remember.”

When it opened in 2005, Prairie Moon consisted of one mixed-age classroom of preschool through kindergarten, Watson said. It has added grade levels over the years, and the school now has six classrooms serving students from preschool through seventh grade.

Another key element of Waldorf teaching is keeping movement in lessons. Watson said students have movement class twice per week, in which they play non-competitive, cooperation based games. Each class also has at least an hour of outdoor play per day, Watson said.

“I don’t know any adult who loves to sit at a desk the entire day without getting up and moving around, and I don’t know why we would expect our children to do that,” Watson said.

Not long after the class of fourth- and fifth-grade students finish their drawings of Thor and the serpent, their teacher, Bret Schacht, brings them outside for recess on the school’s grounds.

Schacht has been teaching at the school for 10 years and has had these students for the past five. Next year, when they are fifth- and sixth-graders, he will continue as their teacher. Part of the Waldorf method is that the teacher moves with the students through the grades. Schacht said he thinks that element allows the students and teachers to build a strong relationship.

“The positive expectations I have for the children, that can really guide their development,” Schacht said, adding that the class becomes like a family over the years.

Cami Kennedy’s 8-year-old daughter Zana has attended Prairie Moon since preschool. Kennedy said she enrolled Zana at Prairie Moon partly because she wanted her to stay active and enjoy school.

“It’s just a basic function of being a child — being outside and having physical activity,” Kennedy said, adding it’s similar to what school was like 50 years ago. “It’s child-focused and not production-focused.”

In the middle school classroom, sixth- and seventh-grade students are working on perspective drawings. Students sketch cityscapes or landscapes with protractors and rulers. The drawings use geometry the students learned in their math lesson, said middle school teacher Molly Mackinnon.

“This is like an extension of those lessons into something in the real world,” Mackinnon said.

Prairie Moon will add eighth grade next year, which will make Mackinnon’s class the first to attend through middle school. In the future, Watson said, the hope is to have three separate buildings for preschool, elementary and middle school.

“We’re looking at the next 10 years,” she said.