When nature is the classroom

kids and teachers outside in a circle at Lakeside School
Students at the Lakeside School at Black Kettle Farm, a “farm and forest” Waldorf School near Essex, begin their day with “Morning Circle,” a language development activity where students learn songs and poetry. Photo by Tom French

Lakeside School in Essex makes sure no child is left inside

By Tom French

Students spend much of their day outside beginning as they arrive in the morning. One climbs the fort built atop the remnants of a tree lost in Irene. Two chat as they lounge against pumpkins. Others share a saucer swing hanging from “the big walnut tree.” A group of younger kids, the Sprouts, engage in play on the other side of a split rail fence.

The earthy smell of a campfire permeates the misty morning as Gregg Van Deusen, a teacher at Lakeside since 2007 and the lead pre-school/kindergarten teacher, tends a fire and stirs soup in a pot above the flames. Tuesday is soup day, though the stock was prepared on Monday when students chopped the veggies. They will take the soup into the woods for later. 

The Lakeside School at Black Kettle Farm, a “farm and forest” school located near Essex was established in 2006 by “a group of friends” who wanted a Waldorf-style program for their toddlers.

Cena Abramo, one of the founders, says they “were looking for a place where our kids could grow, explore friendships, and learn about the world around them in an unhurried way. We all came from education backgrounds and knew that Waldorf had all of those pieces and more.”

Originally meeting two days per week in the community room of St. John’s Episcopal Church in Essex, part of their day was spent at the park by Lake Champlain, so they called themselves Lakeside Preschool. 

The preschool was so successful, the Eddy Foundation, a non-profit that purchases and preserves wildlands in the Adirondacks, offered them space at its 213-acre property in a renovated 18th-century farmhouse the following year. 

“With the apple orchard and the bubbling brook, the little bridge and Grandfather Oak in the middle – it was perfect for what we wanted to do and has shaped what Lakeside has become.”

When those first kids were ready for kindergarten, the parents created their own, and the subsequent year they continued with a first grade, followed by a second and third. The number of students in the various programs grew. This year, more than 40 children are enrolled from ages one through third grade.

Robin Gucker, one of the first teachers hired, was instrumental. After 10 years teaching at the Lake Champlain Waldorf School in Shelburne, Vermont, Robin moved to Lakeside in 2008. “Outdoor education is a huge passion of mine, and I really wanted to implement a kindergarten that would be 70 percent outside, maybe more.” Gucker says they were fortunate to be pioneering the school at the same time as an emerging CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) renaissance. “The two impulses had a lot in common and attracted the same people.”

outdoor teaching at lakeside
Students last fall at the Lakeside School at Black Kettle Farm, a “farm and forest” Waldorf School near Essex, NY, practice coordination and other skills while splitting wood with Gregg Van Deusen, lead Pre-School/Kindergarten teacher.Photo by Tom French

Once all the students arrive, they gather for “Morning Circle” – the first through third graders near their outdoor classroom (built in response to Covid), the preschool and kindergarteners on the other side of the farmhouse. Even the Sprouts, ages 1-3, circle for song and language development before engaging in other forms of creative play.

The kindergarteners pass an imaginary bird from “nest to nest” with the cupping of their hands to recognize who is present, and then sing a “cumulative,” season-themed song where each repeated verse is longer. 

Maeve Taylor, administrator from 2016 until last fall, explains the benefits. “They learn songs and poems quickly in this style. When my son was in elementary, he learned some really complex, beautiful poetry by Robert Frost, E. E. Cummings, and many other poets.”

When the students finish the song, they head into the woods. Gregg and two other teachers carry large packs with apples, spare clothes, child-sized tools, and the soup. The children are dressed warmly with muck boots and rain gear. They amble across the street, stopping to observe two porcupines in a tree before Gregg helps them hop-scotch from rock to rock over a small stream. They cross a CATS (Champlain Area) trail, but the path they follow is theirs and the kids know where they are going – Mossy Mountain. 

Eli Goff, a parent and the school’s development and outreach director, explains, “Everyday they go somewhere different based on the day. On millet day, they go to Twisty Vine. Thursday, they go to Mossy Lodge – a little cabin the teachers built with the kids a few years ago.” Other places include Rocky Dell and the Land of Baby Pines.

Waldorf education is based on the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, an early twentieth-century Austrian educator and philosopher. To Maeve, “Waldorf means letting children develop at a natural pace and giving them the chance to play, imagine, and develop creativity along with a sense of self and what they can accomplish.” Today, the Waldorf model is one of the largest independent school movements in the world. 

“They help pile wood. They rake leaves. We teach them to use tools safely. When they’re 5, they learn how to use a small hatchet. It gives them a strong belief in themselves and their part in the community as a whole.”

students with pumpkins
Two students in Gregg Van Deusen’s Pre-School/Kindergarten class lounge and relax last fall before classes begin at Lakeside School at Black Kettle Farm, a “farm and forest” Waldorf School near Essex, NY. Other students help Gregg prepare a soup that will be eaten later, share a saucer swing from “the big walnut tree,” or greet each other from a fort built atop the remnants of a tree lost in Hurricane Irene. Photo by Tom French

When the students arrive at Mossy Mountain, a small rise about a quarter-mile from the school, they disperse to various areas. The children know how far they’re allowed to go. A half-dozen scramble onto a fallen tree, its trunk arching up like the bowsprit of a ship. The boy closest to the top, but only a couple feet above the ground, shouts, “We’re headed to Japan and the bow is rolling.”

A number of students stay with Gregg as he assists them with sawing wood, though they won’t build a fire today. 

“At some sites we’ll have a fire for cooking or when it starts to get cold.”

When winter sets in, they might not travel as far. With deep snow, they’ll play in the yard making snowmen and forts.

“The kids are so resilient,” Goff says. “By winter, they’re hardy, and the cold doesn’t bother them.”

Madeleine Webster, one of the three teachers accompanying the children into the woods, sets up a teaching station for making gnomes – finger puppets that will be used for a puppet show for the Sprouts.

As Taylor explains, many Waldorf programs have children outdoors interacting with nature. “We’re very lucky to have such an extensive forest here, and that’s because of our partnership with the Eddy Foundation.” The school purchased the building and seventy acres in 2018. 

The farm also plays a part. Josh Smith leases land around Black Kettle Farm and teaches the kids about farming. The elementary grades have weekly lessons in the fall and spring where they plant, harvest, and complete other agricultural tasks. Even the Sprouts gather eggs as part of their day and learn how to crack them. 

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By the time students reach the primary grades, the curriculum transitions to lessons focused on Language Arts and Math. Students are introduced to a foreign language. Science concepts are infused with “forest adventures.” 

Lakeside is chartered by the NYS Department of Education and is a member of both the Waldorf Early Childhood Association and the Association of Waldorf Schools of North America. Willsboro is considered their home district and monitors their programs. Both Willsboro and the Boquet Valley Districts provide busing, though several students carpool from as far away as Crown Point, Upper Jay, and Keeseville. 

Many of Lakeside’s students transfer to the Lake Champlain Waldorf School (in Shelburne, Vermont) when they age out of Lakeside’s program, or they attend public schools. In 2022, the first cohort of 10 Lakeside kindergarten students graduated from high school. All enrolled in college. Lakeside is the only officially recognized Waldorf School inside the Blue Line, but other Waldorf-inspired and Farm and Forest schools dot the North Country. The Northern Lights School in Saranac Lake touts a “nature-based” nursery and preschool along with Little Peaks Preschool & Early Childhood Center in Keene and Maple Sprouts Forest School in Hermon. The Waldorf School of Saratoga Springs offers programing from early childhood through 12th grade.

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About Tom French

Tom French splits his time between the Adirondacks and the Thousand Islands from his home in Potsdam. More information about his writing can be found at Tom-French.net.

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