At Urban Prairie Waldorf School, we are proud to be a U.S Department of Education Green Ribbon School. We are the only school in Chicago with Green Ribbon status, and one of three schools in Illinois. The US Department of Education awards Green Ribbon status to schools based on their commitment to three core pillars of school-based sustainability. The first is reduced environmental impact through sustainability efforts within the school’s buildings and grounds. The second is a health-focused engagement with sustainability, including a commitment to outdoor recreation. The third is offering effective and hands-on sustainability and environmental education within a school’s curriculum. We’re firmly committed to those three pillars, and that earned us Green School status in 2022, which we have proudly maintained since that time. Our commitment to sustainability and nature-based education is a key part of our school identity. The urban oasis of our school grounds and the surrounding area allows our kids to play freely outside all year round, and to have an immersive learning experience within a natural environment. We’re honored that the U.S Department of Education has recognized our school’s achievements in educating our students in a fully immersive, hands-on learning environment, and equipping them with vital skills for thriving in today’s rapidly evolving society.
Community in Nature: Playgroup in the Wild
Connecting with nature begins from an early age in Waldorf schools, and here at Urban Prairie, we are keen to encourage families to join in as well. There is a strong sense of community throughout the school, and each new family is warmly welcomed. ‘Playgroup in the Wild’ is a great way to experience this sense of community, and around fifteen families are currently part of the group. Everyone is welcome, and friendships form quickly through the many exciting activities and supportive atmosphere. It is a great way to learn about the ethos of a Waldorf School and to experience the value of learning through play while being immersed in and surrounded by nature. We’re thrilled to be able to offer a nature-based program in our urban environment, and pride ourselves in discovering and sharing all the wonderful green spaces our city has to offer.
A Rural Experience in an Urban Setting
Our school benefits hugely from being situated near the lakefront and beautiful beaches – the children go on weekly expeditions with their class, learning about and experiencing seasonal changes throughout the academic year. These expeditions are tied into the subjects they are studying, and provide opportunities for community-based experiential learning. Depending on their age, the teachers supplement these expeditions with drawing, writing, poetry, and singing. In Middle School, where the emphasis is on nature as a basis for science, bigger projects might include learning about the life cycle of a plant, the food chain of some of the local animal and bird species, or activities to study light refraction on the water of the lake surface. While many urban schools would only study these subjects from textbooks, Urban Prairie is surrounded by nature, giving the children the opportunity for a fully immersive and hands-on learning experience. This brings their studies to life and allows them to engage in a meaningful way with the subjects and the world around them.
Learning through Permaculture
Urban Prairie is an established permaculture school – we practice sustainability through the three main permaculture ethics of ‘earth care’, ‘people care’, and ‘fair share’. These values are highly regarded in Waldorf education, and at Urban Prairie, the children are able to learn about and implement them through practical experiences on the land. In Third Grade for example, the children have a block of lessons about farming. They learn about lengths and measurements, how to prepare the land for planting seeds and vegetables, and how to care for farm animals. As a class, they choose some vegetables to grow themselves and then watch as, over a number of weeks, sprouting shoots and leaves appear and grow taller until they are fully formed plants. During this time, they learn about how the sun and rain help with growth, and will water the plants if needed. Once the vegetables are ready, the children harvest and prepare them as part of a meal. This gives them a practical awareness of how something can go from a seed to being on their plate and is a meaningful experience that fosters a living connection to nutritious, sustainable food. Urban Prairie has kept various animals over the years in order to help manage the land using permaculture principles, and as a valuable educational resource for the children. In the past, there were goats (grass, weed, and bramble maintenance, and milk for drinking, cheese, and soap making) and chickens (eggs, feathers, and eating garden pests, bugs and slugs). The school is currently home to a small flock of sheep (light grass maintenance, healthy soil from manure, wool for crafts). The children learn to observe and take care of the needs of the animals year-round, including feeding them and keeping their shelters clean. Through these experiences, they gain a sense of responsibility, decision-making skills, and a sense of caring for other beings. They also gather wool from the sheep and learn to spin and dye it, as well as creating many useful knitted items such as bags, scarves, and hats. These handcrafting skills are an important part of Waldorf education, help with early brain development, pattern recognition, and hand-eye coordination, and the children at Urban Prairie are very fortunate to be able to experience using the wool from the school’s own sheep.
Educating Children to Meet the Future Through Sustainability
The Early Childhood Classes (3 to 6 years of age) learn about the environment and sustainability through physical hands-on activities such as putting leftover food scraps (fruit and vegetables) on the compost and watching how they turn into soil over time, which they can then take and use to grow their own vegetables. This encourages an understanding of what happens to something when it is ‘thrown away’ and begins to foster a sense of responsibility. These experiences are furthered by recycling projects, and making use of items such as cardboard cereal packets for artwork or old cardboard boxes to house toys, crayons, or a collection of pine cones and leaves for a nature project.
As our planet is faced with the increasing impacts of climate change, at Urban Prairie we are doing all we can to reduce our environmental impact and use more renewable energy sources – the school has installed solar panels and retrofitted the lighting, thereby reducing electricity usage and saving money. This provides the children with a fantastic opportunity to learn about types of energy and their applications in real-life situations, as well as the potential environmental impacts. For example, in Seventh Grade, the children learn about electricity and light, and they are able to see how their school embodies the value of sustainability by learning about how it makes use of solar energy and measuring the difference in electricity consumption by comparing the school’s lighting with conventional bulbs.
By the time they leave school, Urban Prairie students are aware of the world they are entering, including the current climate crisis. They have a strong connection to the world and to nature. They graduate having gained a wide variety of practical and critical thinking skills which they are able to apply to challenging life situations with compassion, determination, and steadfastness, and helps them thrive in high school, college and beyond.