Shadowing Kindergarten on a Sunny Day at Lakeside School

by | Lay of the Land

Amy reflects on a day spent in kindergarten at Lakeside School.

My mother-in-law asked me recently what my top three favorite things are about the area where we now live. I answered within half a second:

  1. Essex Farm
  2. Lakeside School at Black Kettle Farm
  3. Libraries in every hamlet

They are in that order because, number one, we first zeroed in on this particular part of the Adirondacks as a place to live and attempt to start…something…when Adam read The Dirty Life by Kristin Kimball last November. By January, he’d read me enough passages of the book that I felt I had to see the farm and its environs, and see whether I could withstand the cold. We joined the farm’s year-round, full-diet CSA before we’d even moved into our house, and in time to get a week’s share for the writing retreat I taught back in August. More on the farm, and the writing retreat, in another post.

Picking raspberries at Essex Farm with my mother-in-law

Number two, we have two small daughters, so a few days before we arrived in January, I googled preschools in the area and saw that there was a “farm and forest Waldorf school” a nine minute drive from Essex Farm. tl;dr, this is my dream school for my children, more or less, so when I learned of its existence in this very rural area, I felt as if the key were turning in the lock, and my family could cross the threshold.

Number three, once we moved here, we learned to our surprise and delight that there are two beautiful, well-curated public libraries within 3 miles of our house, and 31 more libraries in the same system, which means we can get pretty much anything through interlibrary loan. The libraries charge no late fees. I am already abusing that policy.

My strategy was to get involved in small ways, without too much commitment. I mean, we joined the farm, enrolled the girls in the school, and joined the library. But I resisted taking on a larger commitment at first, even as the farm newsletter says every week that they are hiring, and the school had a whole bunch of openings at the start of the year, and the neighbors warn me that if I show my face at the library too often they’ll put me on the board.

But I did offer to be on the substitute list for Lakeside School, for kindergarten and up. So far, I’ve subbed six times in Grace’s class, including four days last week as Grace’s main teacher was out because of an injury. Every time I sub, I learn more about the school’s approach, see new dimensions of my child in a different setting, test my own stamina, and connect more deeply with the landscape.

Before I could sub, I shadowed for a day, and afterward I wrote all of my observations. Here are those first impressions of a day in kindergarten at The Lakeside School.

October 6, 2022

The sun was already out when we arrived at about quarter till 9 this morning at The Lakeside School at Black Kettle Farm, and it would be over 70 degrees by noon. It was a special day for Grace and me because I would be shadowing with the kindergarten class on Bread Day, which also meant a more challenging drop-off for Cleo, because Adam normally drops her off, and she would see me from the Sprouts play yard during the morning circle. Grace wanted to play Medicine Witch with me in the sand pit, and I’d arranged for Cleo to stay with me until time to leave for Mossy Rock, or Mossy Lodge, depending on who you ask. 

I was the assistant to the medicine witch, and we made calendula salve. Later that day, back in the play yard, Gregg, the lead kindergarten teacher, would, with the help of a small gaggle of children, make real calendula salve with olive oil and calendula petals, but our sand pit calendula salve was made mostly of sand and leaves. 

Soon enough, Gregg played his flute, and it was time for morning circle. As I took Cleo to the Sprouts yard, Grace reminded me sternly that we were leaving for Mossy Rock right after morning circle. Cleo seemed happy to be there and toddled over to hug a teacher while I went to the kindergarten circle. Not for the first time that morning, one child excluded another child. Gregg intervened lightly and easily, and we all held hands and the song began, and the motions along with it. The song named us all in turn as we passed something from nest to nest, the nests being our cupped hands. The song had to do with bees and birds, trees and wind. I learned later that the morning song in Autumn is longer than what they sang in late summer. One song passed to the next, and we moved around the play yard with the wind. Cleo watched me without protest except when I was behind a tree. She apparently likes to watch the morning circle from the Sprouts yard.

Then it was time to go to Mossy Rock, which meant stepping through the Sprouts yard. I gave Cleo a hug and went on my way, and she didn’t seem to protest long. I heard later that snack lured her away from her grief at seeing me tromp away with Grace and the other kindergartners. 

The very short walk to Mossy Rock took us through the trees and into the edge of the forest, where we came upon a fire pit surrounded by stumps. Almost as soon as we arrived, one of the teachers made the fire from wood that a child pulled there on a sled. I was given a tour: a cabin about 10 feet from the fire pit, a stick structure a little ways off, and a wall of sticks called, at least by one child, The Traps. This child invited me to come to her restaurant up on the rocks, where she set a table for two for Grace and me. We split the fish and chips, and another child served me lemonade. I had strawberry pie for dessert, and Grace selected the ice cream sundae. 

After dinner came the entertainment: a song that I’d heard before called “Shake, Shake The Apple Tree.” Then we sat on a stump for portraits drawn in the sand. We never saw the portraits. 

Other games I played or witnessed: Actor, which is like Charades); Puppet Show, which ended with a scary crocodile chasing everyone out of the cabin and toward The Traps, lest they be caught and chomped; Fairy House, which mostly involved making fairy beds–holes–in a long-fallen tree; Shake the Tree, in which you shake a tree and sing “Shake, Shake the Apple Tree,” only we subbed in other common tree species such as chicken trees, whale trees, doctor trees, bear trees, and pig trees; and Birthday, our last game before lunch, in which we made bespoke cakes for one another’s birthdays–roasted nut apple cake, pink strawberry cake, chocolate orange cake, yellow lemon cake–and sang Happy Birthday. In the woods, we started a game of Family, but it didn’t go much further than assigning roles. The restaurateur chanteuse wanted to be the mom, and Grace assigned herself the role of dad and asked me to be the baby. A boy said he would be the big sister. 

Grace was not the only child who was very solicitous of my attention. Two others, neither of whom I’ve interacted with much before, gravitated toward me and asked me to play several times and held my hand at various moments. One persisted in calling me “Cleo’s Mom,” this despite the fact that she is classmates with Grace, not Cleo. As with the other child who stuck to me, this child also has a younger sister in Sprouts, so they might, by virtue of that. feel some kinship with Grace and, by extension, me, or they might just need a little bit more maternal affection when it’s available to them, and not just to their baby sisters.

Several more times, I witnessed conflicts alight and then softly blow away upon a light interjection by a teacher. These children are at the exact right age to experiment socially, with best friends and not friends anymore, with exclusion, with in-grouping and followership. It was plain that certain little sects exist among the children, though these were somewhat fluid, and one can easily imagine that entirely different sects will form and reform over the course of the year. 

About 45 minutes into free play time, I said to Grace that I wanted to see what was happening by the fire, and whether the bread was cooking. We went up, and I saw that there were metal cups of water with carabiner handles set onto the stumps surrounding the fire, and that there was a kind of oven perched right next to the fire, but it was empty of bread. A few minutes later, Gregg put a very large metal tray on the ground, and five or six children, including Grace, came and asked to help make bread. He sprayed oil on the tray and their hands, took out a ball of dough, and gave portions to each child. The children kneaded the dough and made smaller balls, and then Gregg put them all into the fireside oven. 

We kept playing for another 45 minutes or so, and then it came time for the kids to choose a thin tree, hold it so they could lean back, and pee. No toilet paper, no worries. Later, after snack, I asked for some advice on choosing a tree for myself, and was counseled to go much further from view, and I did. 

One child had already been telling me that she’d never been a helper, but that today she was a helper. One other child was also a helper, and the first child wanted to hug the second, but he didn’t want a hug, and she cried. She said he was her best friend in the world. 

Then the bread was ready, and the jars of peanut butter and butter placed at the teacher spots each 90 degrees in opposite directions from Gregg. By the time Gregg played his flute, several children had already found their places by the symbols on their cups, which are also the symbols on their outdoor hooks, their cubbies, and the sheepskins they nap on. Grace’s symbol is grapes, and other children told me theirs: hemlock tree, ladybug, woolly bear caterpillar. 

Once all the children were at their spots, including the helpers, everyone sang the blessing. Then Gregg called the helpers up. One at a time, he gave them each a bowl with a hunk of bread in it and told them who it was for. The helper took the bread over to the recipient and asked whether they wanted bread or peanut butter, then took the bread to the appropriate teacher to be buttered, and then took it back to the child. Then they went back to Gregg for the next round. It was a slow but steady business, and everyone was quiet and content to wait for their bread. We ate in silence around the fire. I can only imagine that the fire will offer even more attraction at a later season, but in the shade of the woods of a warm autumn day, it still drew us peacefully inward. 

When I brought Cleo to the school in March for my interview, Gregg described the rhythm of the day as being like the breath: exhale and run out and play and climb, inhale for snack or lunch or rest or story. 

As we finished eating, we sang another blessing song. One of the teachers told a story of encountering a baby black bear on her drive to school that morning. This prompted a child to tell a story of a bear who climbed into a tree and ate a bunch of apples, and something about a warthog trap that a teacher (the child’s dad) said was really a groundhog trap, and then Gregg spoke of–seemingly to his chagrin–never seeing bears around his house, unlike his neighbor, who caught them on his wildlife camera every year. 

After a bit more time to play after lunch, we packed up and walked back to the play yard. I learned that, because the bread takes so long to cook, there’s not enough time for the harvest story afterward. I very much hope that I’m called upon to sub when there is time for the story, which has to do, at the moment, with courage and the Autumn Star, Calendula.

Back in the play yard, we had plenty more time to play before lunch. I tried to keep a little more distance so I could observe more and interact less, but was easily reeled back in to push three or four children on the round swing that hangs from a giant oak, or to play in the sand pit, which seems to be Grace and her sect’s favorite area. 

Toward 12:30, children were brought in two or three at a time to use the bathroom before lunch. We were the last group, which meant we didn’t have to wait long to sing a blessing and eat, once again quietly. A teacher reminded them to be quiet while eating, which he called Golden something (Moment?), and they obliged, save the occasional request for a spoon or for help opening some food packaging. Then he came back and said there was more time to eat but we could also tell stories if we had any to share. Nobody really did, except the teacher, and the children seemed ready to finish eating, put away their lunch things, and rest. 

I decided to step out of the room, to Grace’s assertive but brief protest. I walked out of the fenced areas to a tree near a solar panel, and sat and looked out onto Lake Champlain and the Green Mountains beyond, and thought about the day and jotted down some observations and notes about what happened, most of which is fleshed out above. I wrote, 

  • [This is] sacred work. Sacred work is messy work.
  • “I don’t / we don’t want to play with him”
  • 3 children’s tears at being left out or not given a turn. 
  • “He called me ___ [another child’s name]”
  • “But you know you’re not ______, you’re _____ [child’s actual name].”

Sacred work is messy work. It would be easy to see mostly the ease. Everybody seems to know what they’re doing and what they’re meant to be doing. The transitions are gentle, nobody yells, the children don’t, at least on this day that I shadowed, get disregulated. The most a teacher might say is, “Your friend(s) asked you not to  ____, so please stop ___ing.” 

For the children, things are free and light, well-proportioned, deep breath in, deep breath out. But there is much infrastructure that underlies that freedom and light and proportion. Deep knowledge of how children are, and hard-won trust in the idea that children want to do well and be good and kind and stay with the program. It is not intuitive, to let children be, to shepherd them so gently, to play the flute and sing instead of telling them what to do and hurrying them along, and filling their time with managed and teacher-directed activities and crafts and forced merriment. 

The snack could have happened much faster without the two child helpers, without walking around to where each child sat, asking them whether they wanted peanut butter or butter, retrieving their selection, and bringing the bread back. The very slowness of it is, I think, what kept the children from being impatient. Everybody waited silently for their bread, nobody asked to get theirs first or next or now. Because the teachers don’t rush, the children don’t feel rushed. 

I have avoided saying things happened naturally, or that people acted naturally, because this would belie the deep infrastructure and wisdom and attention that bringing 18 children into the woods to have a pleasant morning really requires. 

But I’m already doing more and saying more than I intended. I wanted only to record the day’s events and my observations as faithfully as possible as to the what, when, where, and who, without much attention to the how and why. So I’ll leave it there, with a recognition that I’ve drifted from my purpose in writing these notes. Next time, when I’m called upon to substitute, which I hope happens soon, I will try again to stick to observations and events, and keep away from analysis and extrapolation.