City Garden School seeks to redefine education with shift to outdoor learning | K-12 Education | #teacher | #children | #kids

Neeley Current’s voice cracked as she considered City Garden School’s journey through the COVID-19 pandemic.

“We were able to take something that was so tragic for people all over the world and take the time to connect with nature and realize what matters,” said Current, who teaches first grade at the small, private school in Columbia. “What we are doing here, this school, it matters.”

City Garden School, for first through fifth graders, has taken the past year to rethink the role of the natural world in its instruction. Every Friday before the pandemic, students spent the day outdoors in a variety of nature parks around Columbia. For daily recess, students walked the few blocks from their classrooms at Calvary Episcopal Church to Peace Park, on MU’s north end.

In August, the school moved to Camp Takimina, a 33-acre nature camp about a 15-minute drive north of town off Creasy Springs Road. Students began spending their school days outdoors or, if need be, inside a lodge on the grounds.

The school, which returned to Calvary for January and February, plans to move to the camp permanently starting Monday and adopt full-time outdoor learning going forward.

Birde Campbell-Bugnitz, 6, “makes mud” Friday at Camp Takimina in Columbia. City Garden School teaches children skills they can use outside of the classroom like how to make utensils out of mud, build forts and be independent. First grade teacher, Neeley Current, calls this “experimental learning.”

“We have been able to move beyond and redefine what education is and can be,” Current said.

City Garden had been looking for an outdoor space for some time, said Tory Kassabaum, director of school affairs, but the pandemic “accelerated the timeline.”

Fusing learning experiences

In March 2020, the school went virtual and remained online for the rest of the semester. Summer programs were canceled as the City Garden team devised a plan for the fall. It is renting the camp space from the Friends of Camp Takimina group.

First grade teacher, Neeley Current helps Nolan Starke, 6, knit

First grade teacher Neeley Current helps Nolan Starke, 6, knit Wednesday at City Garden School in Calvary Episcopal Church in Columbia. “An essential component of Waldorf curriculum focused on working with fibers such as knitting, crocheting and developing fine motor skills,” Current said.

After resuming in-person instruction outdoors in August, the teachers noticed a change in students’ emotional state.

“The biggest difference we noticed was, while we were outside, how happy the kids are and how much they wanted to stay at school,” Kassabaum said after sharing an anecdote about a child not wanting to leave when her parent came to pick her up from school early.

Current said she thinks being outdoors has helped students’ mental health and social skills. “Being outside really brings out a sense of caring and compassion in these kids,” she said.

Esmeralda Thompson, 6, learns to knit

Esmeralda Thompson, 6, learns to knit Wednesday at City Garden School in Calvary Episcopal Church on Ninth and Locust. “My favorite part of school is that I get to make friends,” Thompson said.

Monica Everett, who teaches second grade, said the kids don’t talk about the pandemic much.

“They are aware of keeping everyone safe, but out here, when they get to play and see their friends, they get to forget about it and be kids,” Everett said.

In addition to traditional academic instruction that occurs outside at the camp, students read and sing around a fire pit, go on hikes along a nearby creek and build forts out of limbs and shrubbery.

Instruction through lessons as well as recreation time focuses on age-appropriate learning activities, Current said.

“There is a trend toward accelerated learning that is not in line with kids’ developmental milestones,” she said. She believes being outdoors and incorporating play into academics allows “kids to be kids.”

Birde Campbell-Bugnitz, 6, left, and Nolan Starke, 6, move their desks

Birde Campbell-Bugnitz, 6, left, and Nolan Starke, 6, move their desks to prepare for the spring season Friday at Camp Takimina in Columbia. City Garden School will be resuming outdoor school days in the coming weeks.

Taking mask breaks and studying flowers

On Friday, as first grader Amelia Parker displayed her mud sculptures, she said she prefers to have school outside because there is room to “breathe better.”

“It is nice to be able to take mask breaks when I need it because keeping a mask on is hard sometimes,” Amelia said. Several other students nodded.

Neve Duggan, a second grader, said she and her classmates love being outside.

“I kind of get annoyed with (the pandemic) sometimes, like when we couldn’t go swimming in the pool over the summer,” she said. Neve explained that being outside helps her cope with the effects of the pandemic because she can play with friends while staying safe.

Third grader Avi Kloeppel theorized that a flower he had learned about at the camp has the ability to boost your immune system. “It’s a really healthy flower,” Avi said, “so I was thinking that maybe it could help with COVID.”

Nearby, several masked students piled onto a log balanced on top of a boulder. They giggled and yelled for others to join them, squishing together on one side to see how many of them it would take to topple the log.

“See, they are making a fulcrum,” Current said. “They are learning physics.”

It’s an example of what Current called experiential learning. “They are learning science. We don’t call it that or use that language, but they are learning academic concepts through experience,” she said.

Lynden Conrow, 9, learns how to sew

Lynden Conrow, 9, learns how to sew Wednesday at City Garden School in Calvary Episcopal Church on Ninth and Locust. Each day, the students participate in “handwork.” “It is really exciting to see them proud and complete something even if it doesn’t look exactly like the teacher’s example,” Emily Harryman, Handwork coordinator, said.

The "gymnastics area" at Camp Takimina lays still

The “gymnastics area” at Camp Takimina lays still Friday in Columbia. At the camp, the kids arrive in the morning where they sing around the fire pit, go on a hike, have snack time, enjoy recess, eat lunch and then gather for story time.

‘Being at school replenishes him’

City Garden, a nonprofit since 2014, employs a Waldorf-inspired curriculum that takes a holistic approach to a student’s emotional, physical and spiritual development.

Since moving outdoors last March, the school’s enrollment has almost doubled, from 19 to 36 students. “We gained a ton of students because of our COVID response,” Kassabaum said.

One such student is second grader Adrik Koji. After Adrik attended virtual school when Columbia Public Schools went online last March, his parents realized it would not work for him.

“(Outdoor instruction) is the reason we enrolled last August,” said Karina Koji, Adrik’s mother. “We thought this might be the answer to our concerns about in-person school.”

Koji has noticed a major shift in her son’s behavior since enrolling him at City Garden. Instead of coming home cranky and overstimulated, he’s relaxed and happy at the end of the day, she said.

“It is like being at school replenishes him,” Koji said. “Now, it isn’t something he has to recover from.”

Second grader Flynn Gamble’s father, Kevin Gamble, is also pleased with City Garden’s move outdoors. “It is wonderful,” he said. “It has increased everything already good about the school.”

Gamble said nature provides more opportunity for imaginative and creative play without the limitations of a traditional playground.

“Almost every day, (Flynn) comes home with a new story of something they did or found out there, whether it was a cool rock or a new type of animal,” Gamble said.

He said Flynn’s reading and math scores have improved this year and thinks it could be associated with the extended outdoor time.

Costs, yurts and an open house

City Garden uses a multi-tiered tuition model that allows families to offset tuition costs with volunteer hours at the school.

The three tiers are: $675/month ($6,750/annually) with 10 hours of volunteer work per month; $785/month ($7,850/annually) with five hours of volunteer work per month or $890/month ($8,900/annually) with no contractual volunteer hours.

City Garden is fundraising to purchase four all-season yurts that would allow classes to continue outside even during the winter. The yurts are round, tent-like constructions with wood-burning stoves for heating that should last as long as 10 years.

Neve Duggan, 8, builds a fort at Camp Takimina

Neve Duggan, 8, builds a fort Friday in Columbia. “I made my own fort because the boys were making one and I wanted mine to be better,” Neve said.

Current said they realized “buildings give us function” after teaching without physical infrastructure or shelter in fall. “This is why purchasing the yurts will combine the best of both worlds of outdoor and indoor learning,” she said.

City Garden is holding an open house from 9 to 10:30 a.m. March 18 at Camp Takimina. Reservations are required. To reserve a spot, email

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