Nicole Knapp-Weber helps bring Waldorf education to Columbia

Sunday, April 27, 2014 | 6:00 a.m. CDT
City Garden School, led by Nicole Knapp-Weber, provides an alternative learning environment in the form of Waldorf schooling for first to third grades. Waldorf schooling focuses on a combination of hands-on play, environment exposure and artistic expression. About two dozen children attend the school in downtown Columbia.

COLUMBIA — At the City Garden School near downtown Columbia, a lesson on multiplication is demonstrated with carrots that magically reproduce.

A classroom garden becomes a wonderland of seeds that sprout, then bloom and continue to grow.

This type of imaginative storytelling is part of the Waldorf-based school that Nicole Knapp-Weber helped establish in Columbia last year.

Waldorf schooling was championed by Austrian educator Rudolf Steiner in the early 20th century, and focuses on developing children through a combination of hands-on play, environment exposure and artistic expression.

Today, there are more than 1,000 independent Waldorf schools in 60 countries. The City Garden School in Calvary Episcopal Church on Ninth Street is modeled on the Waldorf philosophy, although it has not yet been certified.

"We aren't sure if we want to certify it yet, because we enjoy the freedom of curriculum right now," Knapp-Weber said.

The private school has around two dozen children enrolled in first through third grades. Next year it will expand to fourth grade, with Maeve Pickus, Knapp-Weber's assistant as the school's future third and fourth grade teacher.

Knapp-Weber will teach first and second grade and hand over ownership of the school to a board when the school becomes a non-profit organization by summer.

How children learn

A typical day starts with circle time, a warm-up for the brain and body through physical exercise, singing, juggling and other creative play.

Knapp-Weber teaches first and second graders a lesson block — math, language arts or science — while third graders finish their work from the previous day. After snack and recess in Peace Park in mid-morning, the roles switch.

"Before they start learning all the scientific facts, they need to love being outside," Knapp-Weber said. "Just letting them play instills that love."

Being close to nature is one of the tenets of the Waldorf philosophy, along with other experiential and sensory-based learning.

So, the group heads outside every Friday, weather permitting, to Rock Bridge Memorial State Park, Three Creeks Conservation Area, Mark Twain National Park or other natural or rural areas. 

The school partners with the Columbia Center for Urban Agriculture to give children an opportunity to experience an urban farm where they study plants and animals.

City Garden School also teams up with the MU Confucius Institute for Chinese lessons and the Columbia Art League for art classes.

"We're trying to create a balanced child, one that is as intellectual as artistic," Knapp-Weber said. "Something reminiscent of  the Renaissance man and woman." 

Starting the school

In 2005, Knapp-Weber and her husband came to Columbia to start a family. After her daughter Opal was born, she attended Columbia College at night to pursue a master's degree in teaching.  

She enrolled Opal in Garden Gate School, a Waldorf-style preschool off South Garth Avenue started by Deborah Kallman. When Opal was ready for first grade, she joined Kallman's homeschooling co-op and Knapp-Weber became a first- and second-grade teacher.

City Garden School was started when the co-op parents needed a larger space to continue teaching. Kallman's leadership, Waldorf principles and Knapp-Weber's background laid the foundation for the new school.

Each child spends much of the year creating a large, personal workbook and records of the lessons, conversations and adventures they have had. The books might include drawings, collections, reflections, math homework and data from science experiments.

"It gives them an opportunity to discover who they are," Knapp-Weber said.

She said wants the books to be a beautiful array of visual stories that capture what the children have learned.

She hopes the Waldorf emphasis on nature, balance, stories, music and play will draw people to this alternative education.

"We live in a fast-paced world and children learn slowly — you can't rush a child," Knapp-Weber said. "That has drawn me to this because once you explore the curriculum you realize how intentional it is."

Supervising editor is Jeanne Abbott.

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