The great outdoors

Venturing into the great outdoors is generally a planned activity nowadays, especially for children. But Meghan and Brian Fitzgerald, co-founders of early childhood education program Tinkergarten, wanted to change that by making unstructured play more accessible to kids. 

“One thing we really stress is sensory engagement, and a lot of our activities focus on rich sensory experiences,” Meghan explained.

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At Tinkergarten, outdoor play is considered a fundamental aspect of growing up. Children 18 months to 8 years old are encouraged by trained leaders, typically parents, to participate in activities that help strengthen qualitative skills like empathy, creativity and self-reliance. Tinkergarten activities include devising flower potions, creating mud, building bundles of sticks and making paint out of natural berries.

Sessions for younger chlidren range from a half hour to an hour, and are thematically designed and given names like "Outsmart a Leprechaun" and "Rebranding Play Dough." Parents may find some of the activities a little outside of the box, but the sessions are clearly structured and linked to concrete skills. After all, Tinkergarten’s mission is to present situations that are “somewhat challenging for kids.”

When parents and caregivers attend the classes, they learn how to give a little more space to their children and allow them to struggle through somewhat difficult situations for their respective age group.

The Fitzgeralds started Tinkergarten as a side project in 2012 after Meghan, a former teacher and elementary school principal, saw a major flaw in the system.

“There’s a universality about play, and when given the space and time to do it, that’s how children learn,” she says. “There's a lot of research [linking] play and really important basic capacities or skills like memory and focus, language and social skills.”

Meghan began sharing her ideas regarding the importance of outdoor play with friends, and eventually started offering classes in Brooklyn’s Prospect Park. After several classes, the concept caught on. The program grew organically, expanding to 25 states including California, Texas, Washington D.C. and Florida, where Tinkergarten courses are led by over 200 leaders. 

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Brian, a consumer products developer with a concentration in educational technology, took a more personal approach to the creation of Tinkergarten. “We have three daughters — six, three, and one-years-old — and the time that we have with them is so precious. The most fun that we have with them is when we get to play with them. The good news is we’re running a company now that we get to play with our kids and develop a curriculum.”

“One third of people enjoy or get better benefits from moving their body and being outside while they’re learning," explained Meghan. "The simple idea of getting kids into a social learning environment and allowing to them move around a little bit helps free their minds, and they're just more wide open to learning.” 

The play-learning connection

Tinkergarten does not adhere to state education standards or serve as a substitute for traditional pre-school and kindergarten classes. However, there is “parallel linkage” between what children learn in the outdoor sessions and standard elementary school classes, according to the Tinkergarten team.  

“We don’t have early childhood standards like the common core, but there’s more focus on readiness skills, and a lot of them are social and emotional,” Meghan explained. 

The Seattle Children’s Research Institute conducted a study which showed that half of preschoolers did not even have one parent supervising outdoor play opportunities each day.  

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After becoming parents, the Fitzgeralds' main goal became to reintroduce the significance of play to their three children. They used their own offspring as guinea pigs before the launch of Tinkergarten.

“There are some trends regarding the lack of play that we noticed that were really worrisome to us,” Meghan said. “I knew what kids needed. The habits of mind and spirit to be really happy and effective learner, friends and members of the community in school.”

Maybe adults can learn something from their children about how to let loose, enjoy the outdoors — and play.