Two years ago, my family was living in a small apartment in the middle of a big city. From our high-rise window, I looked longingly at the green mountains in the distance, and remembered my own childhood spent climbing trees and wading in creeks. My husband and I felt strongly that we needed to find a way to add nature into our kids’ daily experience.
Around the time that we moved to Northwest Arkansas, we learned about a unique educational program called Tinkergarten. I was impressed by the idea—a class where children are encouraged to explore, imagine and create, all while playing outside. As I read about Tinkergarten, I quickly recognized that this was the kind of experience I wanted my kids to have. I wanted them to get some dirt under their fingernails, use sticks to build a fort, run and climb without being told to sit still, and make friends at the same time.
A Growing Movement
Founded in Brooklyn in 2012 by a mom and dad who believed in the importance of outdoor education and play, Tinkergarten has spread to hundreds of communities across the country. Until now, the nearest classes have been in neighboring states, but that’s changing. Having completed the leader training program, I am now certified to lead Tinkergarten classes in Bentonville and Bella Vista. Support and enthusiasm for the program have come quickly, and I am delighted to be helping local kids and their caregivers have adventures outside.
What to Expect
A typical class begins with exploration time, after which the children (referred to as “explorers”) and their adult companions (or “guides”) gather together to greet, sing, and prepare for the main activity. Next, the leader presents an idea or a problem to be solved. Based on this prompt, the children are free to explore and create solutions, using the natural resources around them. At the end of class, everyone comes together again to clean up, eat snack (“feast”), and reflect on what they’ve learned. Many adults who attend as guides find that the children reenact or reinvent the activity throughout the following week, sometimes including siblings, friends or even parents who weren’t at class. Whether it’s making mud, chasing the wind, or painting with berries, participants come away from a Tinkergarten class excited and empowered…and probably a bit dirty!
What is so important about playing and learning outside? Dr. Kenneth Ginsberg of the American Academy of Pediatrics describes it this way: “Nature places virtually no bounds on the imagination and engages all of the senses. For all children, this setting allows for the full blossoming of creativity, curiosity, and the associated developmental advances.” There are numerous studies that demonstrate the physical, mental and emotional benefits of outdoor play (see www.childrenandnature.org for a compilation). Time in nature can be a powerful aid to development, attention and behavior, sensory integration, balance and coordination, and stress-management. “Time in nature is not leisure time; it’s an essential investment in our children’s health (and also, by the way, in our own),” writes Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder.
Isn’t Nature Free?
A common question leaders hear is, “Why do I need to pay for my kids to play outside?” The answer is, you don’t. In fact, all of Tinkergarten’s lesson plans are free and accessible on Tinkergarten.com, and the hope is that many families will take advantage of these fun, professionally-designed activities. However, life is busy. Between work, school and extracurriculars, families generally don’t spend as much time playing outside as they would like, and one way to make it a priority is to schedule it in the calendar. LoriAnn Gregory, a Tinkergarten leader in Oklahoma City and an Arkansas native, often hears parents say, “I know I could do these kinds of activities at home with my kids, but I probably never would.” LoriAnn has also seen the positive effects of cooperation and conflict resolution among children in her classes. “It’s good to be around other families who are also of the Tinkergarten mindset. [When the whole group feels enthusiastic,] play can get to a more complex level where learning really happens.”
Ultimately, there is something special about making a deliberate effort to spend time outside. It’s an opportunity for kids (and adults) to experience a sense of wonder and to make discoveries. Founder Meghan Fitzgerald writes in the Tinkergarten blog,called ‘More than Mudpies,’ “Each of these discoveries not only makes us think or imagine, but they also help us appreciate the amazing world around us. Kids see how beautiful, intricate, coordinated and special our world truly is. No matter how or why you think we all got here, ours is a mind-blowing home, and there is so much for which we can be grateful… Wonder is a habit of mind that drives a lifelong love of learning and sense of being in the world.”
Join the Fun!
This spring’s classes, which are geared toward children from 1 to 5 years old, will be held in parks in Bentonville and Bella Vista. The 75-minute classes meet once a week, and cost $140 for an 8-week season. For more information, visit Tinkergarten.com/classes.