Can playing in the mud help a child's development?
The folks at Tinkergarten think it can. The early childhood education company holds all its classes outdoors, rain or shine. During a typical class, a child might make their own mud, create a potion out of flower petals, and even play “I spy with my little iPhone.” (Despite the outdoor emphasis, Tinkergarten is not anti-technology.)
The Brooklyn-based company expanded to the Bay Area this fall, offering classes to children aged 18 months to five years in San Francisco, the Peninsula, and Santa Cruz County, and up to eight years old in the East Bay. Its next series in San Francisco will commence in January, with classes in Golden Gate Park’s Bunny Meadow and Dahlia Dell, and in Mountain Lake Park in the Presidio. If there's enough interest, new locations may be added in the future.
Tinkergarten was founded in 2014 by husband-and-wife team Meghan and Brian Fitzgerald, who have backgrounds in education and education technology, respectively. They got the idea while researching activities for their three children and recalling their own favorite childhood memories, many of which involved playing outdoors.
Tinkergarten aims to bring back free time for kids to tinker outdoors, which the Fitzgeralds say has been lost on this generation. Screen time and “a lot of very scheduled, routine things that keep kids really busy, but not necessarily engaged in the world outside” contribute to the problem, said Devon Schlegelmilch, who's one of San Francisco's two class leaders, along with Steve Kahlich.
In a video on its website, Tinkergarten describes itself as “a bridge between a playgroup and a modern Boy Scouts or Girl Scouts,” helping kids build skills like creativity, problem solving, curiosity, and grit. Meghan trained in the UK as a leader in the Forest School, which emphasizes outdoor play and influences Tinkergarten's curriculum.
Through its technology platform, Tinkergarten vets and trains local leaders to run classes throughout the country. (They currently offer classes in 11 states.) Schlegelmilch, a stay-at-home mom with a master's in education and a former career working in public schools, found out about Tinkergarten through an online group. It dovetailed with her passions for education and the outdoors, and she liked that she could bring along her two-year-old daughter.
Schlegelmilch's Tinkergarten training took place mostly online, and included discussion groups and information about marketing, child behavior, and child development. She also participated in a weekend of onsite training.
Schlegelmilch took us through a typical Tinkergarten class, which last from an hour to 90 minutes, depending on the age group. Classes generally start with a warm-up, where children can roam around collecting what they call "nature treasures." Then they circle up and sing a few songs, before launching into the day’s activity. After they’re finished, they have snack time, where they discuss the activity in a way that's tailored to the age group.