Many thanks to Tinkergarten for their paid sponsorship of this FunOrangeCountyParks.com directory listing.
A Conversation with Tinkergarten’s Co-Founder, Meghan Fitzgerald
Meghan took the time to specifically address my personal questions about how Tinkergarten classes run, so I could provide this information to Orange County parents.
About Meghan: Prior to Tinkergarten®, Meghan worked as an Elementary School Principal, a Math/Science Specialist & and a teacher in public and private schools in NY, MA and CA. She earned a BA with majors in English and Psychology at Amherst College, an MS in Educational Leadership at Bank Street College, and was trained as a Forest School leader at Bridgwater College, UK. When she is with her kids, Meghan is that unapologetic mom who plays along with them in mud, dances in the pouring rain, and builds a darn good snow igloo with her bare hands.
(My kind of mom!)
Michele: When I was a kid, I played outside all the time. When my kids were young, I took them out to play all the time. Why the need for a class? Can’t families do this on their own?
Meghan: It is our mission that families play outdoors as much as possible on their own and in between experiences like Tinkergarten class; and class is designed to complement a rich family life full of outdoor play. I think the reasons that we created an adult/child class and the reason that so many families value our classes are several. Here are the key ones:
- Kids learn best through play in social environments. The class gives kids the chance to be part of a group, to develop social skills and to learn from their peers.
- Parents and caregivers also make connections and build community with like minded neighbors, something we all need to do!
- A trained, passionate and all around wonderful teacher (how I would describe any of our 500+ leaders) can facilitate the group experience in a way that gives both kids and parents the chance to learn new ways to play, learn more about themselves and be inspired to go deeper into their nature play.
- We have developed a curriculum that is designed to help kids develop important skills in social, physical and cognitive domains and is based on research and best practices in early childhood learning and development. To kids, class is super fun.
- Parents learn in and out of the class. When enrolled in a class, a parent receives email both before and after each session with information about how adults will support children in learning during class, photos and descriptions of what happened and how it supported development and ideas about how to extend the learning together outside of class.
Michele: I would love to know the true balance of child-led vs. adult-led activities. Any time things are labelled a “class” or “curriculum” it seems like the “free play” isn’t as free anymore.
Meghan: This is something that we discuss heavily in our New Leader Course that all leaders take for certification. Our classes and program are based around the model of guided play. Our goal is to inspire and support children’s self-directed play. Our leaders are trained to set up a rich play environment, and we think of our lesson launches as compelling invitations to play. We set up a problem to solve, a mystery or a secret—something quite compelling, but quite open-ended such that young children could respond to it in an endless number of ways. For example, we may set up a situation in which we were hoping to paint, but that we forgot the paints. Children are then given space, time and access to a range of materials and welcomed to solve the problem. The situation is designed to be extremely engaging, so most kids dive right in and find opportunities to develop a range of capacities. If a child were to elect to do something else in response, though, that would also be supported and celebrated. I hope that helps!
Michele: Isn’t free play outdoors intrinsically educational? Why the need for activities and the focus on skills?
Meghan: Yes! Again, we are giving a super engaging environment. Here, I mean “environment” on two levels: First, the environment is the natural classroom. Second, the educational environment encompasses the literal setting plus the situation we construct, the materials made available and facilitation. The choices we make give kids access to opportunities to play in really supportive ways—it’s the same thing that any high quality early childhood education program does—to support their playful learning with thoughtful design. For example, we think about universal patterns that we know children exhibit when they are learning through play, and we make sure that our activities give kids the opportunity to exercise those patterns which, in turn, helps them develop. What can be even more exciting is that seeing this play out during class can help parents and caregivers learn about their child as a learner and see the value of free play and its role in his/her development.
Michele: I understand that classes take place in public parks. Do you actually pay for use of the facilities, since you are profiting and impacting the parks with your activities?
Meghan: Again, a wholehearted, “Yes!” It is part of our mission to support and protect the green spaces we love and so desperately need. We owe so much to them!
Michele: What is the biggest change you see in parents after going through a full session of classes? Share a story with me.
Meghan: We see changes in their understanding of their child as a learner and really respond to the chance to hang back, be an observer or play ally in class, opening up to giving more freedom and opportunity to their children during play times. I can tell you more, but parents say it better than I ever could 🙂 Here are a few recent testimonials:
Tricia is the absolute best! Our 2 year old daughter Stella adores her and so do we! She learns so many things from Tricia…I find Stella recreating the skills and experiences she discovers in Tinkergarten during independent play at home! Tinkergarten has given me a wonderful gift by reminding me I can relax as a parent and see where learning experiences lead us. I think every family needs a little (or a lot of) Tinkergarten!”
We absolutely love Tinkergarten and are so delighted to participate in Lauren’s class. She is the most gifted leader and even though Nate has been in her class now for over a year, each session feels new and fresh. I have recommended Tinkergarten to everyone we know.”
Thank you for your kindness today. This was the first time I haven’t felt like a bad parent for having a child that wanted to play in a water bucket instead of sitting in a circle. It was refreshing to be encouraged to allow Jase to play as he wanted. Admittedly, I am a bit of a clean freak so I think that’s why he got a little upset toward the end of class today. He would look at me every time he got muddy and I smiled (instead of saying, “yuck! dirty!”). This is a great experience for both of us.”
It was our first experience–for both my children and myself, and we had SO much fun doing the simplest things like play with mud and put acorn hat “birthday candles” on our mud muffins! My son even asked if we could “please do this everyday?!” Thank you Sarah and thank you Tinkergarten for providing a class and environment of friends like this for my children to experience the wonder and excitement that childhood should be!”
Sign Up for Tinkergarten Classes
- Costa Mesa (TeWinkle Park)
- Huntington Beach (Harriet M. Wieder Park)
- Placentia (Tri-City Regional Park)
- San Clemente (San Clemente State Park Campground)
- San Juan Capistrano (Los Rios Park)
Ages: 18 months – 5 years old, sometimes up to 8 years old
Cost: Free trial class, then $160 per 8 week session (50% sibling discount)
Photos courtesy of Tinkergarten