A teacher leading a Tinkergarten class
Leadership Skills and Implementation

Exploring Tinkergarten’s Learning Model

By Jennifer Gunn

The outdoor education movement gets children outside to experience hands-on learning in nature. Some organizations are taking this approach to the next level. One innovative example is Tinkergarten, which offers outdoor classes and activities that incorporate play-based learning. Available to children and families in 47 states, Tinkergarten’s activities are designed to “help kids develop a host of important capabilities, including empathy, collaboration, creativity, persistence, and problem-solving.” Those are all skills we want our students to master, but how does Tinkergarten work toward that lofty goal? To find that out and much more, I spoke with Tinkergarten’s Missy Sherburne, Senior Vice President of Business Development.

For those who don’t know about Tinkergarten, can you briefly explain the concept?

Tinkergarten offers outdoor classes where kids learn through play. Each week, we present a new expert-designed play scenario to challenge each child, as they learn in a supportive, mixed-age social group. Our lessons are inspiring invitations to play, and our leaders (teachers), together with parents and caregivers, support children at driving their own learning. Over the course of each unique season, powerful themes emerge and children strengthen essential skills through play. We offer classes for babies ages six to 18 months or children ages 18 months to eight years, supporting all learners where they are.

Tinkergarten picnic photo; kids doing projects outdoors.

Photo courtesy of Tinkergarten

What are Tinkergarten classes like?

Tinkergarten classes take place in public green spaces. Each class follows a loose structure that includes an opening circle, main activity, closing circle, and snack. The main activity focuses on an expert-designed play scenario and kids actively engage in imagining, exploring, and/or problem-solving. Each play scenario is designed to inspire wonder, to activate the senses, and to leverage brain science. While this activity is planned and guided by an adult, the interests of the children play a large role in shaping the way it unfolds. Celebration and snack time then allow children and their caregivers to reflect on their learning and experiences together.

What skills do students learn through Tinkergarten?

Each week, Tinkergarten supports a range of skills, and each season, kids also learn one of the skills in depth. When a child completes a season, they earn a one-of-a-kind, iron-on skill badge. Season after season, children continue to earn badges which are symbols of the skills they are developing. These skills support kids who are ready to learn (communication, focus, social skills, sensory), ready to thrive (empathy, resilience, wellness) and ready for anything (problem-solving, persistence, collaboration, stewardship, creativity).

How do play-based and nature-based learning build foundational skills for children?

Numerous studies link exposure to nature to enhanced physical, social, and cognitive outcomes for kids. Natural environments not only soothe and center but they also stimulate. Outdoor classrooms present learners with captivating sights, smells, and textures, stimulating all of the senses. Sensory engagement could not be more critical to early learning — the more kids engage their senses, the more they increase their capacity to take in and turn new information into knowledge.

How are parents and caregivers involved in Tinkergarten learning? Why is this your philosophy?

One of the best parts of the Tinkergarten experience is that classes help parents and caregivers to develop new ways of engaging, exploring and learning with their children. When parents and caregivers participate in classes, they gain valuable insights; often, they come away surprised by just what their children are capable of doing, and how much problem-solving and skill-building occurs when kids have the opportunity to play outside.

Tinkergarten kids carrying tree branches.

Photo courtesy of Tinkergarten

You say that nature is your North Star. Why do you think nature is such an ideal classroom for young learners?

In an outdoor classroom, the scene is ever-changing. Objects found in nature vary in shape, size, and texture, offering endless possibilities for play and learning. It seems impossible to build a playground more engaging, or to stock an indoor classroom with such a rich set of learning tools.

In response to this stimulating environment, children’s play in nature is inherently more imaginative, self-directed, and free. Children make messes, experiment and investigate readily, and, in turn, develop essential learning skills. Dr. Kenneth Ginsberg of the American Academy of Pediatrics eloquently described this: “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.”

What impact do you think the current shift toward increased testing and indoor seat time will have on young learners?

Play is essential for healthy brain development and stress management. With the shift towards more testing, children’s play time has declined and this lack of play affects emotional development, leading to the rise of anxiety, depression, and problems of attention and self-control.

According to Nature Explore founder Nancy Rosenow, “Many children are visual-spatial learners; they need to work with three-dimensional objects, which are found in abundance in the natural world. Kids need to be building or seeing how things work, they need to be moving their bodies a lot. This shift indoors was very detrimental to some kids.”

What philosophies do you think classroom teachers could take from the Tinkergarten model?

The outdoors is a classroom! We often see the outdoors in school settings as just a place for recess. We know that children learn through play and outdoor play is powerful and transformative for children and teachers. In addition to all the learning that can take place outdoors, time in nature fosters empathy and reduces stress for both adults and kids.

Ideally, kids have access to sensory rich materials, an engaging play scenario, playmates, and, perhaps most importantly, both the time and the freedom to play in their own way.

Tinkergarten kids digging in dirt.

Photo courtesy of Tinkergarten

What philosophies do you think school leaders could take from the Tinkergarten model?

School leaders are encouraged to think of outdoor learning as essential and not as extracurricular. They can also commit to utilizing outdoor environments as dynamic learning spaces. While classroom teachers impact the lives and educational experiences of a group of children, school leaders have the opportunity to transform an entire building or system. We applaud leaders like Long Island Superintendent Michael Hynes who writes of his district’s commitment to outdoor play in this recent article.

What successes have you seen through your program?

One of Tinkergarten’s core values is Love to Learn — we love learning with and from our families and our leaders. After every class, we ask parents and caregivers to rate the class experience and we invite them to give more in-depth feedback after each season of Tinkergarten. We have an average class rating of 4.8 out of 5 and a Net Promoter Score (NPS) of 72.

From our surveys of families, we’ve learned that thanks to Tinkergarten:

  • 93% of parents learned how to support their child’s development.
  • 87% of families spend more time outdoors.
  • 85% of parents saw their kids become more careful observers of nature, developing their focus.

How can parents and educators get involved with Tinkergarten?

We’d love for families to join us for a free trial or class nearest them by visiting our “Classes” page

We’re looking for inspired educators who care deeply about getting kids and their parents outdoors, playing and learning together to join us as Tinkergarten Leaders.

Given the resurgence in the importance of play in school settings, we’re also working with preschools, elementary schools, and networks of schools to incorporate Tinkergarten into the school day. If you’re interested in learning more about Tinkergarten in School, reach out to support@tinkergarten.com for more details.

Jennifer L.M. Gunn spent 10 years in newspaper and magazine publishing before moving to public education. She is a curriculum designer, teaching coach, and high school educator in New York City. She is also co-founder of the annual EDxEDNYC Education Conference for teacher-led innovation and regularly presents at conferences on the topics of adolescent literacy, leadership, and education innovation.

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