It’s the early morning hours on the New England Trail at Rising Corners Road in Agawam. Gleaming dew droplets cling to blades of grass, shining like pearls in the warming sun. Down a path of tussled green, Sasha Zatyrka spreads out a blue tarp in the shade of some tall pines. She anchors each corner before arranging groups of small galvanized buckets, colorful strips of paper and boxes filled with mysterious woodland discoveries. Her twin daughters, Colby and Ellie, run barefoot, giggling and chasing one another in circles. As 10:00am nears, a brood of little feet scamper down the same path to join the gathering. Tinkergarten has begun.
At Tinkergarten, local families are exchanging screen time for nature time. Here, kids are encouraged to run free, play and learn in a school without walls. The program “provides the best early childhood learning in the healthiest classroom of all—the outdoors.” Sasha serves as a local Leader, but is just one of the six hundred twenty-two across the country who facilitate outdoor classes where kids learn through expertly-designed curriculum and play-based activities.
Three groups of people are involved in classes, the certified “leader” who guides the experience, children who are “explorers,” and “guides,” the parents/caregivers of the child. The curriculum is designed in three age groups, 18-36 months, 3-5 years and 6-8 years. Activities are intended to be open ended and can be delivered to mix-aged groups.
Sasha, who grew up in Virginia before moving to West Suffield eleven years ago, says nature was a central part of her upbringing. A love encouraged by her “hippie mom,” she treasures warm memories of gardening, playing by the river and appreciating beautiful sunsets together. Being a Tinkergarten Leader is just one way she is able to pass this legacy on to her girls, two wonderfully adventurous little spirits.
“I have so many memories of being outside, it was and is such a big part of life,” says Sasha. “Really what my mom gave me in childhood – and what makes Tinkgarten feel so special – is having the gift of noticing. In its essence, it’s is all about the mystery, wonder and the joy of it all.”
With simple beginnings, Meghan and Brian Fitzgerald created the play-based Tinkergarten curriculum in Brooklyn, as they came into parenthood. Wanting to give their children exposure to nature – like they had – throughout their formative years, they began hosting classes within community green spaces. Meghan – with a background in education and curriculum development – and Brian – who has found success in the tech industry – set out on a mission to provide an organic program for children ages eight years and younger, and their caregivers. Later, they set up a web-based platform that allowed others training and access to their creative curriculum, thus furthering their mission to “elevate childhood” in other communities across the nation. Founded in 2012, Tinkergarten is now based in Northampton and has grown to 46 U.S. states and has gotten more than 54,000 kids outside.
Their intention isn’t to replace traditional schooling, but rather provide a breath of fresh air and balance to children’s lives. The goal of Tinkergarten is to nurture life-long learning skills like self-regulation, problem solving, persistence, and curiosity. The child-driven program encourages freethinking, making, experimenting, taking risks and yes, getting dirty.
Sasha, who has a degree in social work, says there’s a rigorous vetting, hiring and training process for new leaders, one propelled by intensive training sessions, [ironically] made possible through an in-depth technology platform. Designed similar to a college course, leaders are equipped with a curriculum, teaching materials and deep understanding of Tinkergarten philosophy. Each receives comprehensive training in child and adult development, community outreach, and mentorship on facilitating high quality child-centered, play-based learning in nature. Sessions run in 8-week increments with curriculum that builds from week to week, and season to season.
Tinkergarten’s 75-minute long classes are hosted in public green spaces and collaborative partnerships have been nurtured with park systems across the country. Here, Sasha serves as a passive instructor, offering engaging scenarios that her explorers build upon. Today, for example, they are engaged in the “Home for a Gnome” activity. While the explorers opt to build a fairy home, Sasha asks the group what type of natural objects could be used for its construction. Excited, they race to the tree line to gather fallen leaves, twigs, grasses, rocks and other natural materials. Each returns, sharing what they have gathered and begin to construct the home together. Sasha explains that real animals in the forest also construct their own habitats and the explorers become increasingly curious about the natural inhabitants around them. Seemingly simple in nature the activity promotes collaboration, problem solving, sensory stimulation, imagination, focus and empathy - skills that contribute to school readiness and lifelong learning. A host of other activities – from experimenting with pulleys to making mud pies – fosters communication, creativity, self-reliance and builds motor skills. Best of all, each supportive class takes place in the outdoors, rain or shine.
“There are so many layers of benefits that being in nature can bring to a child, developmentally, but also as stewards of the environment,” says Sasha. “Empathy is a central focus at Tinkergarten, teaching children to care about other people and creatures outside of themselves.”
In an increasingly fast-paced, technologically driven world whimsical free-play in the outdoors is a wonderful reminder to slow down – a simple concept that is waning. There’s been a dramatic shift in time spent outside, but at Tinkergarten explorers are engaged – seeing, hearing, touching, tasting and smelling the world around them. Sasha says the program serves as a catalyst for teaching resilience and inventive play develops a child’s mind, body and spirit.
“Their brains are growing so much and any way they can receive sensory information is valuable,” explains Sasha. “There’s value in risk taking and getting messy – later in life it can translate to being able to think messy – like being able to problem solve, figuring out being up against the wall or being okay with uncomfortable.”
Tinkergarten focuses largely on soft skills – patience, communication, flexibility, problem solving – with the idea they will transfer to hard, technical skills later in life. It offers a balance and the opportunity to plant the seeds for children to become successful adults.
This is so exciting for me to be a part of, to have a hand in something positive for their future,” says Sasha. “In my classes – and with my own girls – I’m grateful and proud to see those little seeds being planted and that they’re getting it without explicitly saying, “when you grow up you need to be a good person.”
Not excluding herself, Sasha says many parents have the urge to overprotect their children, but is encouraged by her girls’ independence, which she attributes to their time outside. The approach seems to work. Ellie and Colby – both dressed in pink and covered in dirt - are incredibly sweet, self-sufficient and courageous (not to mention obsessed with picking up litter). They greet their friends coming to class with big hugs and exclaim, “We missed you!” Like their peers, each is curious and contemplative, taking notice of songbirds in the woods and even dripping sap on a pine. Ellie stops and turns, sharing “that stuff is sticky, you might not want to touch.”
For Sasha, being a Tinkergarten Leader is part of a tradition, one she is happy to share not only with her children, but everyone in the community.
“I think it’s even more special for me now because I lost my mom two and a half years ago, I feel like that’s a legacy I’m passing on to my girls; it’s a way to honor her,” says Sasha. “There’s a centering quality in nature and it’s a gift I want to give.”
Tinkergarten classes are available in many communities, including Agawam, West Suffield, East Longmeadow, Wilbraham, Hampden and Enfield. Programs operate year round – to experience the magic of Tinkergarten or to learn more, visit tinkergarten.com