BY JON CRONIN
Playing in the dirt may seem passé to modern children, as televisions, game systems and the internet become more engrossing with the exponential growth of technology on an almost monthly basis.
Nevertheless, educators at Tinkergarten, a private early childhood education program, are working on getting kids to interact with the natural environment by holding their morning and afternoon hour-long classes in parks across the United States.
At a class in Astoria Park, Amy Singh, a Tinkergarten educator, led a class of 18 to 36 month old children with their mothers last Thursday. Singh is a graduate student in play therapy at CUNY Lehman and mother of a two year-old daughter. Together they created bracelets from fallen leaves and later paintings with pigments found in nature. Each student was given a small stainless steel bucket in which they smashed blackberries, turmeric and mud to get different colors. At the end of the one hour session the paintings are hung up to dry and the students say a short thank you poem to the Earth. Before leaving, Singh and the parents tried to get the children to verbalize about their experience.
“We encourage parents to get in the dirt,” added Smith. Noting, “It gives permission for everyone to get dirty without being followed by a wipe.”
Tinkergarten’s website explains, “Our classes bring back something that seems to be lost on this new generation, something that was a most influential part of our own childhoods, free time to tinker outdoors.”
Emily Lowe, a teacher and Astoria resident, brought her 23-month old daughter Lois to Thursday’s class. She found out about the Tinkergarten classes on a mommy blog and thought it would be a good opportunity to get outside. Lowe added, “It’s fun to see her react to nature.” Regarding the class, she said, “It reminded me that we can explore on our own.”
Amanda Kass, a school psychologist and Astoria resident, brought her 18-month-old son Quincy, “I like that it’s flexible but routine,” she said of the class structure. Kass enjoys the social aspect of the program, “It’s fun. I love it. In the city you don’t get to explore nature. It’s even better than we expected.”
Arielle Bennet, a sound engineer and Jackson Heights resident, came with her three year-old son Oliver. She said in the city it’s difficult to find places to play outside. Bennett said she is tired of walking around the borough saying, “Don’t lick the subway, don’t touch this or that.”
Meghan and Brian Fitzgerald, the founders of Tinkergarten, created the program four years ago as a side project in Prospect Park. Meghan, a career educator with a Master’s degree in Curriculum Development and Brian, a product developer that creates educational programs, began thinking about non-traditional education when their daughter Maeve was a year old. They thought, in what ways they wanted to engage and shape her education about the world.
Meghan and Brian thought about their own childhoods and noticed their most, “indelible memories were outside,” when they, “happened to be night fishing or swimming in a rainstorm.” Meghan believes some of us may be suffering from a, “Nature deficit disorder.”
They began researching outdoor preschool programs that are more prevalent in Europe. Meghan convinced the leaders of one such ‘forest school’ program to let her into one of their training sessions in London
She wants to help build creativity, problem solving, leadership, and collaboration, through an open ended play situation.
“Play is the machination through which they learn,” Meghan said. Her aim is, “Creating a scenario that would welcome that situation,” and “training people to own that situation.”
As former elementary school principal, Meghan recalls students telling her during recess, “I don’t know what to play,” a question she found truly perplexing, “Just play.” would be her answer. Looking back she realizes how a child’s play is, “very adult driven,” and hopes her program can change that.
In the past four years Meghan and Brian have expanded Tinkergarten from New York to Connecticut, Massachusetts, Texas, Washington D.C., Oregon and even California.
Reach Reporter Jon Cronin at (718) 357-7400 x125, firstname.lastname@example.org or @JonathanSCronin