Go Ask Mom

Go Ask Mom

Tinkergarten gets kids, adults outside with fun, hands-on programs

Posted January 29

Kate Macartney leads outdoor programs for kids and parents in Durham.
Kate Macartney spent a lot of time outside as a kid in her native Canada.

Now, a mom of a two-year-old living in Durham, she's leading groups of kids and their adults through Tinkergarten programs, part of a national organization that offers early childhood education in the great outdoors.

Designed for kids ages 18 months to 8 with their parents or caregivers, groups participate in activity-based classes that help them develop skills such as leadership, creativity and problem-solving by simply coming together and learning through play in the great outdoors.

Macartney worked as an attorney and mediator when she lived in Canada, but has spent the past five years here, volunteering with the Durham courts system and, now, leading groups of kids and adults for play outside.

"I always wondered if I should have become a teacher and Tinkergarten has been a wonderful opportunity to do so," she tells me.

I checked in with Macartney by email to learn more about what she and other Tinkergarten leaders offer in the Triangle. Here's our email discussion.

Go Ask Mom: What's Tinkergarten all about?

Kate Macartney: In a nutshell, Tinkergarten provides educational and fun classes for kids ages 18 months to 8 years old, in the healthiest classroom of all — the outdoors. Each week, we gather in our “outdoor classroom” (our local park) and do a new nature-based activity or two. These activities are designed to be very engaging and to provide lots of freedom for the children to explore and to practice important capabilities like creativity, problem solving and empathy. We run four seasons of classes each year (which correspond with the actual seasons) and each season has a new curriculum of activities that help the children notice and engage with the changing natural world and continue to develop critical early childhood skills. Parents and/or caregivers attend the classes with their children and play a critical role of supporting their children while still giving them the ability to “guide” the play and explore in their own way. (Parents/caretakers often end up almost as dirty as the kids!)

From a broader perspective, Tinkergarten was started by educators who believed that outdoor play-based learning should be part of early childhood education in all communities. The aim is to bring back the most influential part of our own childhoods  —  free time to tinker outdoors. This is truly one of the best ways to learn - kids are designed to learn through play. So the curriculum takes that capacity and gives it a structure so that the children develop important skills, all while having fun!

GAM: What about the program appealed to you?

KM: I was lucky enough to grow up in a small town with easy access to woods, lakes and other wild areas. I spent a lot of time outside exploring, getting dirty, playing make-believe, and enjoying the outdoors. When I became a parent, I was excited to pass on this love of the outdoors to my child. While she and I were already hiking and exploring together, Tinkergarten seemed like such a perfect next step. The idea of local parks as “outdoor classrooms” just seemed right and the fact that the children are free to independently play and explore really spoke to me. Also, the fact that the curriculum and training of leaders is being so thoughtfully developed by experienced educators made me feel very comfortable with teaching these activities.

GAM: What kinds of programs do you offer?

KM: I am currently offering two classes: Tuesday mornings at 10 a.m. and Saturday mornings at 10 a.m., both Forest Hills Park in Durham. These classes run for eight weeks; each running from mid-January to early March. These are mixed-age classes for kids aged 18 months to five years old. I really enjoy teaching these mixed aged classes, as kids at each end of the spectrum learn so much from each other. All of the information about my classes can be found at my website.

There are other leaders in the area as well, such as in Apex, Charlotte, Garner and Waxhaw. They also the same classes in their local parks. Information about those classes can be found on Tinkergarten's website where it lists all of the classes offered in North Carolina.

GAM: This isn't a drop off program. Parents are involved with their kids. Why is that an important piece of this?

KM: There are a couple of reasons for this. Parents are their children’s primary teachers. By helping to encourage and/or support a love of outdoor play in them, we are helping to do the same for their children. Second, we practice a type of “guided” play, where we provide the scaffolding for the activity but allow the children considerable freedom to engage in their own way. Part of involving the parents is to teach this type of teaching. Finally, bringing families together in this way creates a lovely community. We end each class with a snack that we share together. We often discuss other outdoor activities the families have done during the week between class, other parks or natural spaces they have visited, etc. Engaging both the parents and children really fosters this community spirit.

GAM: What do you love about helping kids and their adults explore and learn more about nature?

KM: First of all, I love the way you put that “kids and their adults." In Tinkergarten, we call the children “explorers” and the adults their “guides” so it works very well.

To answer your question, children have such a sense of wonder. It is incredible to see the natural world through their eyes. Every class, the kids find new ways to explore the natural world, and it is often quite unexpected to me and the other adults. They are incredibly creative and see the world from such a fresh perspective. Also, I love the fact that we are helping to create a (hopefully) lifelong interest in and comfort with the natural world. In a world filled with technology, I believe that helping to foster a child’s desire to go take a walk in the woods, look under that log, or splash in a puddle, will serve them in good stead.

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