Tinkergarten Grows

IMG_8882“Do you want a squiggle?” said Alex Cirillo to my 4-year-old son Tucker, offering him a length of bright red ribbon. He regarded her calmly and silently, but his little fists were balled up in a gesture of defiance I know so well. My son is not a joiner and was still a little mad at me for dragging him away from his block city to stand in the cold with a bunch of kids he didn’t know. She continued, “You could tie it to a stick and run or you could just watch it fly in the breeze. See what the other kids are doing?” Intrigued, his fists loosened and he took a step toward her to accept the ribbon. Within minutes, my reluctant boy was dashing through the park, delighted with the squiggle that flew behind him in the frigid winter air.

This was our first foray into Tinkergarten. Tinkergarten is an outdoor-based collaborative learning experience designed for kids between the ages of 18 months and 8 years and their caregiver. Started by a husband and wife team, Meghan and Brian Fitzgerald, this nationwide program embraces the notion that children develop important skills through open-ended play.

Alex Cirillo is the leader of the Barrington chapter my son and I joined. A typical class starts with a warm-up period that allows the kids and caregivers to greet each other and become acquainted with the environment. One day, the park where we meet was covered in snow. Cirillo showed the kids how to roll a small snowball through the snow to make a huge snowball, then she stepped back. The kids grasped the concept and ran with it. One child turned a large snowball into a throne. Another collected a group of snowballs to make a fort. Other kids began working together to make snowmen. My son wanted to make a snowman all by himself, which frustrated another little boy, so Cirillo stepped in to suggest they each make their own snowman, but collaboratively create a snowman family. Tempers soothed, the kids got back to work, gathering sticks and rocks to decorate their creations.

After experiencing a couple of classes, Tucker and I were hooked, but I wanted to understand the philosophy behind the mud cookies and stone soup we were making together. And I learned

that the classes are as much about me as they are about him. “We teach parents and caregivers how to engage with kids in a memorable, outdoor learning environment that builds on crucial developmental skills like balance, communication, risk taking and problem solving. We also help kids build their imaginations and learn how to be happy, get messy and have fun in nature,”

Tucker enjoys his tea

Tucker enjoys his tea

Cirillo said.

Tucker are I definitely having fun at Tinkergarten. One day, after the warm-up period, Cirillo invited us to sing a welcome song and then introduced the concept for the day: a tea party. Cirillo gave the kids a couple of pots, some cookie cutters, a few spice shakers and a collection of cinnamon sticks. She asked questions that required the kids to use all of their senses. “Did you smell the cinnamon? What does it remind you of? Is the ground cold? What happens to the snow if you hold it in your hand?” While some kids started gathering ingredients, like dirt and twigs, others stirred the pots with sticks. Cirillo noticed a couple of kids unsure what to do. “Let’s set the table,” she said and produced a white tablecloth. She held the cloth high and the kids danced under it before spreading it on the ground and decorating it with cups and plates, evergreen branches and acorns.

Each class ends with a real tea party on Cirillo’s blanket. After playing outside for an hour, a cup of warming tea is heavenly. “It’s a magical way to celebrate the end of class,” said Cirillo. “Everyone can relax and unwind while we talk about what we did.”

I’m a work at home mom, and out of necessity, I often find myself engaging my children in an activity so I can walk away. It’s effective, but it doesn’t feel good. It turns my kids into items to be checked off my to-do list, rather than little people to be cherished and enjoyed. “Life gets busy,” said Cirillo. “Tinkergarten gives parents special time with their child that they don’t always get. They can step back and observe their kids play and just be present.”

She’s right. Tinkergarten forces me to get outside and play with my son — and exercise my own imagination — free from all other distractions. And it’s lovely.

For more information, or to sign up for the spring Tinkergarten session, go to tinkergarten.com

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