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Why the Simplicity of Nature Makes it the Perfect Place to Learn

by Meghan Fitzgerald

Recently, Tinkergarten co-founder Meghan Fitzgerald spoke with the Minimalist Moms podcast about parenting during the pandemic and the power of nature for children’s learning and development. Here’s a condensed version of their interview.

Minimalist Moms: I actually have personal experience of taking Tinkergarten classes, so I’m excited to talk to you and hear more about why nature as a classroom is important. 

Meghan Fitzgerald: I am first and foremost a mom of three kids ages 5, 7 and 9, and I live with my husband and my family in Amherst, Massachusetts, and I am also the cofounder and Chief Learning Officer of Tinkergarten. I’m an educator by trade, so I’ve always been a teacher and a learner. I’ve also been an elementary school principal, and my job at Tinkergarten I really love because I get to think about the world of early childhood and how children approach the world but I also get to work with adults—parents and teachers.

MM: I know that simplicity is kind of that name of the game when it comes to Tinkergarten but how has simplicity and minimalism played out in your own life? 

MF: I am always trying to be more minimal and my husband’s much the same. We’ve moved to a simpler place, and we had to do some structural work to our house. We tried to figure out, how can we make fewer spaces and how can we use this time to shed the number of things that we have? It was fascinating to work with the kids around this, to go through the toys and the objects that just somehow make it into our lives, and think about, which of these objects are good for the earth? Which ones do we really value and how much mental load do we bring into caring for these things? So even though right now in my house there’s stuff everywhere, I feel really good about what I know is in those boxes. 

MM: It sounds like you were always pulled towards simplicity. 

MF: To be honest I was a very elaborate child, so it’s been a big learning curve, and I think teaching really helped me get there. I didn't realize how distracting so many things were, and having a classroom or setting up learning environments for children, you learn a lot about what kids do. I noticed the more tools I put out or the more things I put on the wall or just the more clutter, the less focused they became on whatever they were learning. That’s a lot of what drives the focus on simplicity at Tinkergarten. There's some wonderful research about how when playrooms have fewer toys, kids play for longer and more creatively.

MM: How did you decide Tinkergarten was something you wanted to create for others?

MF: My husband and I co-created this out of a real personal need. I was a classroom teacher and then an elementary school principal, and Brian has been a tech product developer and designer for his whole career, and he was looking at what kind of skill set really was needed to design and solve new problems, and was noticing a lot of people who were successful in school seemed to struggle with open-ended ambiguous tasks and collaboration, and resilience. And I was working with families and noticing that academic pressure was being pressed down earlier and earlier. I was seeing the impact on kids and how they were at recess and in the classroom and thinking about, what would help make the most of the early learning years and what do kids really need the most? 

We did a bunch of research on how nature is a calming, stimulating setting. And as a teacher, when I took my kids outside, children were so different than they were in the confines of a classroom. We really started to study play, and how children learn about the world. 

MM: What does “nature as a classroom” mean?

MF: We decided to develop a curriculum that leverages brain science and how kids learn through play, but applies it in a natural setting. And that can be a range of places—our definition of nature is very simple: earth, sky and other species. So we’ve done Tinkergarten on rooftops, indoors, in national parks and everywhere in between. 

Nature is an incredible learning environment. We hear things, we feel things, we smell things, it’s uneven ground, so our muscles and our joints are activated, our sense of balance, every one of our senses is activated just by stepping outside. And the other piece is, it’s inherently calming. 

We’ve developed eight skills we think are really important for the long term. One is empathy, another is creativity. We might make faces on the trees, but you’re using sticks, mud, acorns and getting the things to stick in the mud. There’s so many lessons embedded in that, and it leverages all that nature has to offer to also teach a really important skill. 

MM: What would you tell listeners who are city-dwellers? How can they get the experience of nature as a classroom?

MF: I would go back to that simple definition: The elements of the outdoors, whatever access you have to them is great. We have a blog post that helps people who are indoors—and we have a lot of families who are in urban settings and now with social distancing especially, are really limited. But you can use a balcony or a stoop or move the play table by the window to get natural light and fresh air; you can listen to nature sounds within your apartment. 

MM: On the site, I love the hammocks underneath the dining room table! So playful and creative. 

MF: We have to remember to think like kids. To kids, a potted plant is a park. The lines of reality and fantasy are purposely very close together, and they can imagine all kinds of wonderful things. 

MM: How do we place boundaries around ourselves so we don’t interrupt kids’ imaginative process during play outdoors? 

MF: I think there are a few core concepts that help you become an effective guide to your children's play. The first one is knowing that you’re a guide, and not a director. It’s their process, your child is the actor in the play and you're kind of the stage manager there to support. 

The other thing is setting up the environment, with a bit of story or a little scenario you might suggest, a question you ask to inspire kids to play. That’s why a program like Tinkergarten at Home or coming to Tinkergarten class really helps, because it gives ideas on how to set up an environment and how to invite play in a way that puts the kids in the driver’s seat. 

MM: Where can people find their local Tinkergarten class?

MF: We are preparing and very hopeful we’ll have Tinkergarten classes back up and running this summer in every corner of the world where that’s possible. You can find your local by going to Tinkergarten.com/classes and searching by zip code. Our thousands of leaders, in all 50 states, are amazing, and it really is wonderful to come together with the guidance of that trained expert plus a community of families learning along with you. In the meantime, we have a live session that we stream every Tuesday morning, at 11:30 a.m. ET, 8:30 PT on our Facebook Live feed and our Instagram Live, so if you go to Facebook.com/Tinkergarten, you follow our live events, or just come on Tuesday morning and you’ll see me and my family of explorers demonstrating how to begin. Maybe even the best place to go is our #OutdoorsAll4 Facebook group—a free group, now with 7000 people in there. Our leaders and families from around the world are taking the ideas and bringing them to life. You can see pictures, videos, ask questions, get support, or just feel buoyed by the joy of watching kids play and learn at this time. 

At Tinkergarten.com/AtHome, you can find out about classes in your area, and get free weekly activities for the Tinkergarten at Home program at different age groups, parenting tips and advice on how to support play and get through this crazy time, and updates from the community on how families are bringing this stuff to life. 

MM: What is something you can’t stop talking about? 

MF: I am really excited about thinking through silver lining moments. I wrote a blog post about it recently—it’s a very familiar time, and it almost reminds me of being a new parent again. My world changed, overnight. I suddenly was trying to do what I'd always done. 

So I’ve been trying to remember what I would love to tell me as a new mom, and that’s to change expectations. Do the best you can, and look for those really sweet moments. Focusing on the wins is so needed to remember what’s special about this time but also to get through.

Photo: Megan Bricker

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