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Can Technology Get Kids to Play Outside?

gardendirt_560x292blog_Getty.jpgWould you pay $230 for your toddler to take formal classes on making mud pies, catching bugs, and climbing trees?

That's the hope of Tinkergarten, a Northampton, Mass.-based startup that aims to use technology to re-connect young children to the outdoors via community-based classes led by instructors who have been recruited and trained online and given access to the company's extensive web-based curriculum.

"Ultimately, we want to be able to recreate the childhood that we had and that you most likely had: Go out the door, explore the world, and come back," said co-founder Meghan Fitzgerald, a former principal and classroom teacher who heads Tinkergarten's educational operations. 

"That doesn't happen anymore," she said. "Ironically, we see technology as a bridge back."

A pair of experts consulted by Education Week expressed enthusiasm for Tinkergarten's mission and materials, saying the company appears to be attempting to tap the sweet spot between two of the hottest trends in early-childhood education: technology and nature play.

But both experts cooled noticeably when discussing the implications of encouraging parents to "outsource" their children's nature-based learning experiences.

"The [Tinkergarten] model brings to life again the fact that kids should be outdoors and can learn in environments other than classrooms or in front of a screen," said Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a psychology professor at Temple University in Philadelphia.

"But I'll leave it to parents whether they feel they need to hire someone to do that," she said.

Tinkergarten began as a side project of Ms. Fitzgerald and her husband Brian, a 20-year veteran of the Internet start-up and ed-tech worlds. Shortly after the pair's first daughter was born, they began to worry that modern children don't get outside enough and that preschool and kindergarten have become too academic.  After researching outdoor-learning models, the couple began hosting informal play-based nature classes in Brooklyn's Prospect Park, which quickly led to a larger program involving numerous "mommy groups" around New York City. About a year ago, the Fitzgeralds decided to quit their jobs and pursue Tinkergarten full-time.

Here's how the company's service works:

Drawing on her experience as an educator and her graduate studies in educational leadership, Ms. Fitzgerald developed a series of activities, lessons, and curricula that aim to get young children playing and exploring—and learning—in nature.  Parents and others can download activity guides in exchange for providing their email address (see a list of sample activities here.)

But while Tinkergarten encourages such "do-it-yourself" use of its materials, the real value comes from taking formal classes with trained "leaders," Ms. Fitzgerald said. 

Partly, that's for practical reasons: Structured classes led by a paid instructor will actually happen, but even the best-intentioned parents can easily get sidetracked, she said.

There are also tremendous benefits to having outdoor learning experiences as part of a social group, Ms. Fitzgerald maintained.

And Tinkergarten's leaders are trained for 6-8 weeks on how to facilitate, recognize, and encourage productive play in young children—skills the company's founders said many of today's, shall we say, hands-on parents often lack.

"The typical parent doesn't quite know how to play with their children," Ms. Fitzgerald said. "A lot of what we do is help parents pull back and learn how to be humming birds and not helicopters." 

That means not interrupting their children while they play. And letting them get messy. And not freaking out if they wander a bit, or try to balance on a rock and fall off.

Kyle Snow, the research director for the National Association for the Education of Young Children, a Washington-based nonprofit, seconded the notion that many modern parents are neither comfortable nor skillful when it comes to interacting with their children in nature.

As a result, Mr. Snow said, "There probably is a market for people who value that, but don't feel comfortable providing it themselves."

Ultimately, it's not that different than paying for horseback-riding lessons or a reading tutor, he said.

The key, Mr. Snow said, is that parents should hold the same expectations for, and be asking the same questions of, an outdoor-play teacher in the park as they do of their child's ballet teacher or soccer coach.

"Parents of young children increasingly rely on technology to guide their decisions," he said. "At that level, it's wonderful to have a get-outside-and-play opportunity pop up with all the more academic and restrictive classes" that parents are exposed to.

So far, Tinkergarten has established about 20 sites, all in and around New York City. 

The company is hoping to expand nationally this summer, including sites in Florida, California, and Texas, Mr. Fitzgerald said. Tinkergarten recently announced that it had attracted $500,000 in seed funding to build up the technology platform to make that possible.

The idea, Mr. Fitzgerald said, is for technology to "facilitate this beautiful experience" from behind the scenes.

First, that means providing a vehicle for recruiting instructors, many of whom are either educators or stay-at-home parents.

Then the biggie: Tinkergarten's platform is key to providing those class leaders with online training, both in live and asynchronous formats.

The company's technology is also meant to play a key role in allowing the company to manage and facilitate communications among its leaders and between those leaders and their paying customers, to help leaders customize their curricula to fit local circumstances, and to tap into centrally developed marketing materials and strategies. 

And at the end of it all, Tinkergarten aims to provide parents with a "profile" that includes both textual and photographic documentation of the skills and concepts he or she cultivated through its classes.

"This is not your typical class experience," said Mr. Fitzgerald, who most recently worked as the head of product at Knewton, the New York City-based ed-tech company that has made waves for its efforts to collect hundreds of millions of bits of data on K-12 students, then use that information to provide children with customized learning experiences.

"This profile that [Tinkergarten is] building of your child has a history of the things they've done and the skills they've developed along the way," Mr. Fitzgerald said. "That's a powerful thing to share with a parent."

That's where Ms. Hirsh-Pasek, the Temple University professor, starts to get uncomfortable.

She loves the idea of anything that will get kids outside and playing more. But she worries that the constant monitoring of children sends a message to parents that they don't know what they're doing and that they need to outsource some of their own roles.

"When our children are picking up leaves and building forts and watching ants, these are teachable moments. So I think what [Tinkergarten] is after could be an interesting mix," Ms. Hirsh-Pasek said.

"But In some ways, it's a shame that if you want to get [your child] outdoors and playing, you feel you have to pay for classes," she added.

"It's almost like parents don't know what to do if they walk into this place called a 'park.'"

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