Startup Bets Parents Are Willing to Outsource Child’s Play


Cross posted from the Digital Education blog.

By Benjamin Herold

Would 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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14 thoughts on “Startup Bets Parents Are Willing to Outsource Child’s Play

  1. This, according to Abass, increases security threats
    between unmanaged devices and the company information. Instead of talking to eachother; people are texting instant messages back and forth over a cellular
    frequency. It is important to plan out how the expert can accomplish the purpose for you.

  2. I am an early childhood educator with experience in parent training. I also know how to spot bad reporting. And I know a decent amount about tinkergarten, and can say as a matter of fact that the writer has been derelict in her research and has allowwd herself to accept and repeat judgments of the program, from academics who clearly havent thought about the program carefully, which are simply not based on correct knowledge or understanding. I would be delighted to have a conversation clarifying some of these basic misunderstandings. Please get in touch with me.

  3. In response to: ““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.” One cannot generalize a parent’s reasons for enrolling his child in this program. A parent can take a child outdoors for free and on their own, but the value in this program is the socialization that takes place IN the outdoors. Also, this replaces preschool indoors AND allows for parents to be involved in their child’s learning experience. If anything, the leader simply acts as a guide. The parent and the child can gain a powerful bond out of this experience.

  4. I recently came across their site and I’m in love with this idea. I’ve already started contacting them about the details of getting myself trained. Training takes a few months and counts as 3 college credits. They focus on nature studies and the impact it makes on early childhood development such as emotional and social. Its at least 1 day a week but more frequent classes and party options are available. I’m both an outdoor enthusiast and a mother, as a teen I was also a teacher’s aide in a life skills class and early development class for 2 and 3 year old and I can tell you, this type of education is necessary. So many parents place importance on electronics to babysit their children and I for one am against it. I barely let my 6 year old watch tv or anything…. he has to use his imagination… I also started him hiking 4 years ago and he loves it. I taught him about trail markers and scavenger hunting. I’m very excited to be part of this and can’t wait to bring it to my area and help educate other parents and children on the importance of nature. They are not just our future, but the future of the earth. Technology will eventually fail, will they know what to do? Think about that.

  5. The reasons parents need to “pay for classes” is that they may want to be part of a group of like-minded care givers. I myself have my granddaughter 5 days a week. She is 19 months old and has no one her age or close to her age to interact with. Tinkergarten is the perfect way to have her socialize and learn important lessons, such as sharing. Many people have only one child or children born far enough apart that socialization is difficult.

  6. I am now not sure where you are getting your information, however great
    topic. I must spend some time studying much more or working out more.
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  7. We attended our first class today. I have three boys, ages 2, 3 and 4. We live in a rural setting on three acres and definitely don’t need help with getting our kids into the outdoors. However, I enrolled my kids because we wanted a social opportunity in the outdoors during the winter and a social opportunity for my oldest with special needs in a setting in feels most comfortable. I highly applaud this curriculum and can’t wait for next weeks class!

  8. My leader paycheck disagrees. Also, my three year old Tinkergarten explorer disagrees too. Misinformed to say the least.

  9. As a long time teacher and outdoor educator I am intrigued by this entrepreneurial direction of nature based programming. The idea that parents need to pay for outdoor exposure is a reality that we all face in our societal norms of less nature access, more technology access, over scheduling, over achieving, and over doing everything. It means our society just isn’t the same one we grew up in where moms shooed their kids out the door after school until dark to discover the world on their own or with the neighborhood kids. Kids desperately need opportunities and facilitation in how to explore, get dirty, be curious and discover their own limits. As a facilitator the idea is not to have “goals”, like “Learn five plant names” or “explain photosynthesis”. The goals are child centered and child paced. What did you do today? Is answered potentially with: “Nothing, we just dug a giant hole and found these cool bugs and then filled the hole with mud and then we found these cool rocks and then it started raining and we all caught drops on our tongue”. Believe it or not they learned so much doing all those things, and it will never be forgotten. Oh, and by the way, teaching parents about how to follow their children’s lead, how to find their own inner child, and how to find their own nature connection is about the best parenting skills I can think of, and I have two teenage daughters. ON THE OTHER HAND, I am a REALLY suspicious of education becoming a for profit endeavor, where the bottom line is not the value to our children, but the value to the business. That scares me because you can’t patent nature, or children’s curiosity, and once you go down the road of optimal profit margins then often times child development is the first to suffer. So lets watch, and keep our values clearly defined, and know that however we can keep kids being kids longer and closer to nature the better.

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