Northampton, Mass.-headquartered Tinkergarten, Inc., an outdoor play-based early childhood education company, is doubling its presence in Connecticut with the hiring and training of teachers statewide to lead classes for children aged 18 months to 8 years at local parks.
“We’re going to get to 1,000 leaders across the country,” said Meghan Fitzgerald, co-founder along with her husband Brian Fitzgerald, who develops Tinkergarten’s technology platform used to train and support teachers locally.
Tinkergarten currently has 750 leaders nationwide, including 20 in Connecticut. The revenue model is built on student fees of $12.50 to $42 per child, depending on the neighborhood. To fund its expansion, the company in August raised $5.4 million in a Series A round of financing led by Owl Ventures, with additional investment from Omidyar Network and Reach Capital, both existing investors.
“I was concerned to see how highly structured children’s lives had become – how little time they were spending in play and in the natural environment,” said Meghan, formerly an elementary school principal in Sleepy Hollow, New York. “I saw them struggling with open-ended tasks, with creative thinking – really the skills that children are going to need to succeed. More so when we became parents, Brian and I felt we needed to do something about it.”
That led the duo to create a curriculum based on existing research on outdoor play, with Meghan teaching the first class at a park in Brooklyn, N.Y. The couple bootstrapped their startup, like most other small businesses. That was three years ago. Tinkergarten has since raised a total of $8.3 million, with initial support from the likes of Brooklyn Bridge Ventures, 500 Startups, and Structure Capital.
“We are working toward becoming research based and evidence based through feedback from leaders and parents,” Meghan said. “Our learning is based on the theory that self-directed play is the most important way that children develop, and that parents can help facilitate play.”
In fact, according to a global survey of 12,000 parents in 10 countries by the communications marketing firm Edelman, eight in 10 parents said that their kids frequently refuse to play unless some form of technology is involved, and 60 percent said that their kids do not know how to play without technology. In the U.S., 65 percent of children play outside for an hour or less a day.
In his popular book, “Last Child in the Woods,” Richard Louv coined a term that’s gained popularity with both child development experts and parents: “nature-deficit.” Louv linked the lack of nature in children’s lives to the rise in childhood obesity, attention disorders, and depression.
“His book made a lot of people sit up,” said Sudha Swaminathan, professor of early childhood education at Eastern Connecticut State University. “Since then, more toys have been made for outdoor play, and preschools have set up entire classrooms outdoors.”
But at many elementary schools, Swaminathan said, recess—usually no more than 30 minutes—has been cut out of the schedule to make room for more academic, in-class studying. “This has detrimentally affected children’s ability to retain information, focus, and pay attention.”
However, technology and the outdoors can converge, experts say.
“I particularly enjoy technology tools like ProScopes, which, when coupled with an iPad, can help children peer closely at earthworms and what not, without needing to use a hefty microscope,” Swaminathan said. “They also encourage children to collaborate with each other.”
On a summer morning at a public park in Glastonbury, Denyel Parent, who has a master’s degree in elementary education, led a small group of toddlers in the making of a “magic potion.” The children and their parents wandered off to different corners to collect such treasures as acorns, interestingly shaped leaves, colorful flowers and other finds in a mason jar filled with water. The kids gleefully stirred their magic potions with tall twigs, eventually pouring it at the base of “thirsty trees.”
“I decided to become a Tinkergarten leader because I feel people are becoming more disconnected with nature,” Parent said.
Although the company is scaling up quickly nationwide, challenges persist locally. Parent’s test classes, for example, did not result in the minimum number of students required for launching regular sessions.
“The pricing is $160 for a season, which averages about $20 per class. It’s competitive with other toddler classes around the area,” she said.