Highland News Leader

Class in Highland teaches kids to get down and dirty with nature

The first official Tinkergarten class had started with a dilemma, the class leader, Melissa Schmitt, had “forgotten” her suitcase filled with mud.

With the lesson in danger, Schmitt asked her explorers if they could help save the day. So, tiny silver pail-toting tots ran in search of a soft spot of ground where they could dump their water and brew up a fresh batch.

The 9 a.m. session at Silver Lake Park was designed to help the kids learn what happens when earth is mixed with water.

The lesson eventually strayed from its original path. Some little ones began to build a miniature Silver Lake, while others constructed a seesaw for squirrels and boots began to stop in their new creation, spraying little droplets of dirty water onto nearby parents. But the overall goal of the class was never lost.

About the class

The new class turns the blue skies and green, grassy hills of Silver Lake Park into an unorthodox classroom, where the children become their own teachers. The lessons usually start with a play-based, overarching theme and combine exploration and sensory involvement to let children experiment with nature. But, Schmitt said, the point of the class is to let the children guide their own play, which helps to encourage the kids to get outside more often to be active in nature.

“You can find so many great tools,” Schmitt said. “It promotes creativity, empathy, community with other parents; it’s a great social time for kids and for their parents.”

Currently, about 571 Tinkergarten professionals teach classes in 43 states. Schmitt became involved with Tinkergarten after trying to get her 3-year-old daughter, Madeline, involved with the program. When she found out that their was not a Tinkergarten chapter in her area, she decided to dive right into teaching the class.

“I really wanted to get her outside more and be more intentional in that type of play,” Schmitt said. “So far it’s great and it gives her a chance to be with other kids her age and gives her a chance to play outside and get dirty.”

Hayden Von Hatten, one of the Tinkergarten explorers, learned about the class during the Spring Bloom Festival. Schmitt had set up a booth where kids could dig for worms.

After he found the largest worm imaginable, there was no way his parents could stop him from joining the class. Hayden was especially excited about the mud lesson.

“It’s squishy, and you can make a lake in it,” Hayden said.

The program is not a drop-off program. Schmitt said that parents should not expect to drop their kids off and leave. The adults are encouraged to participate, because Tinkergarten follows a format where the parent is the best teacher.

Parents work with their kids and learn how to become “guides” who facilitate their child’s play instead of telling them how to play. Hayden’s mother, Megan Von Hatten, was one of the parents getting muddy alongside their kids.

“I really like it,” she said. “The children get to run it, and that’s a really positive and fun kind of thing.”

She said Hayden is always begging to get outside so he can dig around their house, but their house has a limited garden. With Hayden’s blooming curiosity, his mother said the class was a great way to encourage his nature exploration, while allowing him to get a little messy, without having to be a stickler about it.

How to sign up

It is not too late for kids to get involved. Schmitt said that while class size is limited, there is no deadline for when parents can sign their kids up for the class. Space is only limited to help increase the quality of learning, according to Schmitt.

Currently Schmitt is teaching one session for children between the ages of 18 months and 5 years. The classes start every Saturday at 9 a.m., through June 24

The fee for Schmitt’s spring session is $140, with 50 percent off any additional siblings.

Schmitt’s summer session will start July 4 through July 24 for kids who are 18 months to 8 years old. These classes will be held Tuesdays and Thursdays at 9 a.m.

Parents wishing to sign their children up can go to the Tinkergarten website to register for Schmitt’s classes. For anyone wanting to try out the class before signing up, Schmitt will be hosting free trials June 8, 13, 20 and 26.

Schmitt said that if parents cannot make the class dates, they can still sign up to receive weekly emails with do-it-yourself projects.