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Nature as teacher: Tinkergarten classes let young children explore and learn

Krista Sivertson (left) observes a plant with her daughter Lena, 2, while Dawn Plath (right) encourages her daughter Addy, 23 months, to check out a stick at Tinkergarten on June 9. Tyler Schank / Forum News Service1 / 6
Tinkergarten kids and their moms play with paper pulp on Saturday, June 9. The original plan for the paper pulp was to make seed balls for the children to plant later. Plans changed when they decided to make "soup" instead. Tyler Schank / Forum News Service2 / 6
Kayla Alvarez holds up a dandelion for her son Santiago, 19 months, to see through a magnifying glass at Tinkergarten in Lester Park on June 9. Alvarez said Santiago usually does his own thing but it's a good experience for them both. Tyler Schank / Forum News Service3 / 6
Ezra Isbell, 5, climbs a fallen tree in Lester Park on June 9. Tinkergarten educator Sarah Quetico said climbing on trees isn't part of the weekly sessions but the kids love it and do it anyway. Tyler Schank / Forum News Service4 / 6
Cara Overland of Duluth tickles her son Sam Kooi, 2, with lilacs at Tinkergarten in Lester Park on June 9. Sarah Quetico led kids through a session in which they got a chance to deconstruct things like lilacs, ears of corn and leaves to observe them. Tyler Schank / Forum News Service5 / 6
Sam Kooi, 2, and Lena Sivertson, 2, paint with mud at Tinkergarten on June 9. Tyler Schank / Forum News Service6 / 6

DULUTH — On a cloudy Saturday, children and their parents sat on a tarp in Lester Park, picking apart paper, lilac bushels and corn stalks.

Deconstruction is an important part of understanding how the world works, said Sarah Quetico.

"What do these look like, what do these smell like?" she asked.

One child described the corn as "hairy," one opted to wave around a stick, another, Santiago Alvarez, 19 months, waddled away to research nearby dandelions, his mother, Kayla, of Saginaw trailing behind.

It was a regular session of Tinkergarten, local classes that teach children ages 18 month to 8 years how to explore, problem-solve and more through nature play. That means engaging with mud, painting with sticks, looking at bugs with magnifying glasses — all in an effort to improve fine motor, sensory skills and more.

Children benefit the most from this type of learning. "What you experience first-hand, you will incorporate in your life in a much deeper way, and that's what Tinkergarten is. It's hands-on, and it uses all of the senses," Quetico said.

Soon after: "We only explore with our mouths during snack time," Quetico advised.

Tinkergarten was founded in 2012, but Quetico launched it in Duluth this year after hunting for nature-based activities for her 3-year-old daughter, Iris. Once accepted as a leader, Quetico, who is certified in equine assistance in experiential education, took the month-long Tinkergarten training. While Duluth has many spaces to choose from, she chose Lester Park for its combination of green space, swings and an open area. For now, class is always held here, so the kids can note environmental changes through the weeks.

Each class is made up of five parts, an opening activity and song, circle time to go over the lesson, two main activities, and a closing circle/snack time. Professional educators write the curriculum, and many come with a parable. Here's one from an early lesson:

Arriving at a village, travelers are greeted by suspicious townsfolk, who hide their food and resources. The travelers offered to make stone soup for everyone using a big pot of water. They suggest adding potatoes, and soon, the townspeople are contributing.

In class, the children mimic this, and the lesson creates a sense of community, Quetico said. While each week, they use previous lessons to build on their skills, sometimes, those skills show up in unexpected ways.

During class, Quetico opened a big pot with a gray paste at the bottom. The kids circled around. Quetico rolled a small amount of paste into a ball, explaining you can add seeds and plant it.

One child plopped a handful of lilacs into the pot. Taking their cue, others added corn and sticks.

"Let's not dump everything in here because we have other options," Quetico said.

Jace Dahlberg, 3, covered the pot with a lid.

"We're making stone soup, y'all," added Quetico.

Letting class go where the kids want it to was a lesson the group leader had to learn. "We tend to almost want to micromanage our kids. That's a tendency in our culture, we want to direct the play," Quetico said.

Many parents, herself included, feel pressure to ensure children are doing an activity "correctly." But it's all still part of learning.

During the deconstruction exercise, Lena Sivertson, 2, waved a hand kite and an ear of corn in circular motions, as her mother Krista Sivertson, looked on. Jake Ideker, 6, ran behind a patch of trees, peeking out to wave to his mother, Cara Overland. "I see you," she said. Jace Dahlberg, 3, and Ezra Isbell, 5, climbed a tree stump.

Everyone has a different size container of what they need in order to be fulfilled educationally, Quetico said. Some get that from observing, others get the most from fully engaging in play. Some need to roll in the mud, others would be horrified by that, but children will take what they need from each session. "Letting go of expectations of what learning should look like has been really helpful," she added.

Even though Tinkergarten is once a week, it has some of the offerings of nature schools, which can be hard to get into, said Dawn Plath of Duluth. Plath signed her daughter, Addy Edmunds, 23 months, up to encourage a curiosity and a sense of responsibility with the outdoors, she said.

Plath and her partner take Addy outside regularly, "but this class teaches them to focus on what's really in nature ... noticing the grass, noticing the green and the flower and the bugs," she said.

Also: "I find myself playing like I was a little kid," she said, noting a wind exercise where parents and children ran around the field with hand kites.

Standing on the tree trunk, Jenn Salo's son, Jace, asked her to catch a twig he tossed her way. Salo, of Superior, is in the beginning stages of researching how to become a Tinkergarten leader herself. Her youngest, Cyler Dahlberg, 1, rested in her arms. Salo hopes class will reinforce for her children that there's no way to be bored outside.

And Tinkergarten lessons show up at home for parent and child.

After a mud exercise, Addy is less afraid of getting dirty, Plath said. Whenever Iris sees a puddle, it becomes a soup pot, Quetico said. And if Iris is playing with her food at the dinner table, Quetico knows now, it's not being naughty, it's learning textures, it's part of development, she said.

Obviously, we should have boundaries, but: "Trust the kids that what they're doing is what they need to be doing," she said. "Often, we see destroying things as misbehaving, they're not misbehaving most of the time. They're trying to learn about the world."

Melinda Lavine

Lavine is a features and health reporter for the Duluth News Tribune. 

(218) 723-5346
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