Episode 203 – In this episode, we interview Meghan Fitzgerald, Chief Education Officer of Tinkergarten, a program that supports parents and educators with play-based learning at home. We talk about how to set children up for success when returning to a post-quarantine life where social distancing is the norm, reframing the idea of developmental regression, as well as how to cope with the stressors of parenting and educating young children during this time.
- Tinkergarten Website
- How To Prepare Your Kids And Yourself For Reopening
- Help Your Kids Make Friends With Masks
Planning on reopening soon? Use our free parent handbook template to help update your policies!
This is already a hard time, so to have your child regressing on top of it is stressful. But sometimes it helps just to frame it as very much a response and maybe even a helpful response for your child at this particular moment in time.
Meghan, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!
Thanks, so glad to be here!
We’re delighted to have on the show today Meghan Fitzgerald. She is the co-founder and chief learning officer of Tinkergarten, which is a really cool organization based out of the U.S. Let’s start off learning a little bit about you, Meghan. How did you come to find this company, Tinkergarten? What’s your background?
Yes, so I’m a mom of three kids. I have a 5-, 7- and 9-year-old. And I live with my husband, Brian, who’s also my co-founder in western Massachusetts. So, Tinkergarten really started as a very personal project for both of us. And I had spent 18 years as a classroom teacher, program developer and former elementary school principal. And Brian has spent his share building in scaling technology products, largely focused on how people learn. So, we have a real overlap in our passion for education.
So, in our work, before we had kids and as we were starting a family, we really were thinking about how the learning experiences that we had as young children – largely centered on play inside and time spent outside – were increasingly absent from the lives of the kids I was working with as a principal and a teacher. And then also noticing the need that Brian was hiring for a leader in the ed. [education] tech world, thinking about how much kids needed to think creatively, flexibly, be resilient, collaborative, all of these really important what we call “21st century skills” and how roots of those skills were really fostered through play.
And the worry that all the time spent on screens, all of the structured time kids were having, were not getting those kinds of hands-on life lessons. And how can we create something that helps our family and other families build those back in? So, that’s really where Tinkergarten started.
Cool, that’s, like, the perfect duo between your educated background and your husband, Brian. And of course, you’ve got the real-world experience with three kiddos at home. Tell us a little bit more about Tinkergarten and what you do through that organization.
Sure, sure. So, Tinkergarten is every family’s guide to perfect school play. So, the kind of thing that helps kids become healthy, capable and competent learners. And like I said, we started it because even though I was a teacher and Brian has spent his career speaking about how to help people learn, we felt this pressure to make our kids early learning years really count because so much important brain development, and even the just way you think of yourself as a learner, that all happens really early.
And we knew back then in 2012 – and even more now – how important outdoors is and how important play is, especially right now in the current context, the importance of outdoors has never been so treasured for everyone. But you can’t spark that kind of curiosity and hands-on learning and the calming benefits that you get outdoors in any screen or really any indoor experience.
So, we started to develop a series of lessons or activities, ways of setting your time outside for parents so they can make that time outdoors that their kids feel it’s counting, that it really is delivering. And we did that by offering outdoor classes similar to the classes you may take for music with your kids. So, really developing a learning approach and working with those parents and caregivers and children out in parks.
We started in Prospect Park in Brooklyn and we now have thousands of amazing Tinkergarten leaders, – we call them our teachers – who lead classes and children in their local parks. And that’s been going on now for 22 seasons. And we train and support and get curriculum materials to all of these teachers. And they’re just fantastic, passionate people who are really talented and want to bring it to life in their local communities. That’s a large part of how we deliver this kind of learning that we’ve developed to families.
So, we also offer do-it-yourself classes direct to families through our Tinkergarten At Home program. And that takes our curriculum that we’ve researched and tested over all these seasons and turns it to families in a way that makes it really easy to use whatever you have on hand to set up and support playful learning experiences for your kids.
Cool. So, that’s something that a lot of parents out there are dealing with, including myself, and certainly have experienced the benefits of taking the little ones outside. That certainly gets some energy back and helps with this isolation situation we’re all in. I don’t know about you and I don’t know but our listeners, but I’m starting to have some quarantine isolation fatigue here. Being stuck inside with the kiddos all day can be pretty exhausting. Any tips from you and the team in terms of how parents can deal with that and how educators can support their parents with that?
Absolutely. I think we’re feeling fatigue in a number of different ways. I think we’re feeling the fatigue of isolation, which we help work with families around. And there are a number of ways to help you and your kids with that.
We’re also feeling the fatigue of trying to be caregiver and teacher to our children. Many of us who aren’t teachers, who weren’t trained to be teachers, are instilling that role for our kids, making sure that they have engaging things to do all day.
And then for many of us, that’s also balancing work full time. So, Brian and I are working in Tinkergarten full time. That job has not changed but this additional job of being the teachers to our children on top of that, it’s a mathematical impossibility, even though I’m a trained educator. It’s overwhelming.
So, I think that bouncing all of those pieces is really tricky, too. So, there are ways to support families of course. We can start first with the social isolation. One of the things that we just launched a blog post about in our blog – it’s www.Tinkergarten.com/blog – we’re releasing a series of resources to help families navigate this process of reopening what we will be going through and thinking about how to move from this kind of isolation back into a more integrated social world.
And that really comes with some uncertainty and fear. It felt overwhelming to be isolated but it’s also quite easy to feel like you’re keeping your kids safe. I mean, you don’t leave the house. So, how do you help small children be prepared to re-enter public spaces and social interactions in a way that keeps them safe? And that can feel overwhelming. So, we have several tips about that.
And what we’ve been doing as a family – and a lot of what we’re encouraging our families to do – is to practice social distance at home where it’s safe. So, we have some great tips, like [creating a variety of distance-based activities and] playing games together so that you feel what it’s like to be six feet apart and you have some comfort with that and you can see how to play with a friend or one another in a way that is different.
Because for little kids. It’s not intuitive at all to stay away from the people that they love or people in general. So, practicing that, helping kids to feel what that feels like before they reenter a situation where they will be around other children or other people in preparing for going back to a socially distant world from that cocoon or kind of shelter in place. So, that there’s some tips like that on our site.
Also, using your FaceTime [social media video chat] and screens and being able to play out since play dates are short. So, if you are willing to try and get back in, schedule some quick play dates with friends and do them outside. So, outside is proving… and actually [there was a] New York Times article just yesterday about the mounting evidence that the safety concerns being outdoors versus indoors and the rates of transmission are germs and disease are so much lower outside.
So, not only is it this great learning place for kids and it’s calming and it has all the benefits that we know nature provides, it’s also just proving to be much safer as a starting place for getting together again. So, short play dates, meet outdoors and give your kids time to practice what it means to be distant socially from friends before you ask them to practice that.
Yeah, that’s some good points. And something that has been on my mind a little bit more as we start to talk about reopening of the economy and childcare programs is separation anxiety.
So, we’ve been spending so much time with our children. Normally that wouldn’t be a problem for us but I would imagine some of these things would help with that as well in terms of connecting with some of our friends and setting up those routines and spending time outside?
Absolutely, and breaking from and getting ourselves ready for that separation. Yes, introducing other adults and kids, making sure that kids are getting used to that again. It’s been a very intense time. And I think we also as adults need to prepare for that separation anxiety. And it seems ironic because I think a lot of us feel a little overwhelmed and long for the day when we have some the compartments back in our life so we can go to work and have work time or when working at home and then our kids can go to care and we can have some of those clean lines.
But at the same time, we’ve had the benefit of knowing they’re safe and having them with us. And there have been very sweet moments sprinkled throughout. So, I think parents will also have a lot of feelings that we need to prepare ourselves for as well.
And I think getting out, seeing that we can go out and we can be safe and we can practice some of the things that are going to be important for your child if they’re over two [years old] and they’re going to need to wear a mask. This is different in different places – different school or settings will have different criteria.
If that’s a piece of what your child will need to experience or what you will want your child to experience, to stay even safer, we have a whole post in our blog about how to make friends in masks. So, that in and of itself is a very big thing for kids, to have something on their face, especially for children who have really strong responses to touch. How can we help all kids to make masks feel normal?
Children are actually quite good at adjusting to these situations but they need their opportunity to build familiarity and to have us frame masks, for example, as something fun and comfortable and normalize it for them.
So, there some great techniques and easy tests for practicing wearing masks at home, having fun with the masks, picking the right mask, having kids involved in that process to help the families adjust, too.
Some good practical points there, and some things I didn’t even really think of in terms of the masks and making it feel like a normal thing to do, which it isn’t quite yet, I don’t think everywhere, although starting to be a little bit more common, of course.
I just want to go back and touch on the parents side a little bit more. And you raise a really good point about us being a bit sad, too when the children head back to schools and daycares. And certainly mental health for parents right now is a challenge generally, too.
I know I’ll speak for myself, but I think a lot of parents would be experiencing the same thing, which is, on the one side, you feel guilty because maybe you feel like you should be doing more work or you’re not doing your job well because you’re trying to look after your kids and make sure they’re doing stimulating activities. And then you feel guilty that you’re not being a good parent because you’re, like, “I’m trying to work right now.” So, it’s like, how do we deal with that as parents? Any advice there?
Absolutely. It’s a new situation that we’re in. And we consistently hear from our families and each other that we just feel like we’re failing on all fronts. So, I think one of the things to do is to redefine “success”. And we have, again, a blog post about that. It’s caused some really rich dialog around, what does success even looks like right now? And I think success right now looks like getting through and reframing what our expectations are for our kids.
And so in terms of our kids’ wellbeing, they have a lot more covered than we think because we are here all the time. So, in many ways, if we can sort of take care of ourselves and start putting the oxygen masks on ourselves a little bit on the airplane and we can just stay balanced and make sure that we are giving ourselves reasonable expectations and not be too hard on ourselves, we will be stable for our kids and our kids will cue up on that.
So, in terms of there… and one thing that we can benefit from that they’ll benefit from also is even if… it’s focusing on the climate in our house rather than the weather in our house. So, if we have a day that’s right or moments and passes where siblings are squabbling or we’re just not feeling like we’re really nailing it as a parent, we can always grab a moment in the cuddle with our kids or read a favorite story or just build in a few sweet moments that actually [involve] some touch and some connection. It doesn’t have to be a long period of time, it just has to be a quality.
And those moments give us some positive interactions with our kids that we can reflect on at the end of the day and feel about. But it also reinforces for our children that everything is okay. So, we don’t have to nail every moment. We just have to build in a handful of moments that feel like we’re really connecting. And the thing about quarantine is that they’re plentiful.
For working parents whose children were in care before, you didn’t have that ability in the middle of the day to take a minute when you’re breaking for lunch and just cuddle your child. It’s magical. So, if we can capture some of those opportunities, I think that can balance out some of the stress on the emotional side.
And then on the teaching and being a great caregiver-teacher side, I think we should really help ourselves with lessening our expectations and thinking about setting up a schedule for our kids in a way that’s age appropriate and then building as much independent play as possible. Because if we remember how much children learn through play, they’re hitting cognitive goals, physical goals, social goals, even if they’re playing on their own.
And I think having some ideas and friends, really well-designed prompts for play for your kids, will not only lead them to play longer and more independently – because these are well-designed situations – but they also can help you rest and know that the time that your kids are spending at play is really helping them learn.
So, I think being a direct teacher to kids and working is just too much. So, if we can help people think about setting up areas in their house for play or setting out the right materials and giving the right response to kids, kids will play independently for longer. And parents will feel really good about that time.
And I’m asking this as a parent that really wants to know the answer: Would you say, like, prompts or well-designed prompts for play, can you give an example of what that might be?
Sure. So, that’s what we’ve designed our Tinkergarten At Home program to provide, really simple ways to set up prompts and then support independent play. Because we know… personally, helping to develop these is what I need on my home front. I desperately need my kids to be needing their own learning.
And that’s better for kids anyway. When kids are really independently driving their play, they’re getting the full benefit. But practically speaking, I also need that. So, with the Tinkergarten At Home program is an example of one of these, we take a different learning theme each week.
For example, we know that children… there are patterns that children repeat in their play quite naturally. And those patterns… an example of those would be, they like to take objects, put them in containers, move them around, dump them out and repeat; it’s called “transporting”. So, maybe they fill bags full of random little objects in your house; or they love to push a wagon and fill it with things that they like to pack as if they’re going on a trip.
All of these things will consume children’s time. And children do this all over the world. And they’re also associated with kids building these physical experiences, adding up to thinking processes later.
So, experts in play know about these patterns. And it’s really easy to help parent pattern leverage these patterns to create opportunities for play. For example, one week we just focused on this pattern of transporting. And we encouraged people to give their kids bags, boxes, even a suitcase, and say, “Where would you like to go? What would we need to pack?” And give a really simple prompt and then allow children the space and time to… and the novelty of a parent actually letting them use the suitcase? It’s the magic of people across the country and the world, how different children responded to this and how even little ones just loving putting things inside the container, emptying the container and repeating.
And then as the children get older, their pretend play got more and more rich and invaluable. Grandparents got involved and grandparents were packing suitcases to pretend and come visit. And kids here packing suitcases to pretend to go visit them. And it led to… so, we give parents by age level how to best set up environment or the materials, what kind of questions to ask to get kids started and how to allow them to play independently.
And it’s proven to really be a helpful resource for parents to think about, “Alright, this week, what’s new? What can I do? How can I help my children continue to exercise that play muscle and buy myself back some time?”
Cool. And as parents, how do we know if our kids are doing okay or not? We actually – this is hot off the press – we did a survey and we asked childcare programs, “The children who are coming back now that you’re reopening a little bit more, how are they doing with their development?” And about 40% of respondents said that it had stalled or regressed. How can we kind of keep tabs on that at home?
Sure. And I think that is… we have another blog post about regression. I think we can think about this moment in time and children regressing, certainly – especially in their social and emotional growth – is they can appear to move back several stages. And some of it is their reaction to this moment in time, which can be a comfort to parents to realize that that’s quite natural, if not to be expected. Because I think we all worry that we’ve just lost ground and that that will be the lasting impact of this after.
But to many experts that is actually a defensive response to a very scary situation. So, you sense that your parents are stressed; you’re confused because sometimes they’re working, sometimes they’re available; you’re isolated from friends, all these really remarkable things are happening. It’s actually quite natural for children to decide to move back at these stages in order to get more attention, in order to solicit some of that comfort that they need without even realizing they’re doing it.
And In many ways, it’s even a protective mechanism. So, it’s not such a terrible thing. It can be frustrating as a parent because you actually… this is already a hard time. So, to have your child regressing on top of it is stressful. But sometimes it helps just to frame it as very much a response, and maybe even a helpful response, for your child for this particular moment in time.
So, that’s an important thing, to just take some of the edge off. And then thinking extra… and then going back to that focus on climate, that reassurance of extra cuddles, of extra touches, of whatever you know soothes your child. The more you can layer those things, even a little bit throughout the day, you might be easing some of that regression because you’re giving the child likely what they’re looking for in terms of reassurance during this time. And it might be leading to that, what that regressive behavior is really asking for it.
So, I think that’s probably the most important thing. And then patience and knowledge that kids are really resilient and they really do adjust. Again, it will take some time. So, really thinking through what it’s going to be like to reopen, what it’ll be like to go back to school situations, to separate all of that, just to be ready for that to be a process.
We work with families around September. And September is time that’s always hard on families because we tend to be moving to a new classroom, moving to a new school or at least a new family schedule. And that means hard on kids. So, just knowing that you’re going to have the build in some time and patience and you’ll have to work with your children through whatever transition is coming for us I think is going to be really helpful framing for parents.
Yeah, that is really helpful framing, just to know that context of why children might behave in a certain way and what it means for their sort of broader learning and development. We could continue this conversation for a really long time because this is such great advice. Maybe I’ll book a personal consultation with you after?
Yes, that would be great! And I would have just as many questions. I have to tell you that one thing to remember is that we’re all figuring this out as we go. It’s just really listening to our kids, following their lead and just being supportive to each other, too. To the extent you have available, use it to connect in any way you can. It’s a very challenging, challenging time for everybody.
Yeah, true, true. Good to remind ourselves of that, too. We’re all figuring this out. Nobody knows exactly what’s going on here, what to do. So, yeah, yeah, good point. It sounds like there’s lots of great information on your website. Where can our listeners go to get more information about Tinkergarten, about being at home with their kids?
Absolutely. Probably the best place to go right now is to www.Tinkergarten.com. And right up at the top, you’ll see a call out to join our mailing list and join our at-home program. So, the at-home program has several components. It has a weekly activity plan for different age groups – babies, toddlers, preschoolers and school-age kids. It also has parenting insights like some of the blog posts we’ve been talking about and some videos to help you with topics like, “Why are my children regressing?” Or, “What’s a schedule that might work for my family? I’ve tried for nine weeks, it’s not working.”
So, we have a lot of resources available through that program that we push right to you. And there’s also a live Tinkergarten sessions you can join every week. And community, we didn’t get to talk about that. We have a Facebook group called #OutdoorsAll4 that’s free and vibrant and people sharing questions and creative ideas from all over the world. It’s just an upbeat, generative, supportive group. So, that’s another resource.
So, if you join that mailing list at Tinkergarten.com we will get this program delivered to your inbox automatically. And it’s free. So, that’s probably the best place. And also, when we are back up and offering our classes in local parks, we’ll be announcing that big mailing list. So, we can’t we can get back out there again once it’s safe to do so. And you can find out, you’ll automatically find out as well about that.
Awesome, sounds like some great resources there. So, listeners, go check it out. Meghan, thank you so much for joining us on the Preschool Podcast today.
You’re so welcome, it was great to talk to you. And best of luck to you and everybody through all of this!