Tinkergarten co-founder and Chief Learning Officer Meghan Fitzgerald recently spoke to Hunter Clarke-Fields, founder of the Mindful Mama Podcast, about what school reopening plans will look like in the fall, the power of nature and more.
We're facing down this crazy autumn during a pandemic. How are you looking at this fall for yourself and your own family?
I have many hats. When I put on different hats, I think about the fall and I look at my kids and I'm so eager for them to have access to their peers and the adults that love them, and feel connected to their community. I could just sense the loss that they felt at the end of the school year.
But I have a lot of concerns as a parent. I have uncertainty about safety because they're bringing them back into a group situation. And then the uncertainty of what school will be. Reading as a teacher and a principal, and then thinking about as a mom, what some of the safeguards that will be in place will be like, it makes me a little bit concerned about their experience.
I've learned so much both through my work as a teacher but also as an outdoor educator, looking at the whole child and thinking about how their bodies need to move, how important it is to be outdoors and to be active. Some of the solutions would have kids being in the same place and being even more sedentary than before. I worry sometimes when we focus exclusively on safety as a goal, we sometimes lose the broader holistic view of what kids need.
What are we supposed to do? It's really nuts.
And on the flip side, teachers need to come back full time and their kids are only in school half time. How do they do that, right? Teachers’ associations in Massachusetts and California have been really vocal in the last few weeks about not only are we putting ourselves at risk by going into a situation if we're not sure it's going to be safe, but we also have our own kids; how do we manage all that?
So I think a lot of us will be trying to figure out what it means to educate and care for our children from schooling to a combination of school and then ways of learning and working with them at home that provide them with support, but also allow for adults and all of us to continue to move on with what we need to do.
You teach parents how to teach their kids outside and this idea of possibly taking some curriculum outdoors can be a solution to some of the challenges. How could you envision that working?
Not every school, but lots of schools have outdoor space in addition to indoor space and we know that the outdoors is just safer right now. It's safer for virus transmission. It's easier to get the distance that you need. It's also always been, even before you were in a COVID context, better for kids. It's healthier to be in the fresh air, to be able to move, to have the stimulation of the outdoor environment with its calming effects at the same time. It is a superb classroom.
So for all learners it would be a boost for them to be outside even if we didn't have a pandemic. And what it would do is allow schools to double the space that they can create for learning so more kids could come to school, maintain distance and learn plus get the benefits of being outdoors. And at least if you think about the northeast, that would become more challenging when the winter months come on. But you could have marvelous learning experiences under tents or start to get creative.
You could be outside nearly every day, taking the learning that you're doing and bringing it outside. I truly believe we'd see outsized benefits not just the fact that we could bring more kids back or feel comfort that kids are learning together with a lower risk than when they're in the indoor environments where the risk is just so much higher.
I imagine there's going to be a big boost in homeschooling. Have you heard people talking about that?
Absolutely. I’m hearing it from the couple thousand teachers who teach for Tinkergarten around the country in all 50 states. And also we have a Facebook group that's now over 10,000 people, and there's discussion there, too. People who have that ability to make that choice may make that choice. I think there will be many children for whom it's a privilege to be able to make that choice.
Tell us about why outdoors is so important for little kids.
The outdoors are important really across every domain of development for little kids. But they're also equally important for us. There's a self-care component to spending time outdoors with your kids, as we say at Tinkergarten, it’s feeding two birds with one scone. You're able to be getting some of the same benefits. So there's a lot of mental health and calming and lowering of anxiety.
Our children are really feeling a lot of the anxiety that we're feeling and that the broader world is bringing upon us in this situation. Time spent outside lowers that anxiety—the fresh air, the physical activity and the physical challenges that come with being outside that for a young learner are just built-in. The terrain is uneven, the objects are readily available. They have really wonderful sensory qualities.
So your smells, even your tastes, your feels, your sights are so both exciting and ever-changing, but also inherently calming. There's research that even just seeing a picture of a natural setting will help both attention and anxiety, attention to be focused and anxiety to be reduced and that even carries over into learning settings.
There's so many reasons to take kids outside and right now—it's healthier, it's safer and I think that's a really big reason to be outside as much as you can.
Unfortunately, it really is a very uncertain time.
That's the one thing we do know. Cling to the great outdoors with all you've got. And we need other humans. We have to really work hard, and reserve judgment for people because you also need the space to do your very best, whatever that is. That is something that is hard to do in this time because people feel very strongly, but everybody is parenting everybody's situation.
Remember that outdoors is such a gift to you and your kids that togetherness, whatever that can look like for you, is also needed. We're teaching kids how to respond to the world around them for the long haul. And it's OK that it's not so ideal. It actually might benefit them in the long run that they've persisted with your love and support and guidance.
That's in and of itself a gift that we weren't necessarily asking for, this truckload of lemons on our doorstep, but there's some lemonade to make in all of this.