Kids these days don’t spend nearly as much time playing outdoors as we adults did during our childhoods. You may remember those free-range summers when your mom turned you loose after lunch and you didn’t come back home until the dinner bell. Now, the average American child spends five to eight hours a day in front of a digital screen.
Since the 1990s we’ve seen the rise of “helicopter parents,” who carefully structure their children’s playdates, social activities and sporting events. Many are afraid to let their kids play outside unsupervised because of perceived safety threats.
Researchers say trading unstructured play for highly regimented activities is not good for our kids — and during this same period, they have documented a rise in mental health issues among children, like anxiety and depression.
Play is crucial to a child’s health and development, according to pediatric specialists like Rishi Mistry, medical director of Yakima Pediatrics. “The preschool and kindergarten years are largely characterized by exploration and experiential learning, which are important for nurturing children’s executive functioning skills,” he says.
Executive functioning is the capacity to observe, learn and apply knowledge to make logical decisions and problem-solve.
“These skills ripen through children’s natural inclination to explore and interact with other people and their environment,” he says. “Providing a safe, supervised environment for semi-structured or unstructured play fosters executive functioning skills, making children better prepared for success in the years ahead of them.”
Eighty percent of brain development occurs before the age of 5 and playing outdoors provides children with a range of benefits including improved language, math and problem-solving skills, better relationship skills, stress reduction and improved physical fitness.
This is what inspired the founders of an early childhood education program called Tinkergarten, which debuted in Yakima and Moxee this spring. Tinkergarten is a play-based, outdoor learning experience designed for children ages 18 months to 8 years old. I checked out a trial class at Franklin Park taught by Kayla Lehrman. She is a certified Washington state teacher who taught pre-school and kindergarten, and also has endorsements in early childhood and K-8 education. After having her first child, she decided to go in a different direction.
“Outdoor playtime is declining, and there’s more screen time than ever and we’re hoping to get kids outside and playing like the good old days,” she says. “There is a routine, but we if we decide that day we’re going to go jump in mud puddles, we’re going to go jump in mud puddles.”
I find her near a big blue tarp spread out under the shade of a pine tree. As parents wander up with their kids in tow, Kayla gives everyone a name tag and offers the kids a shiny silver bucket they can use to collect treasures on the ground. The kids immediately start picking up pine cones — there are scores of them all over the park. Some fill their buckets up quickly, then enthusiastically dump them out and start all over again. Others pick up the magnifying glasses laid out on the tarp and peer intently at their treasures.
Then everyone forms a circle, we introduce ourselves, and Kayla reads a few pages from the book “Stone Soup.” She quickly launches the class into its own live version of the story. “Let’s make some soup!” she says, pulling a big cooking pot out of her wagon. “What can we do to heat up the soup?” The kids figure out they need to make a pretend fire, and race around finding sticks to put in the fire pile, then they place the pot on top of it.
“What can we find to put in the soup? Are there any potatoes around here?” Kayla asks. The kids shake their heads, puzzled. “What about pretend potatoes? What could you use for those?” she asks. A couple of the kids yell “Pine cones!” and charge off to fill their buckets. They come back with all sorts of things — acorns, grass, and of course, pine cones, and dump them gleefully into the pot.
Kayla’s got some water nearby, and the kids each go over to get some in their buckets and pour it into the pot. Then there’s the spices. Kayla brought some salt shakers and the kids are going hog-wild with those, shaking them like it’s a dance contest. They’re really into this! Everybody’s running around and having a ball, throwing pine cones into the soup pot and stirring it with sticks.
Finally, the “soup” is deemed ready, and it’s time to pretend-taste it. Kayla ladles the mixture into the kids’ buckets and they smack their lips and say “Nom nom!” as they pretend to taste it. Victory! Then they dump it out and it’s time for a real snack, which the parents or guardians bring. The kids wash their hands in a little yellow bucket and everybody settles back down on the blue tarp to eat. Class concludes with the kids talking about what they liked best about today’s activity.
The whole exercise takes about an hour, and the children must be accompanied by a parent or guardian. It’s very reasonable, at around $75 per student for six sessions.
Michele Churchley of Yakima brought her 20-month-old son after seeing the class listed on Facebook.
“I really liked the concept of it — It’s an opportunity for parents to get their kids outside, because sometimes it’s hard to think about what you do with a kid this age outside.” she says. “It’s also nice to be part of the community and meet people, because we actually haven’t lived here for a long time — we were away.”
Mom Amanda Crider has an environmental degree and loves the environment-friendly aspect of Tinkergarten. She says she thinks all children should get outside more. “One hundred percent. It’d probably lower those ADHD results if people were outside playing … I think the outdoors is great,” she says.
As Kayla smiles and waves goodbye to the families, she says, “Pretend play and imagination is just a beautiful thing. Allowing kids to use their imagination to explore the world and create. The whole idea of transporting yourself into being a chef and making a soup, and transforming pine cones into potatoes, or grass into spices is a full use of a child’s imagination.”