Can outdoor education work in a New York City park?

Tinkergarten teacher Meghan Fitzgerald brings outdoor education to New York City by showing kids around Brooklyn's Prospect Park.

Maeve and Meghan Fitzgerald love Prospect Park

Former science and math teacher Meghan Fitzgerald shows Brooklyn kids how to get dirty. The Tinkergarten classes she introduced to Park Slope this spring take kids out of the overcrowded playgrounds and into the woods and fields of Prospect Park.

“A lot of these kids have never gotten off the path. And these are the kids whose parents are enthusiastic about getting them outdoors…” she says.  Tinkergarten is an antidote to the way modern childhood has moved indoors and become pre-programmed, sanitized and electronic. We are either bored or intimidated by the possibilities of the wild. When we visit Yellowstone National park, only 10% of us (or sometimes it is described as a dismal 1%) venture more than a mile off the road.

The problem isn’t unique to America, or even to cities. In developed countries worldwide parents worry over outdoor deficit disorder, a pseudo medical term, but one that may be linked to the real epidemics of childhood allergies, obesity, ADHD, not to mention just lack of creativity, adventure and fun. The formal outdoor education movement started in Sweden in the 1950s. Germans, who invented kindergarten, the concept of introducing tots to education through song and play, love it. England has the Forest School movement, which has spread to just about every county and has a few outlets in London. That’s where Fitzgerald trained to start her class. Right now she’s got two summer class, one for kids 3-5, who bring their caretaker, and one for slightly older kids, who come alone.

“Our goal is really to continue to develop and publish (in a variety of formats, for now on high quality activities that parents anywhere can do with their kids,” she says. They’ll eventually teach kids 2-10, with their parents, and use them to figure out what works best in the real world.

In the U.S., outdoor education is still just catching on. Portland started a weeklong program for all school kids in 1966 and now it’s the country’s biggest (though it’s been hit with budget cuts). The real action is in kindergartens and Pre-Ks. Kids tromp through rain in full-body rainsuits. “They interact with farm animals daily and get MUDDY (like you’ve never seen before)!!” warns Portland’s Mother Earth School. in The Cedarsong preschool outside Seattle started in 2006 and often has a waitlist to send your kid into the forest and learn the local plants and birds.The already woodsy Waldorf School in Saratoga Springs started a forest kindergarten in 2009.

turtle by fence

Red-eared Slider, Trachemys scripta elegans, laying eggs

But what kind of nature can kids get their hands on in New York City?

Frederick Law Olmsted designed Prospect Park to bedazzle visitors and make you think it’s bigger and more natural than it really is. The creeks and berms are fake, but the plants and animals–not always native or planned– that have overtaken it have a life of their own. After the morning rush hour of Brooklynites walking dogs and running laps, the park is gloriously empty. Meghan says she was struck by how the vast meadows are empty while the playgrounds are overcrowded.

When we walk through the woods, Meghan casually gets her toddler daughter Maeve to pick up different kinds of leaves and seed pods and cheerfully sings about whatever is going on. We look at a turtle who has climbed out of the water to lay eggs. My own daughter Ginger is just learning to crawl, so we mainly stay in the stroller. If she were older, I’m sure Meghan would interest her in things on the ground. As her daughter got more mobile, Meghan said, they covered far less ground in the park. But they get to know certain spots intensely. She likes to hang out with her classes on an unloved section of the Long Meadow next to woods the kids can get into.

A big part of what she’s showing kids is getting your hands on things. Nature provides it’s own scary challenges: poison ivy, ticks, raccoon feces, thorns, the list goes on. She shows kids and parents how to ID and avoid poison ivy and check for ticks after a trip to the woods. Those are just part of being outdoors, she tells them, but it’s still worth it.

But a city park has layers of human misbehavior and detritus far more nasty than nature. “That’s why I have a rule about what we touch and what we don’t touch,” she says. If it’s not natural, the kids leave it alone. They’re not here to clean up the park. They do go to great lengths not to leave a mess, not even a grape. But they don’t touch it if it’s from other people.

In just her first season she’s already had a boy find about the worst thing you can imagine: a bunch of used condoms. (Well, the worst unless you let your imagination run wild to weaponry or hypodermic needles). The kids found a clearing that was apparently a popular spot for couples. The kid is always exploring and pushing limits “just like a seven-year-old boy should,” she says. Her experience as a principal kicked in and she just talked about what a messy area people had made it. The boy joined in, noting there was just too much garbage there. And they moved on. “That’s not my conversation to have with him,” she says. “At the same time, if he was interested, I would have wanted to respect his question.” Luckily, there was enough nature in the park to engage him elsewhere.

Check out Tinkergarten classes in Brooklyn



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2 comments to Can outdoor education work in a New York City park?

  • […] I first wrote about Tinkergarten and its push for getting Brooklyn kids to explore and learn outdoors, I […]

  • Jean Ossorio

    Hurrah for Ms. Fitzgerald and the rest of the folks involved in getting kids out into nature. When I was an elementary school student in St. Louis County, MO, back in the 1950’s, our school district had a program in which all sixth graders spent a week at a residential camp, with activities ranging from typical camp crafts and archery to conservation (with an outreach educator from the Missouri Conservation Department) to astronomy. It’s too bad that budgetary considerations and No Child Left Behind-driven preoccupation with testing has made such programs less available in many places.