The Impact of Nature Play on Early Development

In this episode, we connect with Meghan Fitzgerald, Co-Founder and Chief Learning Officer of Tinkergarten. Meghan discusses the impact of nature play on early development and the role that parents can play in support of their child’s playful learning. 

Meghan explains that over the last year since the start of the pandemic that families have begun to understand the importance of the outside world and its impact on children’s development. On the flip side, Meghan notes that there has a huge increase in screen time due to online learning and working parents.

With the increasing need to be outside comes the inevitability of getting dirty while outside. Meghan provides our listeners with some tips on the benefits of “messy play” and how educators and parents can embrace this type of play.

Benefits of Nature and Messy Play

It’s Highly Engaging. Different children have different sensory needs. This type of play allows children to use multiple senses at the same time and control how much or how little they want to get “messy” without overstimulating themselves. When you use all of your senses at the same time, the brain needs to learn how to organize all of this information.

It can be Easy and Accessible. Just by heading outside, you’re engaging multiple senses at the same time. Going for a walk outside is fairly easy and accessible for most families and can help stimulate multiples senses at the same time, meaning children are developing their brains.

You’re Using Multiple Areas of Development. Meghan explains that when you’re playing with mud for example, you’re not just using sight, sound, touch, hearing and maybe taste as the senses to explore and play but you’re also using your fine motor and gross motor skills to squeeze and build with the mud and activating your proprioception, your body’s ability to sense movement, action, and location.

Increase in Managing Behavior. When you activate your proprioception, you’re increasing your ability to regulate your behavior and focus. Although this is a hidden benefit to being outside, it’s crucial to a child’s development.

Creativity Benefits. If children are able to explore in “messy play” early on, then children will be able to think more freely or a bit more “messily” later on.

Better Immune System. As children usually do, they put everything in their mouths. Meghan explains that by having children engage in messy play and “tasting” dirt, sand, mud, etc that they’re building their immune system. This is especially important right now as we are living in a super sanitary environment with all of the increased handwashing, cleaning, and sanitizing we’re currently doing.

Any chance for children to use multiple senses at the same time is really wonderful for brain development.

Meghan Fitzgerald, The Preschool Podcast

Meghan suggests that even the smallest of spaces in an urban setting can be a great place to explore the outdoors. By providing materials such as a bucket of mud, a pile of rocks etc, children can explore these different materials outside, whatever the weather and whatever the setting. She continues, if you can see nature in that simplified definition and get creative with how you bring natural materials in those spaces, then that is a huge part of outdoor play for young children.

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Episode 267 Transcript-


So those very beginning – whatever the mess making is – experiences can really pave the way to being a much more flexible, free thinker later on. And that’s something that we know kids need – are going to need – more than ever as the world is always changing.


Meghan, welcome to the Preschool Podcast!


Thanks, Ron. I’m so glad to be back and to be here with you today!


Yeah, great to have you back. The last time we had you here, Meghan, we were in the thick of COVID-19 in May 2020. It’s nice to have you back here in the summer of 2021. For those of you who didn’t join us or check out our last podcast with Meghan: Meghan Fitzgerald is the co-founder and chief learning officer at Tinkergarten, a really cool company doing really cool things.

And [we are] excited to talk to you, Meghan, today about what you’re seeing, what’s been happening over the last year since we last chatted. Before we do that, let’s start off learning a little bit more about you, for those who didn’t have the chance to check out our last podcast. If you could just spend a couple of minutes telling our audience a little bit more about yourself and Tinkergarten, why you started to Tinkergarten.


Absolutely. So, I am an educator by trade. I have been a classroom teacher and a curriculum developer and an elementary school principal in California and New York and Massachusetts. So, my work in schools just had me fall in love with children and how they learn. But my heart was already always in play and in the playful way that young development happens.

And I observed a lot when I was working in schools about how the time for play and the access to play was diminishing for kids, even though the science said that was just how we developed naturally. And I also observed a lot about how the different settings I was in had greater or lesser access to green space and outdoor spaces and how the time children were spending outside and at play was so transformative and equalizing. So, all learners seem to be more successful, both during and immediately following their time playing outside. So, I got really curious about that.

And my husband and I started Tinkergarten together to answer some of the trends that we saw that were working directly against that. So, watching h how kids are spending about half the time playing outside compared to their parents today and how their lives are so structured both in school. So much pressure once you get into formal schooling.

And then even in our homes and in our lives, we are so busy and structured. That might be one of the good things that came out of pandemic, is we all sort of went back indoors and kind of pared things down and felt how liberating that was in a way.

So, we formed Tinkergarten about eight years ago. And what Tinkergarten does is it helps grownups – parents and caregivers – turn their kids early years into wonderful learning years by taking them outside to play. And we have curriculum and resources and a program that families can enroll in every season of the year and continue to progress through to help kids build really important skills that help them thrive by learning outdoors. And that program consists of classes taught by amazing teachers, Tinkergarten leaders around the country, and then a toolset and curriculum for families to use at home.


Very cool. And let’s talk about what you’re seeing. So, a lot has happened and a lot has changed since we spoke a little over a year ago. What are some of the trends you’re seeing as it relates to children spending more time outside, early-childhood education generally and what’s happening out there?


Yeah, so we are heartened by several trends. One, that the experience of pandemic has helped more families understand the outdoors to be safe and to be a marvelous place to connect with others and to grow and play. So, because so many of us couldn’t safely get together indoors, we got outdoors a whole lot more, which is great. And the desire for and thirst for outdoor education from parents of young kids is clearly higher, which is great.

And now it comes down to being able to meet that need with high-quality outdoor learning opportunities for kids. In Tinkergarten, we’re thrilled to be part of that and other organizations that are really stretching to fill that need. And that’s a great thing. We hope that is something that we keep from this pandemic experience.

On the flip side, we’ve seen about a 50% increase in kids screen time. And that’s for, in many cases, understandable reasons because so much of instruction was delivered through screens for so many kids. And also so many parents had to work and parent at the same time, which was such a challenge during COVID.

So, being able to think about ways to balance that impact with more physical, outdoor, healthy time is something that we’re eager to support families with. So, that would be kind of one of the trends that are bringing parents to say, “Wait a minute, this is a little out of balance now. We really want to make sure that we’re building a fall schedule.” Or we hear a lot of that around back to school, that “Make sure we build in enough in active outdoor learning time to bounce off a lot of the screen time.” That’s kind of crept in.


Yeah, absolutely. I’ve been seeing and experiencing that, even personally at home. So, one of the things I assume is par for the course for an outdoor preschool or education program is kids get dirty. Maybe we can spend a couple of minutes on that and what parents reaction is to that? And do you see any benefits to children getting dirty, going outside and getting dirty and getting messy and embracing that?


I see tremendous benefit in messy play. So, if we start with the benefits, there are so many things that kids gain from the chance to get messy, specifically by getting outside and getting dirty. So, messy play of any kind. And anyone who works with early childhood knows that sensory messy play is so engaging to children. Different children have different sensory systems.

So, we think of it as a sort of internal sensory bucket. So, different kids need more or less sensory input to feel satisfied and more or less to become overwhelmed. So, we know that every child is unique, but that when children can play in such a way that they use multiple senses at the same time, that’s highly engaging. But it also helps develop their brain.

So, your brain has to learn how to bring in information from the outside to make sense of it. And when you use multiple senses at once, you have to also learn how to integrate information from different senses and organize and give a hierarchy to that information.

So, any chance for kids to use multiple senses is really wonderful for early brain development. And when you go outside, so many senses are activated. All the five that we know, sometimes even taste the dirt – we’ll talk about that, too.

But in addition to that, other hidden senses that really help kids be ready to learn. So, when you’re working with mud, you’re often bending over and you’re on the ground and you’re using your joints and your muscles to dig and to pour water and to squeeze and touch.

And in addition to using the senses that we think about, that squeezing and moving and pushing and using your muscles and your joints activates your proprioception, which is the sense that helps where your body is in space. And if you don’t activate that enough, then it’s really hard to focus, hard to even manage behavior.

So, that’s one of those kind of hidden benefits of being outside. The same with your inner ear vestibular sense. So, you’re on the ground, you’re up and you’re moving, versus being either on the screen or in a seated position. Kids will activate their vestibular system, which is another sense that really is associated with being able to attend in general and feel kind of balanced among all your senses.

So, there are sensory learning benefits, just sensory balancing benefits to playing with mud. And then there’s a creativity benefit that if you’re able to play in very open ended, messy ways early on, have that experience of messiness, then you’re able to think a little bit more freely and messier later on.

So, those very beginning – whatever the mess making is – those experiences can really pave the way to being a much more flexible, free thinker later on. And that’s something that we know kids need – are going to need – more than ever as the world is always changing.


Very cool, that makes a lot of sense. I know my youngest was using his sense of taste the other day at the park when he was eating sand, which was which was fun.


And that can be a little overwhelming. But there’s also marvelous research that talks about the health benefits of interacting with dirt and that some of the sanitary nature of our environments for kids are keeping them from being able to build immunity that they have so long received from interacting with dirt or tasting sand. So, although not all, it’s sometimes not optimal. There is a real benefit to being in the dirt also from a health perspective.


Yeah, absolutely, I could see that. And one of the things I was seeing on your website, which I thought was pretty cool, was kind of like a view of the learning in the curriculum through the different seasons. Can you tell us a little bit about that and how you’re thinking about that at Tinkergarten?


Sure. So, this fall will be our 29th season of Tinkergarten. And we run programs all four seasons. So, we develop a unique curriculum each season. And we have eight core skills. So, each season is a set of lessons that both match the season in nature and support a particular skill. But we are outside all four seasons and we have programs in all 50 states.

So, one of the design challenges we took on really early on was that we need to be able to design learning experiences that can be successful in a huge range of climates and with access to a huge range of green space.

So, we also have a definition of nature that is “earth, sky and other species” that allows us to be in a state park. But it also allows us to be in an alleyway with dirt in a bucket and in water that we’ve kind of filled a bottle with. And so that’s a real equity and important part of the program, that you really can play and you can find nature all four seasons and in nearly any setting.

So, when you look at a Tinkergarten do-it-yourself activity, they will be associated with the season because they’re… like, right now is an ideal time to make sun s’mores. That would not work well here in Massachusetts in the winter. But each one of the activities can be adapted for different settings.

And I think for preschool teachers especially, and from being an administrator, we don’t always have the green space of our dreams available. And it’s very hard if you set the bar too high to think of how to get all the children all the way to the green space because you can’t bring the green spaces where they’re not.

But you can really start to use even a tiny outdoor space – a sidewalk, a stoop , a courtyard, a rooftop, if it’s safe – you can use these spaces to be nature play spaces. And you can start to see nature in that simplified definition and get creative with how you bring natural materials into those spaces.


Very neat. And I’m looking at some of the pictures now on the website, as well. And you can see the smiles on the kids’ faces, doing a lot of these activities, which is pretty neat. And I think you have an at-home thing that you provide, as well. So, if you’re not necessarily doing a full-on childcare program, is this something that home care providers would use or families? Or can you tell us a little bit more about it?


Sure. So, our Tinkergarten programs currently are direct-to-family for the most part. But they come in two formats. And one format is in-person. So, we have a Tinkergarten certified teacher – we call them leaders – who will be offering the in-person instruction once a week in a local park or another local green space in a community.

And that family or group who take that class would enroll in that class once a week and then get all of the curriculum and read-aloud’s and resources through our platform on www.Tinkergarten.com. You can do the same program, same curriculum when you are at home, which that same weekly instruction would take place on Zoom [online video conferencing].

And you can tune in from any internet-connected device. And that is again, same curriculum, same program, same resources, read-aloud at-home activities. But delivered that live instruction part with a certified Tinkergarten team leader happens on Zoom.

And so we do have peer providers who sign up for our at-home program and utilize that weekly lesson to get kids and themselves sort of prepared for outdoor play and then use the at-home activities with the children to keep them playing outside all week. So, that’s the design of the program: you have a live touch point where you sing and you move and you learn about animals.

But you also get started in playing, whatever the lesson of the week is. And then you have activities to build on that throughout the week so kids can play independently and continue to build on what happens in the class in whatever setting they’re in, whether that’s a home care environment or home environment or a backyard or whatever you’ve got.


Cool, I love it. And how do you maintain the quality of your curriculum and the content that you’re providing for the activities?


Yeah, so we are very blessed to have a couple of quality checks that are really fundamental. First is our leader team. So, we have an application process that people go through in order to become a Tinkergarten leader.

And so we have a really good chance just to make sure that there’s alignment around the philosophy. And for Tinkergarten, that’s very much child-bed, play-based, emergent curriculum and making sure that someone feels really comfortable with an outdoor environment and loves nature and loves to weave nature through.

So we have a very self-selected group of people, but we also have a very diverse team of people. So, people who represent every identity and community that we want to serve and that’s really important. So, I think our process for matching with leaders has really helped us to make sure that just the most incredible, passionate, talented humans are involved in directly delivering instruction to families.

We also have a training program. So, if you become a leader, you go through a training program with us to really make sure that we are all really uniquely bringing curriculum to life in our local communities or in our spaces online. But we’re all doing it with the same language and the same approach and with fidelity. So, that’s a really powerful piece. And then there’s new trainings each season on the new curriculum.

And then the third is that we design all the curriculum in-house. And it’s all research and measured by Tinkergarten. So, we make sure that the learning that we’re doing in those live sessions – or at least the lesson plans that leaders can work from and then all of the at-home pieces – are consistent, high quality.


Awesome. And you mentioned their training. Let’s touch on that. Can you tell our audience about some resource or resources that you’ve enjoyed recently or you think they would benefit from, perhaps another podcast, a blog or blog article, book or speaker, anything like that?


Sure, yes. I always am looking for… I personally really like to read about the impact that outdoors has on children and with increasing excitement around how young the children involved in some of the research is. So, one of the lists I would absolutely encourage people to get on are the Nature Explore list, and I love that organization.

And they will certify spaces as nature play, nature explore, nature play spaces. So, if you have a space that you really feel like you want to invest in or lean into, they have that aspect. But they also have just resources for everybody. And they also want to make sure that people use whatever green space they have in really inventive ways to support play. So, that’s just a great organization for that.

I also really benefit from the Children and Nature Network. They are very into research, there’s a great research library. But they also have a wonderful newsletter that they send out with real stories from teachers and community members, people who are trying to make sure that we have equitable access to the outdoors for children and really inspiring examples of ways that people are working with what they have to bring more nature and play into kids’ worlds.

And then at Tinkergarten, we have a number of resources that are free and available for anyone. So, if you come to our Tinkergarten site, you can find our blog down at the footer or at www.Tinkergarten.com/blog. And that’s a blog where we cover early development, nature, play parenting and all the intersection of these things for helping us all figure out how to support children’s learning through play outdoors.

We also have a calendar every month at www.Tinkergarten.com/calendar with day-by-day ways, easy ways to use household materials or whatever you have on-hand to connect to natural happenings and then to build a little extra nature play outside.

So, this week coming up will be World Orangutan Day. And there’s a way to have an orangutan picnic and really pretend but learn about these creatures that are endangered and learn why they’re so special.

So, there’s opportunities like this every day of the month that are free and available for people to bring into their work or into their home. And we really pride ourselves on just hoping that everybody gets more out of their play. That’s why we exist.


Love it and love the work that you’re doing, Meghan. Thanks so much for bringing this to life and bringing it out there. Before we wrap up, where can our listeners go to get more information about Tinkergarten or learn more access your resources?


Sure. The best place to start is www.Tinkergarten.com and you can click around there. At the top of the site and down at the bottom are links that can help you learn more about the programs that we offer. And then also there’s some of the resources that I’ve talked about for grown-ups, resources for teachers and parents. And yeah, they should be able to find your way to all sorts of goodies there. And again, all great, free places to start at getting more time outside for families.


Awesome. Always a pleasure, Meghan. Thanks so much for joining us on the Preschool Podcast today!


Thanks so much for having me and for having this great vehicle for preschool teachers who are often so kind of isolated in their work to connect and learn and share. Really happy to be part of it!


Indeed. Thanks, Meghan!

Kiah Price

Kiah Price is a Social Media Specialist at HiMama. Prior to HiMama she was an Early Childhood Educator in a preschool classroom in Toronto. She is the Jill of all trades at HiMama from dipping her toes in Sales, Customer Success, Operations, and Marketing! She enjoys sweating through spin classes, hot yoga, and biking along the waterfront trails in Toronto. She loves traveling and trying new foods and wines across the globe- 29 countries and counting!