The Tinkergarten program teaches children life skills through interacting with nature. Photo courtesy Kristina Gibb Photography
Erikka Dawson has always loved being outside. She grew up playing in the backyard of her Brandon home with family and exploring the neighborhood with friends. As a child she enjoyed the beauty, peace and freedom of the natural world. As a parent, she wanted her children to have a similar appreciation of nature. Her work allows her to not only provide that opportunity for her children, but for other local youth as well.
The 29-year-old mother and homeschool instructor teaches as part of the metro area's Tinkergarten program. Designed for children ages 6 months through 8 years old, the classes provide children with the opportunity to develop life skills such as empathy, collaboration, creativity, cooperation, persistence and problem-solving through outdoor play experiences. The curriculum focuses on natural learning in fresh air and green spaces. Classes are guided by a leader who introduces an activity and then allows parents and children to explore the skill independently, allowing children to learn and grow at their own pace. Dawson says that the program helps promote a balanced learning experience for children who are often inundated with technology.
"Eighty percent of the brain development for kids (occurs) before age 5," Dawson says. "Tinkergarten aims to develop the brain in all the right ways so that instead of what they may obtain through screens, they obtain through nature and natural learning. The opportunities for play in nature are endless."
Dawson is married to John Lindsey, and the couple are parents to 5-year-old Matty, 2-year-old Sage and 1-year-old Westley. She first became acquainted with the Tinkergarten program when the family moved to Austin for a brief period in 2018. While there, she sought outdoor activities for her oldest child. After attending some classes, she was impressed with how well he responded.
"(Matty) was always stimulated indoors, so I'd always take him outside and that is where he thrived the best," Dawson says. "In Texas, we found the program, and he loved it. He is very shy, but he actually participated in the group projects."
Upon her return to Mississippi in 2019, she applied to become a leader and brought the program to the metro area. Dawson, who also works as a children's yoga instructor at The Village, hosted her first season of classes this past winter at Strawberry Park in Madison.
"We started with four families," Dawson says. "We had 10 families enrolled for the spring."
The restrictions on gatherings and the closure of parks due to the COVID-19 virus caused some modifications to the program including the cancellation of in-person classes this spring season. However, families are still able to take part in the Tinkergarten program. In-person classes have been substituted with weekly DIY activities and live online sessions.
"The Tinkergarten activities that they can do at home and on the Facebook page are something fun and are a way that kids can still learn and develop the way needed (and) they think they are just playing, having a good time and bonding with their parents," Dawson says.
Dawson believes that outdoor learning is more important now than ever.
"Especially now with the COVID-19 (virus) and the online learning, just stepping outside for 15 minutes or so has so many health benefits for kids. It reduces stress, anxiety and aggression. It (also) helps the parents have a break to refresh. It's a good way to spend time together now with everything that is going on," she says.
Dawson still hopes to be able to host the in-person summer session of the program, scheduled to begin on July 10.
For more information about the
program and registration information, visit tinkergarten.com.