Winter is just around the corner, but that doesn’t mean your youngster should stop going outside.

A new program with an upcoming launch in Garden City will offer parents and their young children a chance to play and learn in an outdoor environment, while developing skills through hands-on activities within a range of different themes that foster problem-solving and independence.

Tinkergarten is a nationwide program helmed by parents and co-founders Meghan and Brian Fitzgerald that started in 2012 and is steadily making its way into Kansas with a presence in Salina and Kansas City. The program combines elements of early childhood education and outdoor learning by facilitating a space, usually in a local park, where children ages 1 through 8 can engage in play-based activities led by trained and certified community leaders who are often parents themselves.

Garden City native Jessi Demel will be bringing the program into town with her 1-year-old son, Jack. Demel said she got involved with Tinkergarten after seeing an advertisement online and taking an interest in the ethos of the project.

“It helps kids to play more freely,” Demel said. “There’s not as much structure, so we’ll launch an idea or launch an activity and the children will kind of run with it. It may be making stone soup. It may be making mud pies. It’s just outdoor play and allowing kids to be kids, much like we may have had the opportunity to do when we were younger. But it seems kids may not have that same opportunity anymore.”

Demel said she has witnessed the erosion of outdoor play among children as the perception grows that residential areas aren’t as safe as they once were, and according to the National Association for the Education of Young Children, research has linked play with foundational capacities such as memory, self-regulation, oral language abilities, social skills and success in school.

She emphasized that the group is intended for both parents and kids, “so it kind of gives (parents) support and encouragement that they are in fact doing the right thing when they’re interacting with their children and letting them play and letting them get messy and dirty and throw mud and paint with mud — just encouraging parents that they’re doing a good job.”

The program will launch with four weekly trial sessions in December that each last from 3 p.m. to 4:15 p.m. The sessions will be held Dec. 16, Dec. 30, Jan. 6 and Jan. 13 at Harold Long Park. After the trial period expires, participants will be contacted by Tinkergarten to enroll in subsequent classes for $15 per session. Demel said courses will include weekly classes held for eight weeks. She added that a few parents have already signed up, and a participation baseline will be set at four enrollees to get going.

“I’m really excited about it,” Demel said. “We have a few people signed up already. I’m hoping for a lot more so that we can continue. We won’t be able to hold classes if there aren’t enough people signed up.”

With enough enrollees, Demel said she will be able to expand the class into each season. She explained that each course will be seasonally based with activities to match the time of year.

“There is some concern with the winter season being cold, but at times we can have mild winters, and I know I played outside until my nose was red when I was cold, and so that’s kind of a similar idea,” Demel said. “Kids still need to be outside and still need to burn energy in the wintertime, so as long as they have proper winter gear on, I’m hoping that parents will be comfortable bringing them out to play and exploring nature and exploring the outdoors in a safe way.”

Demel said activities will bring children together to undertake themes such as “transporting,” “rotation/circulation,” “trajectory,” “positioning,” “enveloping/enclosing,” “connecting” and “transforming.” Those themes, or “schemas,” as she referred to them, will be captured through activities including, but not limited, to rolling down hills, exploring the mechanics of the playground, arts and crafts, exploring hidden nooks, building things and making mud potions.

“The general idea is it helps children to develop where they are,” Demel said. “We meet children where they are and we encourage them no matter what developmental state they’re in. Whether they’re perceived as being ‘behind,’ none of that matters. We don’t compare them to other children. We just meet them where they are and help parents do the same.”

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