OpenIDEO is an open innovation platform. Join our global community to solve big challenges for social good. Sign Up / Login or Learn more

Nature + Play: Ready to thrive, ready to learn, ready for anything

Tinkergarten provides high quality, all-outdoor, early childhood learning to communities everywhere.

Photo of Brian and Meghan Fitzgerald
2 1

Written by

Updates: How has your idea changed or evolved throughout the Prize? What updates have you made to this submission? (1500 characters)

While we have remained steadfast on our focus in ensuring Tinkergarten is accessible to all through the Prize process, mentor feedback and the user experience toolkit enhanced our idea. Through our mentor feedback, we sought to bring to life the Tinkergarten experience through example activities and the sharing of family stories and impact. User-centered research is embedded into the Tinkergarten experience on a continuous, ongoing basis - from the training of our leaders to the feedback of our parents. Moving forward, we’re seeking to gather feedback from families served in our Head Start pilot and in our expansion beyond surveys, through in-person focus groups and other to be determined means, to further inform our work for Phase 2.

Name or Organization



Tinkergarten is headquartered in Massachusetts. Our team and leaders work in almost all 50 states.

What is your stage of development?

  • Advanced Innovator with 3 to 10+ years of experience in ECD


  • For-profit

What is the stage of your proposal?

  • Piloting: I have started to implement my solution as a whole with a first set of real users.

Describe how your solution could be a game-changer for your selected Opportunity Area (600 characters)

At the heart of Tinkergarten’s movement to elevate learning outdoors for all children are three core competencies. First, our ability to transform public, outdoor spaces into classrooms enables us to bring high quality, nature-based play to kids everywhere. Our novel way to source talented early childhood teachers allows us to overcome the systemic lack of quality staffing. And, our ability to engage two generations makes lasting impact in the life of a child. Given the interaction of these three core competencies, we see Tinkergarten as a strong fit for The Leveraging People and Places Area.

Select an Innovation Target

  • Channel: A new way to deliver existing products or services to customers or end users.

Tell us more about your innovation (1500 characters)

Tinkergarten is an innovator in early childhood learning. We are making high quality early childhood education accessible in communities everywhere by using our technology platform to find, train and support a network of leaders. Leaders are given training, support, curriculum, and materials designed to teach children and their caregivers. Based on the principles of universal design for learning in early childhood, our approach has proven successful with students from varied cultures, home languages, socio-economic backgrounds and developmental needs. We believe all children can and should have the opportunity to benefit from learning through play in a natural environment. Tinkergarten is rapidly expanding nationally, with classes now offered in over 900 locations across almost all U.S. states. We have identified nature as an ideal learning environment and well-designed play-based activities as powerful ways for young children to develop a host of important capabilities, including self control and focus, creativity, persistence and grit, language, and creativity. Our expert-designed curriculum helps children ages 1–8 years old develop, grow and better prepare for learning in later years, while they enjoy fun, engaging experiences in a nature classroom. That nature classroom can be created in nearly any local green space-urban, rural, or suburban. Caregivers engage too, as they learn from the leader or via videos how best to support their child at play.

What problem are you aiming to solve? (3 sentences)

Social, technological, and academic trends have reduced children’s time and access to play, the single most important behavior to nurture their development and ready them for academic success. Kids get outdoors 50% as often as compared to kids growing up a generation ago, contributing to significant health risks. Plus, the early childhood workforce system is broken due to low pay and high churn, exacerbating the already alarming problem for children at this critical developmental stage.

Explain your idea (5000 characters)

Tinkergarten’s direct to consumer, paid-for classes model and for-profit structure have provided us the leverage to: invest in technology, operations, curriculum and training; grow quickly; and set us on a path for sustainability. In line with our mission to provide access to high quality early learning for all children, everywhere, we have been begun a parallel path—building a strategic foundation for delivering our program, cost free, to low-income families. In the past six months, we have piloted the program with a Head Start grantee to test and revise a model that will allow us to partner with Head Start grantees nationwide. In this pilot program, we find, train and support Head Start parents to become Tinkergarten leaders, providing them with training, transferable skills and income. Families from within the grantee community join classes at no cost. Head Start staff help Tinkergarten identify parent leaders and gain the trust of families. Through a 3rd party evaluation, we’re measuring the program’s efficacy in 3 ways: leader efficacy, parent learning, and child engagement and development. As we complete our second season in the pilot test, our early data shows evidence of behavior changes that signal we are on track towards outcomes for the children, parents and leaders who have participated. In pursuit of wider scale access, we plan to continue moving through our multi-stage plan: Phase 1 - Pilot our access program via our Head Start partnership and measure outcomes over 3 seasons (in progress). Phase 2 - Incorporate learning from Phase 1. Identify, partner and roll out in 1 major U.S. city to test the efficacy and sustainability of Tinkergarten delivered at scale to low-income families within a large urban environment, focused specifically on ages 6 to 36 months. Phase 3 - With these demonstrated proof points, launch the access program to Head Start centers and other large-scale child enrichment centers nationwide. By securing the OpenIDEO funding award, we will execute on and evaluate Phase 2 of our plan. After completing Phase 2, we’ll have the data and experience to execute on Phase 3, bringing Tinkergarten to Head Start and other child-centered community-based centers nationwide.

Who benefits? (1500 characters)

Our program stands to benefit the following groups in the following ways: - Children ages 6 months to 8 will receive health benefits from spending more time outdoors. They will also have the chance to build social/emotional, cognitive and physical skills that support them in being ready to learn and ready to think creatively, flexibly and collaboratively in the future. - Parents of those children will also receive health benefits as they learn to incorporate time outdoors and time for play into their family life. In addition, they will learn about child development and how to support that development in their child. - Parents who demonstrate interest and capacity to train and become teachers will receive Tinkergarten Leader training. These leaders will immediately apply this training and earn income as a Tinkergarten leader in their community, but they can also transfer these skills in new, related early childhood work opportunities—something we see repeatedly in our existing leader group. Over the course of two pilot seasons, we have worked closely with Head Start Staff, Parent Leaders, parents and children in the Community Action grantee. We have identified areas in which we could improve our training and parent education materials to better serve both leaders and parent participants. We have learned more about how to lower additional barriers to participation like weather, access to gear and transportation. We look forward to investing in these improvements.

What kind of impact will your idea have? (1500 characters)

Supporting the expansion of Tinkergarten in low-income communities will transform the lives of children and families on a wide scale. Because our model is cost effective, scalable to any community, and accessible, it’s got the ingredients for wide-scale adoption. For children, we will focus on specific goals within three key Head Start domains: Approaches to Learning, Language and Literacy, and Social and Emotional Development. For parents and caregivers, we will look to increase: the quantity and quality of adult/child interactions; the adults understanding of child development; and the time the family spends at play outdoors. Done at scale, this expansion could also lead to a culture shift that benefits children well beyond those who join Tinkergarten. Children, especially those in underserved communities, increasingly lack time for play and time in nature. For example, amid a precipitous drop in recess, children in poverty are 5 times less likely than those in wealthier communities to have recess at all, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, 2005. If parents and educators in low-income areas understand the importance of play and the health and learning benefits of time outdoors, they can build access into the regular routine and they can advocate for systemic change that reverses these harmful trends.

How does or how could your idea impact low-income children? (1500 characters)

Our proposal, which supports Phase 2 of our plan, is solely focused on delivering Tinkergarten to low-income children and families within a selected, large urban environment. Children develop healthy habits as well as cognitive, social/emotional and physical skills through guided play in an outdoor classroom and the home-based extension projects done with parents and caregivers. Parents learn about how their children develop and how to support that learning. Leaders, who are often parents, gain valuable skills as educators and earn meaningful income.

Innovation: What makes your concept innovative? (5000 characters)

Time outdoors and play are critical to healthy child development. Social, technological, and academic trends have minimized access. A new generation is at risk, and Tinkergarten’s aim is to reverse the trend. A secondary problem in early childhood education is the quality of the workforce. There is little training, low pay, and poor support, which leads to high churn. This has a direct impact on children and their learning at this critical stage. Tinkergarten’s approach to solving this problem is innovative - we’re leveraging the shared economy to mobilize a high quality flexible workforce of people, investing heavily in training and supporting them. Tinkergarten’s paid-for classes model and for-profit structure have provided us the leverage to: invest in technology, operations, curriculum and training; grow quickly; and set us on a path for sustainability. In line with our mission to provide access to high quality early learning for all children, everywhere, we have been begun a parallel path—building a strategic foundation for delivering our program, cost free or low-cost, to low income families. Tinkergarten uniquely leverages parks and greenspaces nation-wide to deliver our seasonal, nature-play based curriculum to all. While other organizations offer early childhood education classes in outdoor spaces at the local level, Tinkergarten is the only organization, that we are aware of, currently doing this at scale, nationwide.

Scale: Describe how your idea could reach a significant number of end-users. (1500 characters)

Tinkergarten will provide access to high quality early learning for all children, everywhere. Our theory of change: We train, support and mobilize people as leaders to facilitate an effective, innovative and cost-effective model of outdoor, play-based learning that can exist in every community. By doing so at scale, we will help all parents and caregivers learn how to shift their family culture to value and support their children at play, in turn driving a wide-scale culture shift that promotes developing invaluable foundation skills through play that will be leveraged throughout a child’s life. Tinkergarten is backed by mission-driven investors, including world renowned social impact investors Omidyar Network (established by the founder of eBay), Owl Ventures, and City Light Capital, as well as education entrepreneurs John Katzman (The Princeton Review) and Don Katz (Audible/Amazon). Tinkergarten is growing it’s leader base 400% Y/Y, with classes now offered by over 1300 leaders across 49 states. Parents love Tinkergarten, rating each class at an average of 4.7 on a 5 point scale; the company has earned a Net Promoter Score of 71 (on par with brands like Apple, Amazon and Google). Leaders love Tinkergarten, as we retain 95% of leaders each season.

Feasibility: Where are you with understanding the feasibility of your idea? Describe what you’ve done so far and your plans. (3000 characters)

Our plan is quite feasible, having vetted it with a number of experts in this field, committed significant time and resource to planning it, and after challenging our assumptions and learning a great deal through 2 seasons of pilot implementation. We have the evidence that it’s both possible and working. Using our current staff, we have completed two, 6-week seasons of a small pilot program with a Head Start grantee in the Summer and Fall of 2017. We also have a fast-growing national network of over 1,300 trained Tinkergarten leaders and a subgroup of leader Coaches who could be given additional training in order to effectively support local instances of Head Start Partnerships, allowing us to support our scale. Our platform is flexible enough to allow for key changes in implementation needed to support the needs of these types of partnerships as well. Our technology and product teams are seasoned and are already at work considering how the product needs to adapt to serve a parent population with different needs. Philosophically, we also see any adaptation in design as a potential improvement for all users, and we design with that in mind. To date, over 50 families have engaged with the pilot program and 4 parent leaders have been trained and supported as they have offered the program. We have identified several ways to address barriers to accessing leader training (e.g. language, prior knowledge, leader connectivity) and barriers to parent participation (e.g. weather, time, transportation), and are eager to allocate time and resources to putting those solutions in place before we expand to other Head Start grantee partners. What Pilot Parents are Saying: - “Tinkergarten is helping me be a better mother.” - Tinkergarten Leader - “They learned to get dirty, get messy and pretend things. What is in the park can be great toys.” - Parent - “We learned another way to play with them, to approach nature, and to ask them things like "What do you think? What do you see?" Not so much telling them what they see and what they think.” - Parent We have several options to explore when considering funding for expanded programs. These include but are not limited to: - Corporate sponsorship - Foundation support funneled directly to the grantee to support the inclusion of Tinkergarten - Federal Head Start funds allocated at the grantee level for the purchase of Tinkergarten as a Parent Education curriculum or Family Engagement program - Some or all funding derived from a 1 for 1 model in which a portion of proceeds from Tinkergarten in well-resourced areas covers the cost of leader and materials in low-income areas

Business Viability: How viable is your business model? (5000 characters)

At its core, Tinkergarten is both a hyper-local and national grassroots movement, engaging over 100,000 families in 49 states, with 200% YOY growth. We receive 400 applications per day for the leader position and we’re backed by social impact investors deeply committed to both our paid-for classes model and ensuring access for all families. Tinkergarten is a marketplace - our 1300 leaders are marketing their classes in communities ranging from John’s Creek, GA to Madison, WI to San Jose, CA. Our model sustains itself due to the growth of the marketplace and the demand our leaders, who are community influencers, create for the classes via social media, neighborhood groups and our online tools. While Tinkergarten classes are led by 1,300 leaders and take place every day of the week in local greenspaces throughout the country — we train, support, and coach these leaders through our robust technology platform. This same technology platform powers our parent communication through web interface, email, and SMS as well as our continuous customer feedback loop, ensuring consistent quality of our experience. We know that Tinkergarten, and the power of nature-play for children and families, transcends every community - urban, rural, and suburban - and all socio-economic groups. With two Head Start pilots underway, a third one to begin this spring, more inbound opportunities from regional Head Start entities, and strong relationships with the National Head Start Association, we are confident in our ability to bring the Tinkergarten experience to Head Start communities in a variety of ways - during the school day, via parent groups, and through the training of Head Start staff. We anticipate covering the costs of our Head Start partnerships through Head Start grants, philanthropic dollars, and a potential 1 for 1 model. Foreseen barriers include mitigating for attendance challenges with stretched working parents and determining the right payment structure to ensure parents value the program enough to prioritize participation. Our pilot experience demonstrated that some cost to parents, even minimal, impacts families’ perceived value of the Tinkergarten experience. Through working hand in hand with our Head Start partners, we will plan for these barriers, implement, evaluate, learn, and iterate together.

HCD: How have you used human centered design to build or refine your concept? (5000 characters)

The user experience has been at the forefront of our work since we launched Tinkergarten six years ago. In fact, we built the technology platform based on the user experience, of both leader and families, when we were operating in one park in Brooklyn. Since then, we have been continuously improving the experience for children, caregivers and leaders through a cycle of design, build, test, implement, measure, and iterate from leader #1 to leader #1300. We are honing our model based on feedback from these two sets of core customers - our leaders and our parents and their children. We ask for feedback on a daily basis - in our training of our leaders and in the Tinkergarten class experience. In our leader training program we utilize open-ended quiz questions, both summative and formative, to understand how our leaders are interacting with the technology platform and engaging with the curriculum. Surveys are integral to learning how we can improve the Tinkergarten experience for our leaders and have an even greater impact on the families we serve. Annually, we survey our leaders on a wide variety of areas from overall job satisfaction to training and support to marketing outreach. This critical feedback drives our evolution in recruitment, training, ongoing support and marketing. The input of our families also drives the evolution of the Tinkergarten experience. After each Tinkergarten class session, we gather ratings (on a scale of 1-5) and comments from parents and caregivers. Parents love Tinkergarten, rating each class at an average of 4.7 on a 5 point scale. Our leaders have access to these ratings and parent comments and discuss them on a weekly basis with their coaches (mentor leaders). Seasonally we conduct a parent survey, learning about the impact of Tinkergarten on child and parent learning, time spent outdoors as a family as a result of Tinkergarten, and what parents most value about Tinkergarten. For example, as a result, we know that 82% of families spend more time outdoors together as a result of Tinkergarten. We also utilize the Net Promoter Scale as a gauge of our impact as an entire organization. The company has earned a Net Promoter Score of 71 (on par with brands like Apple, Amazon and Google). Through a 3rd party evaluation, we’re measuring the Head Start Start program’s efficacy in three ways: leader efficacy, parent learning, and child engagement and development. As we complete our second season in the pilot test, our early data shows evidence of behavior changes that signal we are on track towards outcomes for the children, parents and leaders who have participated. As we seek to expand our partnership with Head Start we’ll utilize our existing evaluation methods of leader and parent feedback as well as 3rd party evaluation.

Tell us more about you (3000 characters)

Brian has a career in developing consumer technology products and businesses. Meghan is a career educator. They both observed the impact of less time for play and less time outdoors for children in their respective professions. Meghan was a school principal who observed children struggle to: attend and control their impulses, perform open-ended learning tasks; regulate emotions; collaborate with peers. They seemed lost without the structure provided by adults or technology. Brian worked in the technology start up world where he and others were always trying to hire people with skills that children develop through multi-sensory play at an early age - skills like problem solving, flexible and creative thinking, persistence and grit, and self reliance. They reflected on how different childhood is today than even when they were young, and how essential play is to the development of children’s minds, bodies and spirits. They also continued to come back to nature as the ideal classroom—at once both perfectly stimulating and calming. They decided that all children deserve access to play and nature. Further, if parents could understand their value and reconnect with their own childhoods, that family culture would shift, once again, to prioritize play and nature. When that happens, the lives of both children and parents as well as whole communities are transformed. Tinkergarten is supported by an expert team (with Headquarters in Northampton, MA and teammates around the country) and a technology platform that helps give teachers around the country the training, support, technology, tools, curriculum and materials needed to deliver classes and communicate with families to keep them engaged. Our typical classes are led by trained, certified leaders from within a community, and take place across urban, suburban, and rural locations across the U.S.

Do you have the people and partners you need to do what you’ve described? (600 characters)

Our team has successfully supported our Head Start pilot, readying a second in 2018, and built national Head Start relationships. We are eager to expand these efforts to other Head Start communities. Tinkergarten is also piloting programs with Child Development Centers across all socio-economic demographics in urban, rural, and suburban settings. As we continue serving low-income communities alongside our direct pay model, our investors, the Omidyar Network, Owl Ventures, Reach and City Light Capital have been extremely supportive of our work to deliver financial as well as social returns.

As you consider your next steps, what kinds of help could you use? Is there a type of expertise that would be most helpful? (1800 characters)

We seek: - Feedback on our multi-stage plan for scaling our Tinkergarten access program to serve the needs of children in low-income communities. - Access to high level decision makers in the Parks Department, Education and/or Social Services departments in the urban center in which we base the Phase 2 program. - Connection to strong, community partners who can help us to identify and gain the trust of the parents we seek to engage in the program. - Resources to produce high quality content that will make our leader training and parent education modules more accessible to low-income communities. - Feedback from an expert in working with this population in order to meet the unique needs and deliver a consistent, high quality experience to all families. - Feedback from an expert in our instrumentation and plans for data collection and measurement around the behavioral changes and efficacy of our program, in addition to helping us to effectively communicate these findings to Head Start and other long term partners.

Would you like mentoring support?

  • Yes

If so, what type of mentoring support do you think you need? (1200 characters)

- Mentoring support around our work within Head Start communities nationwide. - Mentoring support and introductions around other potential partners to ensure all children and families in low-income communities have access to Tinkergarten. - Mentoring support around navigating Head Start partnerships in urban communities.

Are you willing to share your email contact information submitted on OpenIDEO with Gary Community Investments?

  • Yes, share my contact information

[Optional] Biography: Upload your biography. Please include links to relevant information (portfolio, LinkedIn profile, organization website, etc).

Mentorship: How was your idea supported? (5000 characters)

Through our work with our mentor, we honed our concept through weaving in stories, examples and activities from the Tinkergarten experience, both in our paid-for class model and our Head Start program. We also incorporated more details about the user experience and how we sought end user experience input throughout the process.


Join the conversation:

Photo of kevin

I like this approach as it does Not involve getting young children hooked on using phones or tablets for play. I was wondering, however, if there are plans to distribute project plans to Leaders (parents, care-givers, etc) via internet or even automatically updated apps?
Also, I see that you're based on MA., I wonder how these ideas work during winter months when some areas (both in the US and Canada for example) can be covered in deep snow?

Photo of Brian and Meghan Fitzgerald

K - Thanks so much for your comment and for your enthusiasm for the work of Tinkergarten! We’ve been able to grow our presence across the US in just a few years through our technology platform. While our 1,600+ Leaders in all 50 states bring Tinkergarten to life on the ground, in thousands of parks and greenspaces across the country, we communicate with parents and caregivers via our platform. Parents and caregivers receive email and SMS communication pre- and post- class so they can anticipate the learning to come and extend the learning beyond the class structure. So far, we have chosen to build a responsive web experience designed to work well on any device. We will seriously consider developing a native app when the use cases and needs were so clear that the shift is well worth it.

At Tinkergarten, we believe there’s no such thing as bad weather! We run classes year round, in all climates, from Western Massachusetts to Seattle, Washington to Phoenix, Arizona. Some of our Leaders and families most magical moments have happened in snow covered parks. That being said, we do have weather guidelines to ensure our Leaders and families are safe in class.

Again, thanks so much for reading our submission and for your thoughtful questions about Tinkergarten!