Does your child enjoy exploring the outdoors? Is he or she a nature-lover with a fondness of dirt, mud and rocks? Is your child naturally curious about how things work? Are you looking for something new and exciting for you and your child to do outside? If you answered yes to any of these questions, then Tinkergarten is the place for you!
Tinkergarten, taught by Elizabeth McKenna, offers two 45-minute weekly classes on Thursdays and Fridays, from 10:30 -11:15 am. Each class has a maximum capacity of 10 students, aged 1 – 5 years old.
Tinkergarten offers 10 weeks of classes, as well as a bonus/makeup week. This outdoor class is located at 302 Senate Street, Columbia, SC, at Senate End’s Campus (across from the Girl Scout building).
What is Tinkergarten?
Tinkergarten is a nature-based, educational class with outdoor play at its core. Tinkergarten creatively delivers meaningful lessons and focused skills, cleverly disguised as playtime for young children.
Each season and semester, the class centers around 1 of 8 core focus skills. The 8 Tinkergarten Focus Skills are as follows:
How do you Register?
Tinkergarten offers several different registration options. Located on the Tempo Music and Arts website, Tinkergarten is under the Tempo’s umbrella of class options. Tempo offers both a semester membership, as well as an “a la carte,” aka a pay-as-you-go option. See our Kidding Around review of Tempo Music & Arts.
All classes follow the University of South Carolina school schedule. The semester option is a discounted rate of $150. The semester selection locks you in for 10 class sessions, as well as an extra makeup class. The “a la carte” alternative is $30 per class. A la carte allows you to pay as you go and attend as many or as few classes as you choose.
Who is the Teacher?
Elizabeth McKenna is the instructor for Tinkergarten. McKenna received her undergraduate degree from Clemson University in Communication Studies in 2009. She went on to receive her MAT in Early Childhood Education at from College of Charleston in May 2012.
McKenna then began her kindergarten teaching career in Columbia, SC at Forest Lake Elementary from 2012 – 2020.
“I’ve only ever taught kindergarten, and I really love that age group. I knew working with little ones was my passion,” she declares.
From Kindergarten to Tinkergarten
For McKenna, Tinkergarten was somewhat of a natural progression from previously teaching in a formal setting. Her path to Tinkergarten happened rather organically, simply as a result of being a restless parent during a pandemic.
Upon searching for an outlet and opportunities in the midst of COVID, McKenna says she stumbled upon Tinkergarten.
“My sister had done some Tinkergarten classes as a parent with her kids, and told me they had some virtual options. So I signed up my daughter, and we loved it. She ate it up,” McKenna recalls enthusiastically.
While McKenna’s Tinkergarten journey began in the parent role initially, the former early childhood educator soon found herself wondering if there were any in-person Tinkergarten opportunities in the Columbia area.
“At that point, I looked into what exactly it entailed. How do you get started? How do you apply? I looked to see if Columbia had any in-person options at the time, and they did not. And I felt like this would be a good time to step into that, ” she explains.
McKenna goes on to say, “I applied and interviewed, and I got hired in the spring of last year. I trained and then started leading classes in the summer of 2022.”
A Perfect Marriage
For McKenna, Tinkergarten is the perfect marriage of her teaching background and her love of the outdoors.
“I’ve always loved spending time outdoors. To get to do it in a community with others, while infusing creative arts and play, is a dream!” she beams.
She goes on to say that having the parents and caregivers present during Tinkergarten classes is a new, but exciting dynamic for her, because as a traditional classroom teacher, you don’t have that.
“It’s a fun way to almost better connect with the kids, because you have the person who knows the child best right there in front of you. And it’s really an easier way to get to connect with the kids,” she claims.
She says another added bonus is that families get to know one another as well!
McKenna emphasizes that what drew her to Tinkergarten was the outdoors.
“The goal with Tinkergarten is to get families outside and surrounding yourself in nature as much as you can,” she says.
And the kicker is, it’s all already there for you.
“With Tinkergarten, we have this great classroom that you can literally just walk outside to. We can take advantage of that, and get kids outside and foster all of these skills, like wellness and problem-solving and sensory needs. And those are just the ones that I’ve taught so far,” McKenna marvels.
This fall, the class focus is Wellness.
My Class Experience: Our Morning at Tinkergarten
I discovered Tinkergarten like any other mom likely searching for some new activities for their toddler…in a Facebook mom group. Elizabeth McKenna had responded to a post inviting people to check out a class she was teaching (then at Guignard Park), called Tinkergarten. I was immediately intrigued. My daughter, Elle, being a nature-lover at heart, I felt like this would be something really special.
Before enrolling, I knew that Tinkergarten wouldn’t just be a one-and-done experience for us, so I decided to register my daughter for the full Fall 2023 semester.
The 1 of 8 focus for this particular semester, is “Wellness.”
No First Day Nerves
The first Tinkergarten class, I feel an air of excitement, not the usual first-day nerves I typically feel in new class situations.
Here’s how it went:
We come prepared with a quilt in-tow and a water bottle for each of us, thanks to the welcome newsletter McKenna sent prior to the first class.
Elle and I are immediately greeted by McKenna at the check-in table where we promptly sign in and wash our hands, as part of the class arrival ritual. We then find a cozy spot on the sprawling green lawn next to some fellow “explorers” (aka the children) and their accompanying “guide” (aka parent or guardian).
We begin the class in an opening circle with a song where each “explorer” is greeted by name.
McKenna melodically sings the welcome song:
“Hello Elle…Hello Charlotte…Hello Leo.
I’m glad you’re here today!”
After some words of welcome and a brief description of what we will be doing throughout this class and the rest of the semester, McKenna then sings the Tinkergarten song:
“Sparrow, sparrow time to fly,
Through the meadow through the sky.
Sparrow sparrow time to fly,
Come to Tinkergarten.”
McKenna carefully weaves American Sign Language (ASL) in and out of the songs and a lesson for the day, and Elle even recognizes the ASL signs for “play” and “thank you,” mimicking the signs back.
Each week, Tinkergarten follows a “Body, Mind & Heart” map. This particular map is specifically curated for the Wellness focus. There are different maps that correlate with the other 7 “Focuses.”
On this particular day, the explorers and guides are participating in the lesson “Hello, Earth!”
During each class throughout the semester, the “classroom” is divided into areas where the “explorers” and their “guides” are encouraged to partake in different activities and experiments.
On this first day, I observe what appears to be different “stations,” if you will, scattered in different areas of the grassy lawn. The first object I notice is a large blue tarp. Sprawled across the green grass, on top of the tarp, lies a muffin tray and various other-sized cake pans filled with mud. At another station there’s a water table with rocks, and another station nearby with small tin bucket pails, rocks and clear, squirt water bottles.
Tinkergarten is very-much child-led, meaning the “explorers” are able to choose where they want to go and in whatever order or disorder they choose. Guided play is at the heart of Tinkergarten.
In our particular class, some kids make a beeline for the water table (clearly a class favorite), while some wander to the mud station or sheepishly wait for their “guide” to choose a location for them. Some children even meander up the nearby stairs.
Elle timidly selects the rocks and pail station first. Being a rock lover, she really enjoys cleaning the rocks with the squirt bottle and then collects her freshly-washed rocks in her “just-her-size” bucket.
We slowly wander to each station, exploring what each one has to offer. As Elle continues her journey exploring, her initial shyness slowly melts away. She’s in her element for sure! I believe her favorite part of the day is just splashing in the water table while holding her new rocks!
Back to the Nest
As the 45-minute mark nears, McKenna calls out to all the explorers and guides to enjoy another couple minutes of wherever they are, and then to find their way back to their “nests” (aka each person’s blanket or towel).
McKenna begins to sing, what I like to refer to it as, the Tinkergarten anthem:
“Sparrow, sparrow time to fly,
Through the meadow through the sky.
Sparrow sparrow time to fly,
Come to Tinkergarten.”
Explorers and guides flap their arms, mimicking flying back to all our prospective nests. We close class with a thank you to the Native American Indian Tribes that were once upon the very land we are seated on, and then McKenna sings a goodbye song similar to the welcome opener:
“Thank you, Leo…Thank you, Charlotte…Thank you, Elle.
I’m glad you came to play!”
What a happy surprise at how quickly the class time went by! Elle and I both waive goodbye and leave with big smiles. Proof of a morning well spent? Elle is fast asleep in her car seat before we even arrived home.
Mom Review: Tinkergarten
Rain or shine (quite literally), we make our way to this special class each and every week. One class, when it was raining particularly hard, instead of canceling class, McKenna opted to relocate to a different, covered location. What I love about this particular day, is how much this speaks to the adaptability of this class as a whole. How, by design, it’s about teaching life skills and how to handle life’s little uncertainties, such as the weather or even toddlers’ moods and natural curiosities.
It’s truly a very special place, where Elle can be her complete and total self. She can freely roam, exploring flowers or rocks without fear of being corrected or reprimanded. We will happily return to this extraordinary class until our semester is over. Then, without missing a beat, I will be returning for a new chapter, a new season and semester to learn and explore a new Focus Skill and meet new friends!
Interested in participating in Tinkergarten, but can’t find a class that fits your schedule? Fortunately, there’s Tinkergarten Anywhere. This is a great option for parents that love the outdoor classroom concept, but require more flexibility in their schedules. Found on the Tinkergarten website under the “For Families” heading, Tinkergarten Anywhere is a self-paced, parent-led home option. For $9 a month, you receive the following:
- “Expert-designed weekly video lessons to spark playful learning for 2-8 year olds.”
- “Develop an essential skill each season.”
- “Ready-to-go activities and printable resources keep kids engaged.”
- “ ‘Why & How’ content helps you to support your child.”
- “Photo scrapbook & an iron-on badge to celebrate progress each season.”
Where: 302 Senate Street, Columbia, SC 29201
When: 10:30 – 11:15 am Thursday and Friday
Find more great classes for kids in our Kidding Around Columbia Guide to Classes and Activities in Columbia, SC