Tinkergarten gives kids hands-on exposure to nature

By Katie Gillespie, Columbian Education Reporter

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• For more information about Tinkergarten, visit tinkergarten.com and search for classes in your area. Classes are $140 per student for eight sessions, with 50 percent discounts for additional siblings. Classes last for 75 minutes. There are classes available for children 18 months to 8 years old.

HOCKINSON — At Hockinson Meadows Community Park on Thursday played a crowd of kids who aren’t afraid to get dirty.

They stumbled through mud, digging up worms and picking up the squirmy critters to show their parents.

“Worm!” one cries. “I found one!” shouts another.

This is a typical scene at a Tinkergarten class, a new program offered by Yacolt mom Jessica Becker. The eight-week program exposes tots to nature through play in area parks or other natural spaces. Becker’s current class is for children ages 18 months through 5 years old, though she’ll also offer a summer class for students up to 8 years old.

Tinkergarten is a national company that was launched in 2012; program leaders across the U.S. run their own Tinkergarten classrooms.

Becker is the first Tinkergarten leader in Clark County, though there are also classes available in Camas, and Tinkergarten’s website reports classes will soon start in Ridgefield, as well.

Becker left a corporate gig to be a stay-at-home mother to her daughter three years ago. She never thought she’d have a chance to teach children, but heard about Tinkergarten through friends at Hike It Baby, a group where families hike local trails with their newborns. The program touched on Becker’s passions for children and the Pacific Northwest’s outdoor opportunities.

“I find them amazing,” she said of the class.

Becker moved to Clark County from Florida 10 years ago. Her love of nature is new to the time she’s spent in the Pacific Northwest. Getting outside can be scary in Florida, she said, between the alligators and snakes she had to worry about when she was young.

“I grew up fearful of nature,” she said. “Now it’s become the No. 1 thing in my life.”

At Thursday’s class, Becker warmed her students up by letting them explore a pile of sticks, plants and plastic bugs with magnifying glasses. They moved into circle time, where Becker read them a picture book about the importance of earthworms. Then, the rainboot-clad crowd wandered into the muddiest part of the park, where they spilled water on the ground to trick earthworms into coming up to the surface.

With a smile, 2-year-old Eastyn Williams showed her mom, Debbie Williams, a short wriggling worm.

Williams met Becker in the Hike It Baby program. She has been taking her daughter on outdoor excursions since she was 4 months old.

“It keeps her mood better,” she said as her daughter dug around in the mud. “It’s a good way for them to explore outdoors.”

Makayla Aberle’s 5-year-old son, Arion, chatted with Becker, answering questions and asking more.

That’s typical for him, Aberle said.

“He asks lots of questions about nature,” she said of her son, a preschool student.

Arion — who notes his favorite animals are the cheetah and peregrine falcon for their speed — lamented that he only found one worm in the mud. But, he said, he likes the class.

“I like to learn and watch nature,” he said.