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Tinkergarten features classrooms without walls

Outdoor children's learning program taps into nature

An outdoor learning program taking hold locally is designed to boost children’s skills for success in school and life. 

Called Tinkergarten, the program uses creative play as a tool to teach participants to be curious about the world around them and to be critical thinkers.

Local parents sign on as group leaders, such as Kim Lechnick, who guides a group on Saturday mornings at Mount St. Mary Park in St. Charles. 

“It’s a classroom without walls,” Lechnick said. “How wonderful it is that we don’t have walls to confine us.”

Classes combine participants – also called explorers – from 18 months old through 8 years old, and their parents. They gather at the park for an hour and a half of fun and learning for eight weekly sessions.

On July 29, Lechnick’s group took part in a variety of activities to learn about water – how it moves, and about its forms as mist, liquid and ice. The children played with spray bottles of mint-scented water and made boats from ice cubes and floated them off the bank of the Fox River.

The class finished with a storytime, when Lechnick read “Rosie Revere Engineer” by Andrea Beaty and said to the explorers, “So were you engineers today?” 

“Yes,” they answered.

The children looked at pictures of the “tiny friends” they had found at the park the previous week – turtles, spiders, worms and caterpillars – and talked about them. The program emphasizes this type of reinforcement and encourages participants to continue exploring the topics at home.

The parents, known as stage managers, commented on what they discovered about their children’s learning process. One mom said she was happy to observe how her young son watched the older explorers and followed their leads during the activities.

Everybody participated in a goodbye song recognizing each participant individually. One child gave hugs all around.

Among the local Tinkergarten group leaders are Jennifer Abplanalp and Merritt Nemcek. Nemcek holds classes at Delnor Woods Park in St. Charles, and Abplanalp will start teaching classes in Batavia in September.

The leaders are committed to engaging the explorers creatively and in a fun fashion – using “messy play” – to further the children’s knowledge and interest in science, technology, engineering, art and math, Nemcek said.

Classes take place year-round, so the explorers can see all the seasonal changes at the parks.

Nationwide, Tinkergarten currently has 709 leaders, with about 60,000 children enrolled in 47 states, according to

Parents may attend a trial class free with their children to see what the program is about. To find or lead local classes, visit

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