Tinkergarten Raises $5.4M to Get Kids to Go Outside, Play and Learn


Tinkergarten Raises $5.4M to Get Kids to Go Outside, Play and Learn

By Tony Wan     Aug 8, 2017

Tinkergarten Raises $5.4M to Get Kids to Go Outside, Play and Learn

For Brian Fitzgerald, what began as a newborn side project in 2012—when he was working at edtech startup Knewton—has become a fully-grown venture of its own.

Tinkergarten, which operates a network of outdoor-based classes for young children, has raised $5.4 million in a Series A round led by Owl Ventures. Existing investors Omidyar Network and Reach Capital also contributed. (Disclosure: all three are also investors in EdSurge.) The Northampton, Mass.-based startup has now raised $8.3 million in total funding.

The idea was conceived shortly after his first daughter was born. “It’s an age-old problem that parents are trying to solve,” Fitzgerald tells EdSurge in an interview. “For anybody who has been a parent, you go through this process: ‘What can I do for my children to give them the best start and learn about the world?”

That question led him and his wife to launch Tinkergarten in 2015, which offers a play-based, outdoor-learning curriculum that anyone can learn and use to host classes in their local communities. Designed for children as young as 18 months to 8 year old, classes involve collaborative activities that range from catching bugs and making mud to creating pulleys and balancing gnomes.

These activities may seem silly, perhaps even a tad frivolous, but the company claims they help build cognitive, physical, social and emotional skills. “There is a period of time when kids need to have free space in order to learn how to learn,” says Fitzgerald. “We want to take the best of experiential learning and make it accessible to anyone, anywhere.”

The fact that getting kids to play outside has become an investable idea may reflect this generation’s concerns over the effects of smartphones on children’s development, as detailed in this Atlantic article that went viral last week. “There is much more of a trend we are seeing socially, where kids are spending more time with technology or indoors,” Fitzgerald says. Just as adults pay $570 for “digital detox” camps, so too, it seems, may kids need similar programs.

The Tinkergarten team only numbers a dozen full-time staff, who are largely in charge of designing the curriculum and maintaining the website where parents can find, schedule and pay for classes. The work of running the classes falls upon a network that currently numbers more than 700 organizers across 48 states. Each must go through at least 20 hours of training online before being allowed to run a Tinkergarten class, and are expected to continue keep up to speed on new curriculum that are released every few months. The company will provide organizers with all required materials. (Yes, even the gnomes.)

To date, more than 61,000 children have taken a Tinkergarten class. Each class generally consists of 8-10 weekly sessions, and may cost parents $100 to upwards of $300 per student, depending on location. (Areas with high cost of living tend to command higher prices.) Organizers can earn anywhere from $400 to $1,000 for each class.

The capital will help the company expand its curriculum and coaching services, build more tools to support parents, and recruit more Tinkergarten organizers to join its ranks. “We’ve been growing rapidly, but we’re not at break-even yet” in terms of revenue, Fitzgerald shares.

Tinkergarten is just the latest in a string of early-childhood startups that have raised venture capital this year, each offering a different flavor of service: Sawyer, which has a directory of brick-and-mortar providers of children’s educational programs, raised $6 million earlier this month. Other investors put in $2 million in Wonderschool’s network of in-home childcare providers. Outschool’s marketplace, where parents can find and sign their kids up for small-group online classes, attracted $1.4 million.

Those companies are familiar names to Fitzgerald, who says he’s eyeing the landscape closely. “We’re all noticing a similar trend where it’s important to give kids time and space to play early on, because that’s how you learn,” he observes. “The investment community understands this is developmentally important for kids—and they know this resonates with many, many parents.”

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