Business Models for Tinkering Classes

Today, I stumbled across TinkerSpace in Montclair, CA. I had a brief conversation with the owner where we were talking about both our programs and the similarities and differences. I thought it would be interesting to start collecting information about the different ways people are trying to create opportunities for kids to have hands-on STEM learning experiences. So, to start the conversation (I encourage you to add comments about how you do it!), here’s my system:

My class is part of a parent-education department sponsored by our local community college. The program offers parent-child classes for children age birth to 9. At every level, there are children’s teachers who focus on an age-appropriate curriculum for the kids which includes music, art, stories, gross and fine motor activities, in a play-based learning model. Parents attend most programs with the children – for ages 3 and up, some days are drop-off and some days parents are required to stay at class with their child. So, all our parents are already used to that model of how our programs work.

We had been running a Dads Only class on Saturdays, but enrollment was low, because in that program dads were required to stay every week, and not many dads were quite willing to commit every Saturday of the school year. When I took over Saturday classes, I created this model:

We hold classes for children age 3 – 7 every Saturday from September to May (except major holiday weekends). Classes are two hours long. We have a morning class and an afternoon class. Families enroll for an 11 week quarter, though we encourage parents to enroll for all three quarters of the academic year, and most do. We charge $245 per quarter per child. (Or $409 for two children.) We have a different theme each quarter, and each theme has 11 topics. So, in our science quarter, we study: States of Matter, Chemical Reactions, Gravity and Magnetism, Space, Geology/Earthquakes, and more. In each class, we offer 8 – 12 stations, which include: crafts, science exploration, sensory bins, building projects, imaginary play and more. (I have 100’s of examples of activities on this website!) Kids rotate between stations. We also have circle with stories, songs, and teaching concepts.

Parents are required to stay one Saturday per month for a parent education session. Parents are required to work in the classroom one Saturday per month, assisting kids, supervising for safety, and cleaning up. On the other two Saturdays, they have the option to drop off, but most stay to play with the child and talk with other parents. (Most of the parents work full-time during the week, so this is their chance to hang out with their kids and other families for peer support.) Each week one or two families will drop off and use this time to run errands or go to appointments. We have 12 – 22 kids in each class, three teachers, and three working parents each week so it’s great adult-child ratios.

Parents of three year olds tend to accompany their child around the room, helping with all the activities. Parents of 6 – 7 year olds are a lot more hands-off, encouraging their kids to create independently, but helping out when needed to take things to the next level. (Read more about the role of parents in our classes.)  The older kids also often help out the younger kids. (Read more about the benefits of our multi-age approach.) We try to make sure that all of our projects can be done in some way by the 3 to 4 year olds, even if they can’t produce a perfect product or may not grasp the scientific concepts behind the project. Our 5 – 6 year olds are more able to do projects independently. Our 7 year olds are encouraged to use our project idea as the basis for their own creation.

We share classroom space with other classes from our program, so we are able to share a common pool of craft supplies (paper, paint, markers, collage supplies, scissors, magnifying glasses…) But we bring in the supplies specific to our class every Saturday morning and haul them out at the end of the day. (I store them in my garage.) We set up 8:30 -10, class 10 – 12. Lunch break 12 – 1:30. Class 1:30 – 3:30. Clean-up till 4:30.

Three weeks a month, we are lucky enough to have a space we can use free of charge. On the other day, we rent a parks facility. Right now, I’m clearing some profit every year. If I had to pay for that site every week, I’d need 20 kids in each class just to break even. As it is, I have the flexibility to run smaller than that, or I can fit up to 22 kids.

At TinkerSpace today, she was telling me that she has an annual membership for $135 where families can come an unlimited number of times, or it’s $15 per visit. She has a facility full-time she needs to cover the rent on, even though the facility is open 30 hours a week. She has some special projects each month, plus some free play opportunities (ball wall, Legos), and a makerspace with lots of materials to create with. Her policy is – “everything on this wall you can use for free. Everything stored on this wall you have to ask me about.” For her workshops, the policy is children under age 10 must have a parent/guardian on the premises. Children 10 – 13 can be dropped off and picked up. Kids age 14 – 16 can arrive and depart unaccompanied if there is a waiver on file.

So, they’re very different business models. What do you do?

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