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Children in nature

A shelter made from sticks with two children peeking out through the holes.
Castle Park, Crookston, MN

In his bestselling book Last Child in the Woods (2008), author Richard Louv spotlighted a phenomenon he called "nature-deficit disorder." Co-founder of the Children & Nature Network, Louv maintains that exposure to our natural world is integral to healthy childhood development and emotional and physical well-being. As Louv writes, "a growing body of research links our mental, physical, and spiritual health directly to our association with nature - in positive ways," yet at the same time children are spending less time in their natural surroundings.

Since 2010, the University of Minnesota Extension Northwest Regional Sustainable Development Partnership (Northwest RSDP) has worked with community and University partners to provide opportunities for children and families to spend time in nature through public nature play spaces. These spaces look more like woods, prairie or garden than playgrounds, and encourage children to play with natural materials such as rocks, water, sand, leaves and sticks. They encourage active and imaginative play as well as reflection and renewal. In the latest phase of work, partners are designing nature play spaces to be accessible to people with all levels of mobility. Northwest RSDP's support for nature play spaces has grown into a major body of work that has reached six Greater Minnesota communities and involved multiple units at two University of Minnesota system campuses.

"Our human lives are enriched by seeing ourselves as part of nature," said Linda Kingery, Northwest RSDP Executive Director. "The more we see ourselves as dependent upon nature and connected to nature in a very integrated way, that also makes us better stewards."

Project origins

Northwest RSDP's work in this area began with support for a 2010 Connecting Children and Nature Conference at the University of Minnesota Crookston (UMC) which raised awareness of the importance of encouraging young children to connect with nature. Following the conference, Northwest RSDP supported design work for a natural play area in Castle Park in partnership with the city of Crookston and Polk County Public Health.

Small children playing in a large sand covered play area with toys and people around.
Castle Park, Crookston, MN

Over the past five years, Northwest RSDP has supported similar projects in the cities of Ada, Fertile, Fosston, Mahnomen and Warren, in addition to the new project planned in Moorhead. With the support of a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Challenge Grant, the Northwest RSDP awarded 25 mini-grants in 2010-11 to community groups interested in connecting children and nature. RSDP has also hosted workshops and conferences to support community discussions about creating natural play spaces.

Nature play meets accessible play

In a new Nature Play Meets Accessible Play project, Northwest RSDP is partnering with the University of Minnesota Institute on the Environment (IonE) and the University's Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA) to support design work for Ellen Hopkins Elementary School in Moorhead to develop a natural play space on the campus that is accessible to those with physical disabilities. With a city park located on the school grounds, the project provided an opportunity to open discussions with the Moorhead Parks and Recreation Department about how parks can provide opportunities for both nature play and accessible play.

University of Minnesota College of Design professor and Center for Sustainable Building Research (CSBR) senior research fellow Virajita Singh is working with a graduate student from CURA to design the accessible nature play area. Singh also brings the perspective of her role as Assistant Vice Provost for Equity and Diversity at the University.

A grant from IonE supports collaboration across disciplinary specialties, and project leaders are reaching out to University faculty with expertise in child development and physical disabilities. Awards from NWRSDP, IonE and CURA are funding a series of design workshops taking place from January through May.

University-community partnership

The strength of RSDP's model lies in the connection of community and University expertise. Over the past several years of this work, the Northwest RSDP has worked closely with two University campuses and a cross-section of community groups on this effort. In addition to faculty and students from both the Crookston and Twin Cities campuses, community partners engaged in the work have included the Statewide Health Improvement Program (SHIP), Rydell National Wildlife Refuge and staff from cities, parks and public health departments.

"Community partner groups (county health departments, city governments, community groups, etc.) provided critical connections to community resources," said University of Minnesota Crookston (UMC) professor Eric Castle. "The University was able to provide technical expertise to plan and design the play spaces. Many students and classes were directly involved in this effort and the 'real world' aspect greatly enhanced their education and training."

Castle has been integrally involved in the work by facilitating both research and student connections. Castle's undergraduate landscape design and construction students have helped develop play area designs as well as install parts of the projects. Castle also conducts research on the benefits of connecting children and nature. "There is also research currently being conducted on the value of the spaces in a community, as well as the value of the community-engaged process used to create these spaces," Castle said.

"There was tremendous value to both the community and the University in working together on this project," he said. "Community members provided essential insights into the needs and character of the community that directly informed the design of the play spaces. Involvement of community members throughout the process has resulted in a strong sense of community ownership of these places. This results in more frequent usage of the spaces and active community supporters of not just the spaces themselves, but also the overall mission of improving community health."

Beyond University-community engagement, Singh also credited the work with fostering interdisciplinary and inter-institutional collaboration. Between the Twin Cities and Crookston, the work connected two University of Minnesota system campuses and multiple units within those campuses. "There was a lot of interdisciplinary and inter-institutional learning, and of course all of that [has been] embedded in community-focused work," Singh said.

Building and strengthening effective relationships between the University and the citizens and communities it serves is one of three core goals shaping RSDP's work. "The Northwest RSDP was, and continues to be, a resource-rich partner in this project," Castle said of RSDP's role in facilitating connections. "[Northwest RSDP Executive Director] Linda Kingery was critical to the success of the project. She excelled at fostering University-community connections, facilitated continued discussions, organized workshops, and led many of the grant-writing and documentation efforts."

Generational connections

Nature play areas can build connections across generations. According to Kingery, grandparents like herself can often be seen playing with their grandchildren in the nature play areas supported by Northwest RSDP. "Nature play is a great way to connect across generations," she said. "This is the way we played when we were little."

Small children climbing and playing on a play area made from hay bales.
Castle Park, Crookston, MN

Children are also being engaged in the design process. In January, a design team including Singh; Kingery; Alex Thill, a graduate student in landscape architecture; and Heather Nesemeier, president of the Parent Teacher Advisory Council, went from classroom to classroom at Ellen Hopkins in Moorhead to ask children about how they view nature and for their ideas about the nature play area that would be built on their school grounds. Students said they wanted to be able to interact with nature and offered ideas such as a maze, an obstacle course, a treehouse, tunnels, a field of flowers and opportunities for adventure that involve crawling, digging and running.

"It was really interesting to hear from them because certainly the body of work and the literature points to these things, but here were kids telling us what they'd like to see," Singh said. Children and parents will continue to be involved through classroom activities developed by teachers and through follow-up visits by the design team in March with students and the Parent-Teacher Advisory Committee.

Nature play harkens back to an earlier time. University-community partnerships supported by the Northwest RSDP are bringing these experiences to today's youth, and providing vehicles for researching their impact in our modern world. Echoing the words of Louv, Kingery said, "The more we observe and know and become connected to the nature around us, the more it benefits our mental, spiritual, emotional and physical health."

Caryn Mohr, February 2016

Caryn Mohr is the assistant statewide director of the University of Minnesota Extension Regional Sustainable Development Partnerships.

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