RED WING — According to the National Wildlife Federation, the average child in the U.S. spends only four to seven minutes a day in unstructured outdoor play. Yet the U.S. Department of Agriculture claims that “trees, parks, gardens and other natural settings are as essential to livable and sustainable cities as the other critical systems that keep their residents moving and working.”

Now, Live Healthy Red Wing is studying how nature play — unstructured time outside where children interact with natural elements — could affect local residents and children.

“Live Health Red Wing got a grant from the University of Minnesota, their health department, to work with Dr. Kathy Jordan and she is a pediatrician and a professor at the university ... and really into the nature play health connection," said Erin Aadalen of Live Healthy Red Wing.

Through the grant, Live Healthy will conduct a study to gauge the community’s feelings and thoughts about nature play. Aadalen explained that a focus group will meet twice: the first time to focus on people’s current perceptions of nature play and the second to brainstorm what a nature play space could look like in Red Wing.

In the spring or summer of 2020, Live Healthy will host a nature play demonstration project on East Fifth Street.

“Then we’re hoping the long-term thing that can come of this shorter-term project is funding and attitudes to be excited about nature play and everybody working together to get one of these nature play playgrounds installed in Red Wing in a permanent area,” Aadalen said.

Those who have researched nature play find that it has many positive effects on children. The National Wildlife Federation explained in an article:

“Simply having contact with dirt, whether it's through gardening, digging holes, or making pies out of mud, can significantly improve a child's mood and reduce anxiety and stress. With antidepressant use in kids on the rise, an increasing number of experts are recognizing the role of nature in enhancing kids' mental health. Dirt can even improve classroom performance.”

The USDA echoed this statement, writing on its website that people who live near parks or green space tend to have less mental distress, are more physically active and have extended life spans.

Other outcomes that correlate with nature play are:

  • Sleep improvements

  • Increased fitness

  • Higher vitamin D levels

  • Possible reductions in ADHD symptoms

  • Possible increases in test scores and critical thinking

  • Decreased stress levels

  • Enhanced social interaction

Aadalen explained that the project Red Wing is participating in through this grant is meant to look at the relationship between nature play and cancer levels.

“So, obviously we won’t be able to determine in our year of project if any cancer rates went down because of nature play in Red Wing, but there are a lot of links between long term health and nature play,” she said.

Nature playgrounds

Nature play can be as simple as collecting leaves or digging in the dirt. But there are also ways to make more structured areas for children to play in that still bring them into contact with nature elements. The National Wildlife Federation and Natural Learning Initiative created a list of spaces or projects that can be created for children. The difficulty involved in creating each space is expressed by the number of shovels it is given: one shovel is a quick project, five shovels mean a time intensive space.

  • Natural constructions: use found items such as branches, leaves, rope, etc. as materials to build structures (one shovel).

  • Play with earth: create a space where children can dig, make mud and play in the dirt (one to three shovels).

  • Fairy gardens: designate spaces where children can create fairy-sized houses and other items that a fairy might use (two shovels).

  • Water garden: build or transform a water feature and add aquatic plants and possibly fish (five shovels).

For more information about Nature Play, visit

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