Nature-Based Play, Nature-Based Design

Early interaction with nature has been proven to increase childrens’ capacity for creativity, critical concentration skills, and relationship building.

Through a research assistantship with the Central Regional Sustainable Development Partnership (CRSDP) and the Center for Urban and Regional Affairs (CURA), Jordan Hedlund (Landscape Architecture) sought to harness these advantages by co-designing outdoor programmed space with Leech Lake Early Childhood Development. This project also received support from the Mary J. Page Community-University Partnerships Fund.

The Megwayaak project was a perfect fit for Hedlund, who designed playgrounds before pursuing his masters in landscape architecture. “The clients were hoping for a curriculum and a technique to incorporate indigenous education experiences, nature-based play, and nature-based design. My graduate advisor, Professor John Koepke, reached out to me about the project when he first heard about it because of my research interests and time spent as a construction manager for a playground company,” explained Hedlund.

Hedlund approached the project by reviewing research completed by another CRSDP and CURA research assistant, Jesse Austin (Public Health). Austin’s work, co-created with Leech Lake Early Childhood program directors and teachers last year, focused on the merits of getting children active at an early age, introducing them to the outdoors, and leveraging and adapting Leech Lake’s existing curriculum for outside spaces.

Waase, Reuben, and Jordan posing for a team photo in the future Megwayaak space. Photo: Becky Littlewolf (2019)

“Jesse’s research not only established a basis for why nature-based play is good for children but also created outdoor learning guides based on different aspects of childhood development and associated tasks for each one,” said Hedlund. “There were a total of 136 tasks within the learning guides that catered to the research she did on developmental learning—things like bringing children to an outdoor learning space to try and locate birds. My approach was to use the tasks to inform my design work.”

Using the research and curriculum developed last year, the project team asked Hedlund to design an integrated mulch path network through the woods surrounding the building. “We were really fortunate to have partnered with some great grad students through the University of Minnesota,” said Leech Lake Band of Ojibwe SNAP-Ed Coordinator Claire Chase. “Jordan’s project really helped enrich and prioritize our work here around culture, physical and mental health, and our relationship to the outdoors.”

Photos: Jordan Hedlund (2019)

In addition, the team designed three demonstration spaces with steppers as well as a wigwam building. They also prioritized finding a safe, affordable solution for poison ivy management. “We could not be more pleased with our experience collaborating with Jordan, the CRSDP, and CURA,” said Ojibwemowin Mentor Waase Paulson. “His project has provided us with a concrete plan to turn our vision of a place for our children to interact with nature and space for our community members to share their knowledge into a reality.”

At the end of the project, Hedlund was able to complete a full master plan, budget, and construction itinerary for Leech Lake Early Childhood Development. “I wanted to provide a guide that not only gave them a roadmap on the budgeting side of things, but that catered to their curriculum and their needs. My job as a landscape architect, as a designer, is to create something effective for my clients.”

Hedlund’s work on this project was further recognized by the Minnesota Chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects when he was awarded the Women in Landscape Architecture Minnesota Diversity Scholarship in spring 2020.

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