Minnesota Prairie Roots

Writing and photography by Audrey Kletscher Helbling

An innovative plan to promote literacy at a rural Minnesota library August 19, 2015

This shows plans for the custom-designed Outdoor Early Literacy Area planned for the Redwood Falls Public Library. The playground equipment will be custom made and themed to agriculture and camping. Image courtesy of the Redwood Falls Public Library.

This shows plans for the Outdoor Early Literacy Area planned for the Redwood Falls Public Library. The playground equipment will be custom made and themed to agriculture and camping. Image courtesy of the Redwood Falls Public Library.

IN MY HOME COUNTY OF REDWOOD on the southwestern Minnesota prairie, the Redwood Falls Public Library is planning to construct an Outdoor Early Literacy Area themed to agriculture and camping.

The elevator in Lamberton, Minnesota, just to the south of my brother's place.

A soybean field and the grain elevator in Lamberton, Minnesota, in southern Redwood County. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo July 2015.

I love this idea of combining literacy and outdoor play. And the themes are perfect for this community. Even though kids in Redwood County live in the heart of Minnesota farm country, that doesn’t mean they are familiar with farming. This is just one more way to keep Minnesota’s farm heritage strong, by teaching youngsters the importance of agriculture in a way that’s hands-on creative.

Ramsey Falls in Alexander Ramsey Park. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Ramsey Falls in Alexander Ramsey Park. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo.

Redwood Falls is also a camping oasis of sorts with Alexander Ramsey Park, known as the “Little Yellowstone of Minnesota.” The park is a surprise of woods, hills, river valley and waterfalls in this county of small towns and cropland. The camping aspect will instill an appreciation of the outdoors and recreation in this place of prairie and sky.

Geared for children up to age seven, the outdoor literary area aims to achieve seven goals, Library Director Teri Smith shares in an email:

  • Encourage a love of literacy in a developmentally appropriate environment.
  • Incorporate a love of reading, print awareness, letter knowledge, sound awareness, vocabulary, and narrative skills and comprehension in joyful play.
  • Cultivate literacy in a relevant way (using known objects and activities relevant to southwestern Minnesota).
  • Encourage families and young children to spend more time at the library.
  • Encourage play in learning.
  • Encourage play in nature.
  • Encourage a love of learning at an early age and throughout a lifetime.
Just another view of the planned literacy area. Image courtesy of the Redwood Falls Public Library.

Just another view of the planned literacy area. Image courtesy of the Redwood Falls Public Library.

So how, exactly, will that happen? Young families can check out pretend produce, eggs, fishing equipment and even numbered and lettered fish from the library to use outdoors. And, as they play, the kids will learn about healthy living and agriculture and acquire literacy skills. The children’s librarian will model play and interactions in the outdoor space, Smith says. The library also hopes to tap into Reading Corps volunteers.

A place like this is needed, says Smith, because few areas exist in this rural community for young families to gather and enjoy one another’s company while learning valuable literacy and social skills.

Already, the library has raised some two-thirds of the $100,000 needed for the outdoor literacy area. An astounding nearly $51,000 has come in the form of 12 grants (one is a materials donation of fencing) ranging from $250 – $20,000, all sought by Smith. The largest of the grants came from the Otto Bremer Foundation. Two $10,000 grants also were awarded by the Schmidt Foundation and the Minnesota Legacy fund. Smith is awaiting word on several other grants and donations.

A serene country scene just north of Lamberton in southern Redwood County.

A serene country scene just north of Lamberton in southern Redwood County. Minnesota Prairie Roots file photo October 2013.

And, as I would expect in a rural area, local individuals, organizations and businesses have also given their generous financial support to the project.

Smith has also established an online fundraising site at YouCaring. About a month remains to meet that $10,000 fundraising goal.

The popularity of a Minnesota Children’s Museum traveling Storyland exhibit which came to Redwood Falls inspired library staff to consider a permanent outdoor literacy-based play space. If all goes as planned, the custom-designed farming and camping themed play area should be under construction in the spring of 2016.

FYI: If you missed my post yesterday on Sibley Farm inside Mankato’s Sibley Park, click here. It’s another great example of how southern Minnesota is connecting kids to the region’s strong agricultural heritage and base.

© Copyright 2015 Audrey Kletscher Helbling