Edible Playground Serves as an Interactive Community Classroom

Edina celebrates the successful season of its first edible playground.
Lewis Park gardeners boast their edible harvest.

A September harvest dinner for participants in the Lewis Park playground program, including their families and volunteers, will conclude growing-season activities for Edina’s first edible playground. The edible playground concept combines a community garden with children’s playground programming. Edible playground activities give children hands-on gardening opportunities that strengthen their understanding of the natural world, encourage physical activity and provide healthy food to fuel their growing bodies.Recreation supervisor Kristin Aarsvold got wind of the edible playground idea at the Minnesota Parks and Recreation Association annual conference. “I was hearing about these gardens in Bloomington and Eden Prairie and wondered if it were something we could do here in Edina,” Aarsvold recalls.Aarsvold is also a task force member of the Minnesota Department of Health’s Statewide Health Improvement Program (SHIP). SHIP works to create environments and systems to support healthy eating and create change in how people think about food.Nearly 80 percent of school children do not get the recommended daily allowance of fruits and vegetables, and childhood obesity has been on the rise for the past 10 years. It was obvious to Aarsvold that an edible playground supports city and state goals to promote healthy living. Her passion for the project fueled her effort to gather community support and organize volunteers.Funding for the edible playground came from Dow Water Process Solutions, Edina Resource Center, Fairview Foundation and SHIP. According to Brian Morgan, community outreach team leader at Dow, the edible playground fits perfectly within Dow’s “Keep America Beautiful” initiative. “We were already partnered with the city and Lewis Park through the adopt-a-park program,” he says. “It made sense to fortify that commitment with funds and volunteers to construct this garden. It is another dimension to the park that will improve the lives of those with limited access to green space.”That limited access to green space determined the location of the edible playground. The community around Lewis Park is home to many apartment residents without yards for personal gardening. The summer edible playground programs and camps at Lewis Park included gardening activities, garden-related craft projects and nutrition education. Children learned to identify plants and pollinators, participated in planting, weeding and harvesting, and learned to connect fresh produce to healthy eating. A service component consisted of donating any excess harvest to the local food shelf.So what grew in Edina’s first edible playground? In addition to squash, beans and cucumbers, the edible playground was designed to include a pizza plot and a salsa plot. These plots were planted with ingredients that included tomatoes, peppers, basil and oregano to create foods that kids enjoy.Mary Dalsin is studying to become a master gardener through the University of Minnesota Extension. She assisted with the edible garden design. She also provided expertise on which plants to group together and which to start from seed. “It’s exciting to see city kids engaged in gardening,” Dalsin says. “Even the most squirrely or shy child is somehow drawn to gardening.”Edina Garden Council member Nancy Nash lives near Lewis Park and was excited to get involved with this fully organic edible playground project. “I love the idea of an edible playground,” she says. “It’s a great way for neighbors to come together and see what’s growing.”Alissa LeRoux Smith, manager of community health and volunteer services at Fairview Southdale Hospital, believes kids better understand healthy eating through these types of garden programs. “The edible playground is an interactive community classroom,” she says. “The benefits of learning about gardening go beyond nutrition. Gardening is a lifelong leisure pursuit that promotes physical activity and is a stress reliever. A public garden space provides the added benefit of building community.”Carrie Cabe at the Edina Resource Center also appreciates the idea of connecting neighbors through edible playground programs. “Parks are a great gathering space,” she says. “My hope is that kids brought their families back to the park later in the afternoon to show off what they did. Community gardening is a wonderful way to learn from each other.”