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Nature-Smart Libraries for Families and Young Children

Children & Nature Network will advance healthy child development and create access to nature-based learning for families with children ages

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Updates: How has your idea changed or evolved throughout the Prize? What updates have you made to this submission? (1500 characters)

Through the incredibly valuable engagement with our mentor, we have been connected to substantial resources to help us evolve our idea. We feel quite strongly that the model for community engagement is strong and we will be able to provide our chosen libraries with additional tools and resources as a result of the connections made through our mentor.

Name or Organization

Children & Nature Network


C&NN is a virtual organization. The proposed work will take place in Minnesota.

What is your stage of development?

  • Early Stage Innovator, with at least one-year experience in ECD


  • Non-profit

What is the stage of your proposal?

  • Full-scale roll-out: I have completed a pilot and analyzed the impact of that pilot on the users I am trying to reach with my idea. I am ready to expand the pilot significantly.

Describe how your solution could be a game-changer for your selected Opportunity Area (600 characters)

In low-income communities of color, libraries are key resources for families for early literacy development and language learning, but they are underutilized in helping families establish a connection to nearby parks which also provide key learning and health benefits to young children. By building capacity within libraries to connect families of young children to nature, public spaces within the neighborhood can provide maximum benefit to a multitude of key elements to healthy child learning and development.

Select an Innovation Target

  • Network: Connecting people with each other to enhance the reach or effectiveness of new or existing resources.

Tell us more about your innovation (1500 characters)

In the city of Saint Paul, Minnesota, the Children & Nature Network (C&NN) piloted an innovative new model connecting families to libraries and parks in Nature-Smart Libraries. The pilot was a success in connecting diverse low-income families to outdoor nature experiences and is now being replicated throughout the Saint Paul Public Library system. The momentum is gaining, and partners across the state of Minnesota and in cities across the U.S. show active interest in advancing Nature-Smart Libraries. To address this demand, C&NN aims to establish Nature-Smart Libraries in three library systems across Minnesota to engage families with young children ages 0-3 in outdoor experiences in nature. Healthy early childhood development will advance through trainings, new library tools, partnerships between libraries and parks, and ongoing support in a peer learning network.

What problem are you aiming to solve? (3 sentences)

Over the past 30 years, childhood has moved indoors, leaving young people disconnected from the natural world and each other. This trend has profound implications for children’s healthy development in the areas of cognitive development, social emotional learning and, and physical activity, as research increasingly tells us that children need regular time in nature to reach their full potential and to develop a sense of empathy, belonging and connectedness.

Explain your idea (5000 characters)

The reasons for children’s disconnect from nature are real and complex, including the fact that for the first time in history, more people live in cities than rural areas. As the world becomes more urbanized, we need creative, innovative solutions for changing a culture of nature disconnect, which disproportionately affects low income and communities of color. This disconnect warrants new approaches to access to nature that includes both city infrastructure and programming. Libraries provide both. They are situated on land that can be used for gardens or outdoor reading time, and they are often near city parks; and they offer myriad education and programming opportunities. As libraries look to reinvent themselves as community hubs they are on the front line of innovation for how to serve low-income families and children. Awareness of libraries as geographically relevant safe spaces for communities make them the ideal venue for children and families to gather and connect with nature. By supporting libraries in creating nature connections for low income children from families of color, we reach families where they are while leveraging the versatility, staff, resources and programs available at libraries that are not currently being maximized in this effort. C&NN will work with three library systems in Minnesota to develop programming that engages families with 0-3 children that supports the connection between nature and healthy early childhood development. To design Nature Smart Libraries that best serve families of children ages 0-3, C&NN will conduct the following activities: 1)Identify three city library systems statewide in Minnesota. C&NN in partnership with MN State Library Services and Minnesota Library Association will propel communication to increase collective understanding of need for nature access for children, 0-3 and their parents in low-income. communities and the opportunities libraries have in addressing this need. C&NN will collaboratively create selection criteria, craft and release a Request for Proposals through each organization’s contacts from three city library systems. 2)Train city library teams on a community-driven planning process:C&NN will work with teams from the cohort of 3 library systems, and will guide teams from each city through the process of engaging the community in establishing a Nature-Smart Library. C&NN will use newly developed resources to guide city teams through the community-driven process that will serve to catalyze change through libraries to increase access to nature for low-income communities. Teams will be trained in best practices for bringing communities into a process where they serve not as mere informants, but as deeply engaged stakeholders with decision-making power for local community-based change. The training will focus on successful strategies for communities of color and low-income communities. 3)Provide technical assistance to cities as they conduct their community engagement and planning activities. C&NN will conduct webinars, phone calls at regular intervals, and peer learning opportunities among library systems to support city library teams as they work through the community engagement and planning process. The technical assistance will including grounding in the following essential components of the community process of establishing a Natural Library: Identifying key resources, stakeholders organizations and community leaders who can help make the project a success;Mapping nature access disparities to identify priority neighborhoods and libraries;Exploring culturally relevant opportunities for outdoor family engagement with children 0-3 specific to priority populations and neighborhoods;Mapping existing nature-based programs and demographics to identify programmatic gaps and assets;Exploring library-park partnership opportunities to determine what policies and programs are possible to institutionalize the connections within the city. 4. Conduct site visits to each city to evaluate community input and support the development of local NatureSmart Library Action Plans. C&NN will work with teams from library system and community stakeholders to analyze community input and establish priority strategies for addressing needs articulated in the planning process. The community assessments and stakeholder engagement efforts described above will culminate in the development of Nature-Smart Library Action Plans by each participating library specific to their community interests, resources, and capacity. 5. Develop Resource Hub to support Action Plan implementation – C&NN will create a platform for tools and resources that emerge from the community engagement process to support local action plans. These will likely include: A book list of 100 Best Nature Books for Children;Activity cards for families and young children for outdoor nature engagement;Research on early childhood development and nature connections

Who benefits? (1500 characters)

1. C&NN seeks to expand opportunities for young children (ages 0-3), particularly in low-income communities of color in three Minnesota cities, to learn and play in healthy, nature-rich environments. Children from low-income families of color often do not have easy access to nature or their parents/care providers lack the confidence to nurture nature experiences. At this impressionable, developmental stage, we will embed nature access and opportunities for nature connection in the places in which young children and their families live, play, and learn. Parents of children ages 0-3 will receive tools and information that will help them support their children’s healthy development through quality time spent in nature-rich environments. 2. Nature-based recreational opportunities in, low-income communities have been found to be a contributor to the health of individual family members and a higher quality of life for the entire family. Facilitating nature play for families especially with young children requires unique teaching techniques. Children & Nature Network brings a decade of expertise and collaborative capacity to support and prioritize family-based nature programming. Librarians and park staff who are on the front lines contribute an intimate knowledge and understanding of the community they serve. Together, we are able to minimize economic and cultural barriers for young children in nature while building parents comfort and skills for facilitating outdoor play.

What kind of impact will your idea have? (1500 characters)

The Nature-Smart Libraries initiative will build institutional capacity, skills and knowledge within city library systems to support nature-rich experiences for young children and families. Services and programs designed for children simultaneously benefit participating parents who gain access to new resources for repeat and sustained nature engagement. At a community level, benefits come in the form of new park-library connections and libraries who have developed a culture of being responsive to their community. Systems change will take place within municipalities as library and park systems are redefined with a new understanding of their shared goals and increased capacity in library leadership to initiate connections between parks and libraries. Anticipated outcomes include: Libraries systems are equipped as hubs for nature connection;Pilot library sites adopt and sustain ;Nature-Smart Library strategies that are responsive to the neighborhoods and populations they serve; A suite of resources including a framework of strategies, nature backpacks, community engagement toolkit specific to libraries, and an online resource hub are created to support libraries in planning and implementing Nature-Smart Library strategies;Local greening projects, such as vegetable, rain and pollinator gardens, tree plantings, outdoor hikes and story times, camp outs, etc.;Local planning and implementation action plans community engagement and strategy implementation at each Nature-Smart Library.

How does or how could your idea impact low-income children? (1500 characters)

Children in low-income communities and communities of color are affected disproportionately by health and academic disparities that require intervention. Libraries are a key resource in low-income communities that can support childhood development well beyond the checking out of books. C&NN will support libraries in identifying strategies for young children to have frequent and varied opportunities for unstructured play in the natural world as a means to improving their physical, social and emotional well-being. Greening of library grounds and use of nearby parks for library outings provide settings for engaging a child’s senses, curiosity and imagination critical for healthy brain development. Library nature stations and activities with elements from nature give young children manipulatives for improved motor skills. Scheduled time for families to experience nature fosters family bonds and bidirectional learning. Together children and parents will develop long-lasting memories and a love of nature rooted in nearby nature experiences. Parents, in turn, become familiar with nearby locations for accessing nature that they can frequent beyond library programming, gain confidence in navigating the outdoors, connect with other parents at the same stage of parenting, and venture into the unfamiliar space of nature that supports them in future child exposure to new environments for sustained parent-child engagement in nature.

Innovation: What makes your concept innovative? (5000 characters)

Nothing short of a cultural shift is needed to reverse the trend of childhood moving indoors. No one organization or innovative program will solve this problem alone. C&NN uses a network approach, convening cross-sector collaborators, bringing together the most promising evidence-based solutions, and creating a platform for incubating, scaling and replicating innovations across communities. We can drive social change more quickly and effectively when we collaborate through strategic partnerships and grassroots action networks with deep ties in communities. Rather than creating programs, C&NN fosters and supports innovation from the ground up, providing the tools, capacity and resources needed to incubate and scale new ideas. We also bring together unlikely partners, cutting through barriers that prevent positive change, Our partnership with the City of St. Paul and community organizations in Minnesota to re-imagine libraries as nurturing nature hubs is an example of how our approach drives change. Our theory of change posits that by engaging and empowering community-based changemakers with research, actionable tools, evidence-based solutions and opportunities for peer learning, we can increase equitable access to nature systemically across the city. This model supports the creation of a nature-rich city, offering healthy environments and that increase well-being for children and families, especially children growing up in low-income households. Internally, our shared values as an organization include teamwork, innovation, service and respect. We’re a small team working virtually in offices across the country, impassioned by possibility and work that we love. Our geographic reach allows us to engage with a diverse set of community leaders and practitioners to discover best practices and test ideas developed by our team. We rely on our team’s talents, skills and community connections to successfully explore and execute new ideas and deliver high-quality work that advances our mission. C&NN also relies upon the vast resources and thought leadership provided by our international network to drive and implement innovation. The continuous threads of communication around model programs, research and policy shifts that are a result of network connections, influence our decision making and initiative design.

Scale: Describe how your idea could reach a significant number of end-users. (1500 characters)

Unlike traditional youth-serving organizations, C&NN does not produce programs but makes lasting investments in community-based leadership, offering technical support to help local partners identify and dismantle barriers to equitable nature access. Our community engagement approach creates an occasion for library-park partnerships to take hold, while also acting as an incubator for national scalability. An online Nature-Smart Resource Hub developed by C&NN will be easily accessible for library staff and administrators across the nation. Nature book lists activities and toolkits provide a modular approach for Nature-Smart Library implementation that is responsive to libraries’ capacity and community needs. Case studies documented on the C&NN website serve as a source of inspiration. Individual libraries and library systems will have all they need to adopt nature as a strategy for self-replication of Nature-Smart Libraries. As a complement to the statewide launch in Minnesota, C&NN in partnership with the National League of Cities will build Cities Connecting Children to Nature cities’ capacity in the areas of youth and community engagement for delivery of early childhood nature strategies. Adoptions of these strategies across city departments and library systems creates momentum for libraries throughout the nation to places for parent-child nature connection.

Feasibility: Where are you with understanding the feasibility of your idea? Describe what you’ve done so far and your plans. (3000 characters)

In May 2017, C&NN and its local affiliate conducted a survey of 75 libraries systems across the state of MN that showed that it is a priority for libraries to: ● 82% – Bring nature-based programming into the library from external partners ● 77% – Create outdoor programming in nearby outdoor spaces ● 73% – Develop outdoor nature spaces on library property, such as reading or pollinator gardens, nature-play spaces ● 73% – Partner with local, regional, state or national parks to provide additional nature opportunities for patrons The primary barriers to implementing these kinds of programs were: lack of know-how, capacity and funding (80%) and staffing (60%). Based on this survey and the feedback that they have received from their membership, the MN Library Association and the Minnesota State Library Services have joined with us to scale our Nature Smart Library initiative. The organizations are prepared to disseminate opportunities for engagement and newly developed resources amongst their networks of libraries, advise on the development of resources and promote Nature-Smart Libraries at trainings for library staff. Additionally, The MN State Library Services confirmed their willingness to dedicate Library Services Technology Act funds towards Nature-Smart Library initiatives, and the MN Library Association is prepared to integrate Nature-Smart Library resources and training into their spring Children & Young People Conference for Kids’ Librarians and fall Annual Conference offerings. Because there is such great interest and demand for this project, we will hold a competitive application process, selecting a library district that demonstrates great commitment to the project, readiness to participate and ability to reach underserved communities.

Business Viability: How viable is your business model? (5000 characters)

The model for this project depends upon communities looking within for resources and building a Nature Smart Library using already established resources. Each Nature Smart Library will reflect the needs and desires of the community as articulated through planning process supported by the Children and Nature Network. Through our technical assistance we will help Libraries identify funding sources, local resources and potential partnerships to realize the vision for a Nature Smart Library. The greatest challenge is to help libraries recognize unlikely partners, such as the Parks Department. Once the partners are identified, providing support for navigating partnerships will be critical to each library.

HCD: How have you used human centered design to build or refine your concept? (5000 characters)

Everything about this project depends upon human centered design. The very nature of the process includes users and stakeholders for every stage of development. Unlike traditional youth-serving organizations, C&NN does not produce programs but makes lasting investments in community-based leadership, offering technical support to help local partners identify and dismantle barriers to equitable nature access. In St. Paul’s diverse Conway neighborhood, we partnered with St. Paul Parks & Recreation, Public Libraries and community members to envision libraries as nature-rich hubs with welcoming nature spaces and programs to foster environmental literacy and appreciation through reading and urban gardening. We convened 40+ organizations, including those representing Hmong, Somali, Oromo, Hispanic and African American communities, to guide design of the Sun Ray NatureSmart Library demonstration project and its programs. The result was an unexpected way of thinking about the relationship between libraries, parks and the community members who took ownership of creating nature experiences that are appealing and relevant for their families. We intend to replicate this model with future libraries.

Tell us more about you (3000 characters)

1) The Children & Nature Network (C&NN) was co-founded in 2006 by author Richard Louv after the publication of his best-selling book, "Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder." We know that nature has the power to make children healthier, happier and smarter. But over the last few generations, childhood has moved indoors, leaving kids disconnected from the natural world. This global trend has profound implications for children's healthy development--and the health of our environment. We envision a world in which all children play, learn and grow with nature in their everyday lives. To achieve that vision, we are leading an international movement to increase equitable access to nature so that children and natural places can thrive. We continually seek to invest in leadership and communities through sharing evidence-based resources, scaling innovative solutions, and driving policy change. 2) The early childhood years represent an excellent “goodness of fit” between young children and nature, meaning that young children are innately drawn to the rich sensory aspects of nature. Nature offers the kind of affordances that invite children to be physically, emotionally, and cognitively engaged. Nature is, in fact, a natural habitat for young children. 3) C&NN has expertise and experience in the development of resources and toolkits and the delivery of leadership training in support of family based nature initiatives on a grassroots and systems level. For over 10 years, C&NN has successfully opened the door for diverse communities to have meaningful access to nature. Through our Natural Families initiative and training resources, more than 250 families (45,000 individuals) annually engage in inquiry-based nature play, discovery and observation of the natural world.

Do you have the people and partners you need to do what you’ve described? (600 characters)

As a network, C&NN has partnerships across the country to help propel this work forward. There is always room in the network for new thinkers, diverse organizations and innovative programs to support our work. For Nature Smart Libraries C&NN will work with the following organizations: Minnesota Library Association; MN State Library Services; MN Children Nature Connection;Natural Start Alliance (NAAEE);NatureStart;Nature Explore;The Early Childhood Education program at the Minneapolis Community and Technical College; Natural Learning Initiative;Even Start Family Literacy Program

As you consider your next steps, what kinds of help could you use? Is there a type of expertise that would be most helpful? (1800 characters)

We would welcome input from early childhood researchers and early childhood experts to provide additional information and evidence on the important role that nature plays in brain development of young children. While the evidence base is mounting, and we know enough to act, more research is needed. Would would also like to call upon those in the technology industry, who know that as we become more high tech, the more nature we need in order to restore and rejuvenate. We also need to hear from pediatricians about their understanding of the importance of time spent in nature for a child’s early development.

Would you like mentoring support?

  • Yes

Are you willing to share your email contact information submitted on OpenIDEO with Gary Community Investments?

  • Yes, share my contact information

[Optional] Biography: Upload your biography. Please include links to relevant information (portfolio, LinkedIn profile, organization website, etc).

C&NN Website -; Facebook -

Mentorship: How was your idea supported? (5000 characters)

We were thrilled to be matched with a mentor and found the opportunity extremely helpful to our process. While we did not change major aspects of our ideas, we were inspired by the mentors support for the idea. We have refined some of our thinking as a result and we were given some excellent partnership ideas from the mentor that we are in the process of exploring.

Attachments (1)

C&NN N-SL IDEO (2).pdf

Highlights how project has evolved from our pilot and the key phases of the project.


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