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St. Paul program is simple and free: Come out and play

Children climb and explore a tree along the Mississippi River at Hidden Falls Regional Park in St. Paul on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017. Kids do 'unstructured' play, with parents nearby, in a city-run program called "Green Time." Jean Pieri/St. Paul Pioneer Press1 / 2
Emily Hoisington, left, points to an eagle as her daughter Ruth, 2 1/2, looks up at Hidden Falls Regional Park in St. Paul on Thursday, Feb. 16, 2017. Kids do 'unstructured' play, with parents nearby, in a city-run program called "Green Time." Jean Pieri/St. Paul Pioneer Press2 / 2

ST. PAUL — It's old news to most urban parents: The average kid in America spends seven minutes a day outdoors in "unstructured play," according to a seminal study.

"Your childhood is not the childhood of today, unfortunately," said Faith Krogstad, an education coordinator with the St. Paul Parks and Recreation Department.

Time spent on computers, phones or in front of the television every day totals seven as well — hours, not minutes.

The study — put out by the Henry J. Kaiser Foundation — is actually 7 years old. But casual observation suggests things have only gotten worse, with cellphones and tablets practically being implanted into the hands of toddlers.

That's why one of Krogstad's staff spends as much time as she can in a new program playing outdoors with St. Paul's kids. Emphasis on "play" — whatever the kids want to do. Within reason.

"Shimmy across logs on the stream, throw rocks in the river, swing on wild grape vines. We ask the kids where they want to go. Play with drift wood. There's a lot of drift wood down there," Krogstad said.

"There" is Hidden Falls Regional Park, and the city-run program Krogstad heads, which roughly a dozen kids attend, is called "Green Time."

Evidence suggests "brown time" would be more apropos. "If the kids' clothes are dirty by the end of the time, we've done a good job," Krogstad says.

The group — free for all comers — meets once a month at Hidden Falls or at Phalen Lakeside Center in the colder months.

Education specialist Mary Henke-Hany is typically the one on the scene, carrying a first-aid kit and staying out of the way.

Yes, she has a wealth of knowledge about local flora and fauna, everything from eagles to snails.

But ...

"I definitely have done this before where you try to encourage them to do things, but they just spend an hour and a half throwing rocks in the water," she said, watching a group of kids Thursday put each other in a "jail" of tree roots as thick and tall as they are.

Still, the parents have plenty of questions, so it all works out.

During the Thursday outing, there wasn't a cellphone in sight (except in the hands of one of the parents).

Parent Lydia Houle of St. Paul said she found out about the program online.

"Social media can be useful sometimes," she laughed, as her two kids, Liam, 7, and Ella, 9, scrambled along the Mississippi shore.

The kids currently attending — and there's plenty of space — are all in the under-10 range, which suits Krogstad fine.

"Having young children do that earlier in life helps them be more comfortable in nature and have more of an affinity for it," she says. "Being outside is great for academic development, stress, mental health ... it's just good for you, bottom line."

Children of any age are welcome but must be accompanied by an adult.

The Green Time program is 2 years old; Krogstad is also involved with a more structured outdoor program for kids — including hikes and hands-on activities — called ExploraTots, which meets twice monthly.

The Pioneer Press is a Forum News Service media partner.