Eric Castle

Date of Award

January 2018

Document Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy (PhD)


Earth System Science & Policy

First Advisor

Rebecca Romsdahl


Obesity, loss of social capital, and fewer connections to nature are three community health issues faced by many. A team of concerned individuals attempted to address the spectrum of these health issues by collaboratively engaging communities to plan, design, build and program natural play spaces located in public parks. This exploratory study, utilizing a grounded theory approach, conducted focus groups with community members who engaged in this process. The specific objectives of the study were twofold; 1) to generate theory regarding the perceived impact on social capital from the community-driven planning and construction process of the Connecting Children in Nature in Northwest Minnesota project and 2) to generate theory regarding the perceived impact of the natural play spaces themselves to provide a setting to improve community health. Once transcribed the data was analyzed using a hierarchical coding system, consisting of open, axial and focused codes. Methodical analysis of these discussions revealed relative themes including nature connection, government relations, persistence, engaging and recruiting, and social capital which can inform those interested in collaborative public engagement resulting in volunteer built works. Discussion of the relevance of this work to the existing body of knowledge revealed concordance with the work of others on the topics of children’s health and well-being, social capital, and the development of natural play spaces. Analysis of the data also provided a foundation of a grounded theory of nature play therapy that can inform further research. This theory posits that community-engaged natural play space creation and play in that space prompts therapeutic responses. The study limitations included focus group participants that were primarily white, female and interested in promoting active play among children.