Down the right path

A Born Learning Trail created recently by United Way of Southwest Minnesota is expected to provide countless educational and fun opportunities for Cottonwood area youth.

The Born Learning Trail is a series of learning activities that help parents, grandparents or other caregivers interact with young children, hopefully boosting language and literacy development in addition to providing outdoor fun.

Volunteers joined staff from the United Way to get the trail completed at C.W. Reishus Park in time for Cottonwood’s 125th anniversary celebration, which begins today. It’s the first fully-functioning Born Learning Trail in the area.

“We’re hoping that kicking it off in Cottonwood, especially with their 125th anniversary and their big Coming Home Days this weekend, will be the perfect opportunity to really showcase the new trail, that there is another avenue for both residents and those who are coming back to take part in that,” said Marcy Heemeyer, executive director for United Way. “The hope is that we get some good feedback from the use there and that other communities throughout our five-county area will take a look at it and decide they want to have their own trail installed.”

United Way of Southwest Minnesota serves Lincoln, Lyon, Murray, Yellow Medicine and western Redwood counties.

“If communities are interested in bringing that to their town, we’d really encourage them to get in touch with Stephanie (Cordes, United Way education coordinator). She’s kind of been the project manager and lead on this. She’s done a great job,” Heemeyer said.

The Born Learning Trail is part of a larger campaign, which consists of informational materials and an online resource site at The information encourages families to turn everyday activities into learning opportunities for young children.

“The Born Learning Trail is a United Way Worldwide product idea that they put together based on research about best practices for engaging children and families in learning,” Cordes said.

The campaign is built on the premise that children are born learning and that even the smallest interactions with caregivers can encourage their development and school readiness.

“It’s a series of 10 signs that are posted, and each sign has a different learning focus area on it,” she said. “Then there are some additional activities that would go along the trail in the form of stencils. There’s a hopscotch grid, shapes and some letters.”

The target age is from 1-6 but can be adapted in countless ways, Cordes said.

“A 1-year-old can do some of the hopping and jumping, whereas a 6-year-old may have siblings with them, and they can try to read the signs to their younger siblings or to their parents,” she said. “It works on a variety of levels.”

The trail is meant to be something simple, yet meaningful, Cordes said, noting that participants can pretty much determine how much time they spend on it.

“It doesn’t take a lot of time, but it can if you do it over and over again,” she said. “It’s just a good way to engage families in fun and learning.”

Heemeyer said people didn’t have to do the entire trail in one day if there were time constraints.

“You could just pick three or four to do if you were at a picnic or something,” she said. “You could stop whenever you wanted to.”

The sign that says to hop, toss, shake and wiggle is one of Heemeyer’s favorites.

“It uses hopscotch to encourage moving, hopping, counting and the development of other gross motor skills,” she said. “There are also activities and suggestions on how to incorporate other actions at the same time. This one works on number and color recognition because everything is very colorful.”

Many people contributed to the effort, including the city of Cottonwood, which approved the trail and agreed to its upkeep, Cottonwood Lumber Company owner Darren Beck, who donated lumber and time to assemble the signs, and two different crews of volunteers who helped complete the project.

“One crew was measuring out the distance between the signs on the trail, making sure it was straight and digging the holes,” Heemeyer said. “The second crew was in charge of painting and stenciling. They had to make sure the right stencils went with the right signs.”

Cordes noted that just over 250 feet of trail was used in Cottonwood.

“You don’t need a huge amount of space,” she said. “We could put it in less space. In Cottonwood, we were not able to alternate signs. They all had to be on one side because the county owns the other side of the land.”

While the city of Cottonwood agreed to mow and clean off the signs, paint may need to be touched up in a few years. Heemeyer and Cordes are optimistic that a group within the community will offer to help out in that department.

“It would provide some ownership for the community,” she said.

While excited to be able to showcase the first Born Learning Trail in the area, Heemeyer and Cordes are also looking forward to future installations.

“We’re hoping that surrounding communities go out and get a feel for the trail in Cottonwood and say ‘Hey, this might work for us in Granite Falls’ or ‘We have a park in Balaton that this would work at,'” Heemeyer said. “It can be installed basically anywhere that has some sort of sidewalk or trail that things could be painted on.”

For more information, contact Cordes at 507-929-2273 or at