Target is getting serious about play.

A year after the Minneapolis-based retailer switched from its focus on schools to health and activities, it has committed $40 million to new playgrounds, community gardens, outdoor classrooms and other projects that promote a healthy lifestyle.

For the 266 students at Northeast College Prep Charter School in Minneapolis, that means a new playground built with the largesse from Target and the nonprofit KaBOOM! It's one of 175 new play spaces they are building across the country for about 430,000 children.

Target is also collaborating with United Nations Children's Fund (UNICEF) to promote physical activity for kids in the United States while providing basic nutrition for needy children in developing nations.

"Oftentimes the dynamic we have is, education at the expense of play," said James Siegal, CEO of KaBOOM! "The reality is the two are totally integrated."

Target and KaBOOM! collaborated with kids, parents and school leaders to design and build its new projects.

Madeline and Titus Peterson, ages 6 and 4, scrambled across the monkey bars, slides and swings at the new playground at Northeast College Prep recently. Their mom, Laura Peterson, gives Target's new giving campaign good marks.

"They are still working with kids and organizations that work with kids, just in a different light," Peterson said. "It's really important for kids to get out and move their bodies in order to be able to learn."

Peterson said she doesn't even know whether her kids' school connected with Target's old giving program, but every child at Northeast College Prep already knows all the nooks and crannies of those bright, new orange and blue playgrounds.

"Target's shift and focus on healthy lifestyles and play in the life of kids really aligns with our own school's values," said Carl Phillips, the charter school's director. "We have a very strong emphasis on the social and emotional development of our students, which includes having time to be kids, to play, to develop social-interaction skills that develop on the playground," Phillips said.

Evolving strategies, values

It's those evolving societal values, along with Target's business strategy, that prompted the retailer to rethink its giving programs, said Laysha Ward, Target's chief corporate social responsibility officer.

Childhood and adolescent obesity rates have soared in the past three decades. More than a third of children and adolescents are overweight or obese, according the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Adults are looking for ways to incorporate more activity and healthy choices into daily life.

"Target can bring fun and inspiration and happiness to what can sometimes feel like a challenge," Ward said.

Since 1946, Target has set aside 5 percent of profits for philanthropy. That amounts to about $4 million a week, or $215 million a year. Ward said that philanthropy has always been an integral part of Target's business plan.

"We connect that social responsibility work to our overall strategy," she said.

The company poured money into a program called "Take Charge of Education" for nearly two decades, which helped thousands of schools.

"Our strategy has begun to pivot because we know wellness is really important to our guests," Ward said. "Wellness is a very personal journey, and it's about small choices we need to make every single day."

Target can influence those choices with what it's offering customers on the shelves and with its charity work, she said.

Target's first big move was to sign onto UNICEF's Kid Power program last fall. The international aid agency was outfitting lower-income American children with fitness monitors that track steps and movements. The kids earn points for activity, which unlock therapeutic food packets for children in developing nations.

Target, one of two main Kid Power sponsors, helped expand the schools program and marketed and sold a version of the UNICEF fitness band at their stores for $39.99.

Using Kid Power, 182,000 children and parents have unlocked 1.8 million therapeutic food packets.

Target's business savvy and its prior partnerships with schools helped Kid Power thrive, said Rajesh Anandan, a senior vice president at UNICEF.

"The results have been stunning in a good way. We see that kids get it. Teachers love it. We are dramatically increasing their level of physical activity regardless of where a school is based or the income of their community," Anandan said.

Studies completed at the University of Arizona and University of California, Santa Barbara found that kids wearing UNICEF trackers are 30 to 50 percent more active than children wearing other fitness trackers, Anandan said.

"Its all based on a very simple idea that kids intrinsically want to help," he said.

Power of play

Playgrounds and play spaces are the most visible elements of Target's new charitable efforts.

KaBOOM! brought its technical expertise, derived from decades of building playgrounds. The nonprofit got started because two young children, looking for a place to play, became trapped in the trunk of a car and died. The nonprofit's projects range from small play areas in waiting rooms, libraries and bus stops to outdoor playgrounds and pocket playgrounds in small urban parks.

Target also is spending $5 million on 6,500 smaller classroom projects that promote health. Children come up with the ideas and, with the help of teachers, submit a simple grant application for as much as $1,000.

While some may be cynical of Target's decision to link its business strategy with its philanthropy, KaBOOM!'s Siegal says the alignment has real potential to transform a community.

On the same day in September, Target and KaBOOM! built playgrounds in Minneapolis at Northeast College Prep, Sabathani Community Center and Waite House, part of Pillsbury United Communities.

Teens and children pack the new Sabathani playground at peak play times, said Cindy Booker, director of the Sabathani Center.

"It's really like a physical fitness obstacle course, but the kids are having so much fun they don't' realize how much energy they are using," Booker said.

Shannon Prather • 612-673-4804