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Natural Play and Sustainability in a Maryland City Park

by Nancy Striniste

As a landscape designer and former teacher, my specialty and passion is creating sustainable natural play and learning spaces. I’ve worked with dozens of schools and early childhood programs in the mid-Atlantic and along the east coast to create a variety of unique, place-based outdoor spaces for children. When a chance to design and build a natural play park came along, I had the opportunity to bring together some of my favorite and most talented colleagues. Constitution Gardens Park is the first natural play-themed city park in the National Capitol area, and it was designed and built by a team of my fellow GWU Landscape Design alumni as well as some faculty.

Every element in a natural play park encourages visitors to get out and play.

Every element in a natural play and learning space encourages visitors to explore. Tree parts harvested from the site of Constitution Gardens Park offer many opportunities for creative play. Photo: City of Gaithersburg

Lauren Wheeler, Landscape Design program director and Mary Sper of Natural Resources Design, Inc.  joined with my firm, EarlySpace, LLC to design the park. Chris Sonne, GWU faculty and principal at Civil and Environmental Services designed the innovative approaches to managing stormwater. J&G Landscaping, Inc. owned by alumnus Jeff Potter, was the contractor who built this uniquely sustainable and playful park.

Loose tree parts offer Photo: Nancy Striniste

Locally harvested trees become structures and loose tree parts become fodder for the imagination. Photo: Nancy Striniste

Natural playspaces are a relatively new phenomenon, nationally and around the world, in response to the detrimental effects on children of too much screen time and too few opportunities to play outside in nature. These playscapes are built using a palette of mostly natural materials. We used local stone, locally harvested tree parts, sculpted earth, abundant sand, water and native plants to create our park.

The Lost Library Story Circle

The Lost Library Storytellers Circle, pays tribute to a local cultural landmark, the Gaithersburg library. Photo: Nancy Striniste

The multi-layered design of Constitution Gardens features a number of elements inspired by the natural and cultural history of the Gaithersburg region. The Lost Library Storytellers Circle is a tribute to the beloved Gaithersburg library, located on the site until it burned in a fire in 1996. Log Town, honoring the Colonial era name for the region, is a play area for preschoolers with twig work and log playhouses, farm animals hand carved from logs and hollowed out locust flumes for water play.


Log Town celebrates Gaithersburg’s colonial past. Photo: City of Gaithersburg

A spiraling stonedust path winds through the World of Herbs Garden. Photo: Nancy Striniste

Water is a central theme of the design, from the vast quantities of stormwater infiltrated by the park’s pervious pavers and six lushly planted linked rain gardens, to the engaging water features and water play elements throughout the park. Water and its forms were also an aesthetic inspiration– spirals, eddies and concentric circles are a visual theme that repeats in large design elements and tiny details throughout the space.

Tiered rain gardens. Photo: Nancy Striniste

Tiered rain gardens infiltrate stormwater during large rain events. Photo: Nancy Striniste

All visitors enjoy the native plants.

All visitors enjoy the native plants. Photo: City of Gaithersburg

Native plants, and the wildlife they attract bring color and beauty to the park.  The plant palette was inspired by a nearby reference landscape.  These local plants, together with abundant locally harvested stone, create a strong and authentic sense of place in the park.

Most importantly, the park provides children from the community and visitors from across the region opportunities for the rich, creative, exciting play in nature that all children need and deserve.  From The Fallen Tree, an adventurous climbing element created with an 18’ section of a tree harvested from the site, to Sliding Hill, complete with embankment slides and a “stump scramble,” to a two foot deep sand play area, to a variety of moveable tree parts for building forts and fairy houses, the park invites deep engagement by children.

A group of visitors enjoy the "stump scramble."

A group of visitors enjoy scaling and lounging on The Fallen Tree. Photo: Nancy Striniste

Water and children is a natural combination. Photo: Melanie Meren

Water and children is a natural combination. Photo: Melanie Meren

As the natural play specialist on the team I found the project to be tremendously fulfilling.  Each member of the design team brought unique, and complimentary strengths and talents to the project.  It was an opportunity to apply all that we learned at GWU in creative and collaborative ways. There is a depth and richness to the design—layers of meaning combined with environmental sensitivity, support for community, wildlife habitat, stormwater management, and horticultural teaching space which together become a beautiful and highly engaging gathering space for all ages. The park that we designed and built together is something I think we are each very proud of.


A sliding hill provides thrills for visitors to Constitution Gardens Park. Photo: Nancy Striniste

About the Author

Nancy Striniste, MLD, founder and principal designer at Earlyspace, is a landscape designer and a former early childhood teacher. Her specialty is creating earth-friendly, child-friendly natural play and learning spaces. She holds a BS in Education from Wheelock College and a Masters in Sustainable Landscape Design from George Washington University. For more than three decades she’s been creating magical spaces for children and teaching teachers about the role of the environment in curriculum. Nancy serves on the board of NoVA Outside, an alliance of environmental educators, on the Maryland Natural Playspace Work Group, and is a member of the Community Built Association. She is passionate about connecting children to nature. Her thriving design practice includes the creation of sustainable natural play and learning spaces for early childhood programs, public and private schools, public parks, and private residences throughout the mid-Atlantic. Like EarlySpace, LLC on Facebook to see more projects.

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