Nature Play for Babies and toddlers



The baby-friendly natural play space at this Early Head Start Center offers a gentle invitation to the youngest children to explore and discover large and small spaces, active and quiet spaces, places for outdoor building and creating and spots for imaginary, sensory and physical play. 

Adjacent to a new set of toddler height steps, a ball roll is built into the handrail so children can explore gravity by rolling balls down the channel.

 The steps connect to the loop path which carries foot and riding toy traffic around the space, connecting a variety of elements to support children and adults spending time in the out-of-doors. The multi-textured circular path includes sections of inset brick, river rock, sparkling colorful gems, various shaped pavers, tree cookies and leaf imprints that draw children through the space.  Toddling, running or wheeling over this variety of textures will provide a range of tactile and auditory experiences.

The first area one encounters along the path is a quiet grassy corner with a low hammock that can hold one or two children, a child and an adult, or a tired teacher at break time.  The hammock offers a calming place for gentle rocking.

A child-height marimba as well as bells hanging from the tree above adds a dimension of soft sound, made by children and by the wind.  Throughout the space, mobiles, wind socks, sparkly CD’s and beads hanging from above add motion and color.

Further along the sensory path in the southwest corner of the space there is a large sand area for digging and engineering. The sand area is edged with natural logs and boulders and pickable plants and includes a log table that provides a rustic horizontal work surface for pretend cooking and meals.   A water tower connected to a wooden trough provides the option of wet sand and the sensory appeal that adds to the outdoor space.

A pair of playhouses on the edge of the sand area support imaginary play, language and social interactions. 

The active play area includes a tunnel for crawling through and a constructed hill with an embankment slide and a stump scramble –a set of different height and diameter tree stumps set into the hillside for climbing.

A shelter frame can be embellished with fabric, ribbons, or other materials to create a sense of enclosure.  Nearby is a swinging bench, which provides soothing movement opportunities. This is a place for children and adults to sit together for relaxing, conversation, and storytime.

In the center of the loop path is an open lawn space for crawling, toddling and running.  In one portion of the lawn there are two cruising bars, pipe rails held up by wood posts to support cruising babies.  Finally, a low grassy hill offers a sloping surface to climb up and roll down, a different vantage point for surveying the space and a destination for cloud watching. 

Child-friendly plantings of trees, shrubs, grasses and perennials provide shade, edibles, fragrance and seasonal color throughout the space.   


Nancy’s vision and design were both stellar.  Nancy’s design considered every aspect of functionality and comfort seamlessly intertwined with a natural playscape.

 The entire area now feels serene and peaceful.  The children are much more engaged on the playground and can be observed engrossed in a variety of exploratory activities. The playground is much more functional for the teachers and includes many elements to make full day outdoor time possible. This playground is now the grand finale of any building tours we do!

Heidi Condrey, 
Early Head Start Education Manager

Constitution Gardens


Constitution Gardens Park is the first city park in the National Capitol area with a focus on natural play.  The design of Constitution Gardens Park celebrates the past, present and future of the Gaithersburg community by weaving together threads of sustainability with elements inspired by the cultural and natural history of the area.

The park is organized in three zones: The front of the park celebrates “Today and Tomorrow” and provides gathering places such as the World Herb spiral, playful bench swings flanked by river birches, and an entry with a millstone fountain and child and adult-sized entry arches.

The center of the park is called “Log Town” in honor of the original colonial era name for Gaithersburg, and features a farm-themed play area for preschoolers as well as an arboretum area called Horticulture Hill.  The Northern third of the park celebrates the indigenous people and natural history of the region with giant boulders called Grandmother Rocks, forest plant communities, adventurous play areas for older children and rustic seating. The park features include The Lost Library Storyteller’s circle, a large “bird’s nest” climber, a natural sand play area edged in logs and pickable plants, a pair of log-framed playhouses, a sliding hill with a log scramble, a mosaic stream with a hand pump and a sculptural fallen tree for climbing. Throughout the park are collections of “loose parts” that support deep, rich imaginative play, creative building, and cooperation among children.

The park encourages visitors to look to the future through artfully integrated, multi-purpose elements of sustainability and low-impact development (LID) best management practices.

EarlySpace partnered with two other firms for this design/build project. Our principal, Nancy Striniste was the natural playspace specialist on the design team.

Click here to watch a video about Constitution Gardens.

Most of the 900 kids at our school live in apartments and rarely get to play outside. Now that this park is here, our children have trees to climb, swings to ride and forts and sand castles to build!

Gaithersburg Elementary School Prinicipal