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October 3, 2012 at 8:42 am 1 comment

How Nature Welcomes Babies

A friend is nearing the day when she will give birth to her first baby.

As she gets closer to her due date, another friend, Susan, and I have been inspired to remember many sweet details about our own experiences of becoming moms a decade or more ago.
We recently realized that we each have powerful memories of what was happening in nature when our babies arrived in the world.
For Susan, her son’s May arrival came at the time in Michigan when the tulips bloom and when the pansies could be planted. She thinks of those flowers when she remembers Owen’s birth.
I can vividly remember that in North Carolina, as the peony buds swelled, so did I, and when I returned home from the hospital with baby Abbey, those peonies were in full bloom to greet her.  During labor, as Jim and I were walking and walking around the UNC campus, we saw a bluebird– which seemed like a very good omen.  I always associate bluebirds with Abbey’s birth.
My son arrived in January, on a full moon night that was warm and windy.  I can remember walking toward the hospital under that bright moon, stopping to hold onto Jim as a contraction passed, with the wind swirling my big billowy dress.  A few days after Jesse arrived, the weather changed and I remember snuggling by the fireplace with my newborn boy through a massive ice storm and power outages.
Now that they are grown, I can see connections between the time they came into the world, and their relationships to nature.
My son is a winter boy– he prefers the cold.  And the wild weather on the day he arrived is just what he turned out to love– risk and adventure outdoors– big hikes and big mountains.
My daughter has been a gardener since she was tiny.  I have a picture of her picking a zucchini that was bigger than she was, and vividly remember her eating sweet banana peppers fresh off the vine as she rode in her stroller.  Today she volunteers on a city farm and what nourishes her most is planting and harvesting and hands in the dirt.

I wonder if others have memories like this… I would love to hear.


April 22, 2012 at 2:44 pm 3 comments

Planting Day

Yesterday was planting day at Sheep-Harney Elementary School in Elizabeth City, NC.  It was a huge and quite thrilling step forward in implementing the design I did for the school in 2010.

First, a little history.   Many of the projects I work on start with one person’s vision.

In Elizabeth City, that person was Linda Ward, Director of Federal Programs and Elementary Education for Elizabeth City-Pasquotank Public Schools.  Linda contacted me two years ago with her idea.  She wanted to  transform what was a relatively huge 1.5 acres of land available for the 7 classes of  preschoolers at Sheep-Harney School into something different from a traditional playground.

A before picture of the space...

She imagined a place where children who often had little access to nature, could play and learn in a rich, lush natural environment.   I visited the site several times, held a charette where  teachers, administrators and facilities people could learn about natural playspaces and what they look like.  Then I created a master plan that captured their vision.  The plan reflected the local terrain, with islands of play including natural climbing and outdoor furniture made of locally harvested cypress (from the nearby Great Dismal Swamp) a trike track and tunnel, a court for NC basketball, sand dune hills, driftwood playhouses, a giant sandy beach, a stream with a “pirate island” and edible gardens that would include some of the crops grown in this agricultural area, including potatoes and berries.  The plans also include a mud kitchen, a Pecan Tree stage (to be built around a massive pecan tree in the space),  a storytelling circle and a nature study area with Bald Cypress trees, bird feeders and a bird blind to offer up-close observation.

And of course, it included lots of plants!  I visited the Great Dismal Swamp, learned from rangers there about the local fauna and included many of those plants in the planning.

In 2011 the project  was  approved by the school board, in no small part due to Linda’s persistence in keeping the project alive after some delays.  Later that year the school system brought on local landscape architect Jesse Turner to do the construction documents required for local permitting and bidding.  Jesse’s dedication and attention to detail won the accolades of the NC Department of Education and the school system’s facilities department.  He got the project out to bid and oversaw the majority of the hardscape installation last fall.

The shunnel (shed/tunnel) made of two shed kits from Lowes with a custom roof. Designed by Jesse Turner.

Accessible pathways with the Pecan tree, the nature hut and the hillside slide (behind construction fence) in the background.

Inside the nature hut with furniture made by swamp logger Jeff Leitch.

Also last fall, Linda retired from the school system.  But she was so committed to this project and to the importance of providing something wonderful for the littlest children in her community, that she has continued, as  a volunteer, to raise funds, recruit helpers, and organize the forward motion of the project.  Yesterday was a day that she’d worked towards for months.

Linda invited the amazing Roberta Manzer’s award-winning Horticulture Class from Northeastern High School to come for the planting day.  Seventeen hard working teens, many of them members of Future Farmers of America,  came and spent  their full school day transforming the space.  They led 126 preschoolers, who came outside by classes for 1/2 hour shifts, and together big kids and little kids planted 75 mostly native trees and shrubs.  They dug holes (several times hitting buried concrete and other old construction debris) planted plants, and moved mountains of mulch.

The high school students and the plants arrive!

Peaches, apples, cherries, serviceberries, oaks, maples, bald cypress, black gum, river birch and more!

Escaping the rain and a chance to visit.

A worker being interviewed by reporter Peter Williams.

click to see the group photo

For me it was a  powerful experience and a huge honor to work with all those wonderful preschoolers, preschool teachers and administrators, facilities guys, high schoolers, and two awesome women– Roberta Manzer and Linda Ward.  It is incredibly rewarding to see a plan I’ve created go from paper to reality.

It isn’t done yet, but I think projects like this are wonderful when they are phased in and everyone gets to participate in the process– days like yesterday.  For now, the job is to have fun (and water the plants).

March 23, 2012 at 4:45 pm 1 comment

Early Childhood Outside

I am excited and proud to announce an upcoming training event on April 14 from 9-12:30 at Beverly Hills Preschool in Alexandria sponsored by NoVA Outside.

The day will open with an intriguing panel on The Value of Risk.

Sissy Walker of WISE Educational Services will present a session on the how’s and why’s of  Inquiry-based Outdoor Learning.  Sissy is a Master Naturalist and has many years of experience leading a progressive Reggio-inspired program and training teachers in this authentic approach.

Sandra Redmore, director of the Green-School-Award-Winning Clarendon Child Care Center, and chair of the APS Advisory Committee on Early Childhood will present on The Logistics of Outdoor Learning— sharing her unique, on-the-ground perspective on how to make it work.

I will be presenting on, what else, Creating Great Spaces for Natural Play and Learning.

After the breakout sessions, we’ll have hands-on skill building activities including: How to Plan and Plant a Container Garden with Children, How to Build Ephemeral Structures on the playground using free materials, and of course, our favorite– Building with Cob. Cob is a mixture of clay, sand and straw.

You’ll leave with real skills you can use with children immediately plus lots of thought provoking ideas and valuable new understandings that will change the way you think about the outdoors.

Register now– spaces are filling up fast.

March 20, 2012 at 9:47 am 1 comment

The Finishing Touch

This Montessori natural playspace opened in September 2011. The 1/3 acre lush landscape offers children a wide range of opportunities to move, explore, play and learn in a setting that is whimsical and beautiful and quite different from a traditional playground.  One of the first of its type in the DC area, the space  features slides built into fragrant herb-planted hills

Hillside slide with fragrant herbs

In the shady woods children can build with planks and stumps, climb fallen trees and follow meandering woodland paths.

Tree cookie path through the woods

There is a sparkling 50’ mosaic stream with a kid powered pump.

A 50' mosaic stream with a hand pump for kid powered water play

There are over 300 mostly native plants to touch, taste, smell and pick along with raised beds outside the classroom windows for children’s gardening, open lawns for running and cloud watching and benches and swings for resting and observing.

Raingardens soak up the rain as well as excess from the play stream.

Natural sand play area surrounded by logs, boulders and a deck.

Does it look like something is missing on those sweet playhouses?  We thought so, so in December we did this:

My crew and I planted living roofs!

More photos soon.  And for details on the technique, check out my friends at Taproot Farm, who taught me their simple, low cost method.


January 21, 2012 at 7:42 pm 3 comments

Create Your Own Outdoor Magic: DIY Natural Playspace Coaching– a new approach

We know, and an extensive body of rigorous scientific research confirms that children who have access to green and natural play and learning spaces are healthier and less stressed, concentrate and learn better, and get along better with peers. Connecting children to nature and creating beautiful outdoor spaces is my passion, and as a landscape designer and former preschool teacher, I know a lot about it.  I love working with schools and early childhood programs to create beautiful, magical outdoor play and learning spaces.

I am well aware that a custom design is just not affordable for some programs.  So, I have come up with a new way to help schools by sharing my expertise in a format that allows participants to plan and build THEIR OWN natural playspaces…. economically.

I am offering a special pilot program this winter that will include a series of workshops, handouts, templates, checklists and more, plus the support of colleagues who are working to change their outdoor spaces. I will provide great materials, ideas for natural playspaces that work, plant lists, planning worksheets, tips for organizing workdays – lots of great information plus answers to participants’ questions as they go through the planning process.

I am currently hard at work in my business, creating earth-friendly, people-friendly designs and working with my partners at Green Earth Landscaping to build natural play and learning spaces for schools and children’s programs. I’ve never offered a DIY program like this before, and this may be a one-time series.

Participants in this program will be selected by application, so that I can be sure to work with local programs who are truly committed to making change.  The program will start this winter so that schools will be ready by spring to start working on their space.  I can help provide the outdoor magic  children deserve!

Here is an overview of the program:

Creating Your Own Outdoor Magic: DIY Natural Playspace Coaching

Do you want to connect your children to nature, improve your outdoor space, and make it fun and functional, but don’t know where to begin or how to get started?

Nancy Striniste of Earlyspace presents an exciting new pilot program to help you every step of the way as you plan and create your own natural play and learning space.

You’ll get:

  • An expert with more than two decades of experience designing spaces for children who will guide you on the path to making the changes you envision and more!


  • Three information packed presentations to inspire, educate and inform you (and up to two teammates from your school)
  • Templates, checklists and handouts to keep you organized
  • The support and encouragement of a small, select, committed group of colleagues
  • Monthly group calls with Nancy, a professional landscape designer, to answer your questions as you work towards creating your plan—and you’ll get to listen to and learn from others as they work towards their goals

This program will start this winter so that by spring, you’ll have a plan in place and be ready to dive into creating your own beautiful natural play and learning space.

1.    Begin by assessing your current space

2.     Learn about natural play and learning spaces, what they look like and what happens there.  See images and great ideas from across the country and around the world

3.     Create your own vision for YOUR play and learning space

4.     Plan your own layout with tips from an expert

5.     Get great ideas for finding resources in your community

6.     Learn, in a step-by-step way, how to plan a workday that is organized and fun, that builds community AND that builds your outdoor space!

This is for you if:

  • You have an early childhood or elementary setting
  • You have an outdoor space that needs to be better
  • You are committed to making change
  • You know there is untapped energy for children in your school community
  • You need expert direction, clarity and guidance to make this change happen

This is not for you if:

  • You’re not ready to commit to improving your space
  • Your decision makers are not on board
  • You have major drainage, erosion or health and safety problems on your site

This program will be by application only and limited to a small group to ensure that everyone gets the attention they need to succeed.

No risk, 30-day money back guarantee: if you decide anytime in the first 30 days that you’re not inspired and ready to dive into creating your own outdoor magic, you can withdraw and get your full investment back.

Sign up now if you’re ready for results!  (and please share this with colleagues and schools who might be interested)

Contact Nancy at for more information, pricing and an application.

November 27, 2011 at 6:32 pm 3 comments

Building Stuff Outside with Kids: Learning Happens Naturally

The sun was shining. The kids– lots of kids– were outside.

It was simple and inexpensive and fun.

Bamboo (harvested in advance from a grateful neighbor’s yard)

Kudzu (pulled by kids from the edges of the schoolyard)

A ball of string

A bale of straw

Two ladders, some pruners and 5 volunteer moms.

We can build three teepees and connect them with tunnels.

Start with a bamboo tripod.

Then add more poles.

Tie securely.

Lots of string.

And lots of hands.

Work together to attach the cross pieces.

Tie those knots tight!

Meanwhile the Kudzu harvesting (invasive removal team) heads out.

This stuff is tough (and fun to pull)!

Loading the wagon with vines.

Now start weaving the vines through the bamboo.

Big kids and little kids all work together.

It takes some planning and some cooperation to weave a long piece in.

Stretch to get the top part woven.

We're building this with our own hands.

Now for the floor-- we want it to be nice and soft.

It's like being in the jungle!

How many different ways can we move through... crab walking!

"Because it's Veteran's Day this week, I'm going to crawl like an army guy!"

Patient children waiting for a turn to crawl through.

One proud class of teepee builders.

Over the course of a morning,  second and fourth graders at Fort Belvoir Elementary School came out by classes and built a structure that included three teepees and two tunnels.  In the end, more than 200 children had worked on the project.

We removed some invasive plants and in the process kids learned a little bit about what invasives are.  “Plants that don’t belong here and are taking over”

A happy teacher: “They’re learning teamwork,  they’re solving problems and everyone is happy and busy.”

And the ripple effect: “This was easy, I’m going to try this at home,” said a mom.

November 16, 2011 at 9:19 pm 3 comments

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