Apple Picking, Hay Bales and Llamas at Homestead Farm

Photo: Rows of apple trees at Homestead Farm; text: "Apple Picking, Hay Bales, and Llamas at Homestead Farm; We'll Eat You Up, We Love You So"

As a native upstate New Yorker, apple picking runs in my blood. In my fourth grade class, not just one, but two of my classmates’  families owned apple orchards. While the picking – and especially the cider – isn’t as good in Maryland as New York, it’s still one of my favorite fall traditions. So for the final day of the Outdoors Family Challenge, focusing on “local food,” I wanted to pick apples at Homestead Farm. Even though my anxiety got the best of me on the way there, the crunch of apples, a friendly llama, and Sprout’s enthusiasm lifted my spirits by the time we finished.

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Lily Pads and Marshes in Washington D.C.: Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens

Photo of large lily pads in a pond; text: "Lily Pads and Marshes: Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens"

Dark pink blooms swayed over my son, their long, thin stems rising up from the muck. Lily pads the size of platters floated on the pond, their curved sides forming miniature walls. Blue dasher dragonflies flitted across the water, their wings nearly transparent. And a big, green tractor hauled dirt back and forth for a landscaping project. These were just a few of the wonders we saw at the Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens in Washington D.C. this past weekend, when we visited with the kids and my parents. The tractor was my son’s favorite.

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Waterfalls and Locks: Great Falls at the Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal

The Chesapeake and Ohio (C&O) Canal at Great Falls

To stave off an ever-increasing case of cabin fever, we headed out to the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal National Park on Monday. I had wanted to go for National Parks Week last week, but the weather conspired against us. But as Monday was sunny and in the high 60s, we were going, come hell or high water.

Or more specific t0 our situation, come a hungry newborn and cranky toddler. We were mostly ready to go – adults showered and dressed, the kid dressed and the newborn fed. But then Sprout wanted to do tummy time with Little Bird (he loves encouraging him). But then Little Bird needed to eat – again. But then Sprout had a meltdown because Chris was packing cantaloupe instead of watermelon and a turkey sandwich instead of peanut butter and jelly, even though he had asked for turkey earlier. But then, but then, but then. We finally left an hour later than I planned. The getting out the door routine with two kids is going to take some getting used to.

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A Nature Playground in the Suburbs: Constitution Gardens Park in Gaithersburg

Ever since reading about The Land, I’ve been intrigued by the idea of nature playgrounds. While I didn’t want my toddler setting things on fire (one of the many risky options at The Land), I do like the idea of substituting natural materials for plastic playsets. By their very nature, they’re more versatile and offer a more creative experience than playgrounds, which tend to be highly-directed. So when nearby Gaithersburg opened up a nature playground at Constitution Gardens Park, I knew I wanted to visit with Sprout.

With blue skies and fall just approaching, it was a lovely morning to check it out. While it’s perfectly walkable from Old Town Gaithersburg – and a wonderful resource for those who live there – almost everyone else will need to drive. It’s far from the closest Metro station and I still haven’t figured out how to bike safely from Rockville to Old Town. While the park doesn’t have a parking lot, there’s ample street parking right next to it.

The park is long and rather narrow, a bit squished between a private house and a clubhouse for some nearby condos. The initial impression is a bit odd, as there’s a big fence with a swimming pool right next to it. In addition, it could be confusing for little kids who now want to go to the pool instead. Thankfully, while Sprout pointed out the pool, he wasn’t particularly keen on going in it.

Photo of Constitution Gardens, which has a large sand area, pathed path, and wooden buildings

The rest of the park was more thematically fulfilling. A large area filled with sand offers kids an actual chance to play in the dirt, which most parks look down upon. It’s equipped with a push-button water fountain and buckets, which seemed to be the most popular feature in the park by far. Never underestimate toddlers’ love of filling things with water and dumping them out. Thankfully, everyone did pretty well waiting to take their turns. There’s also a little wooden building with a counter like a store, a tiny slide, and wooden farm animals for riding.

Log sections for climbing next to slide

Other areas of the park were geared more towards older children. A staircase made of uneven logs led to two very steep slides. While Sprout enjoyed climbing up, one look down and he was shaking his head. Thankfully, they offer an alternate exit down a different path. Hunks of wood of varying shapes and length made for Lincoln Logs perfect for wobbly stacking. Another, much bigger hand-pump, sprayed water into a faux dried streambed decorated with iridescent glass. Even though he didn’t come close to reaching the top on the handle, Sprout still pumped it up and down as much as he could a number of times. There’s just something about kids and water.

Although we went on a Friday morning, there were several families there, with joggers and dog-walkers wandering through as well. The park is open on three sides to the residential streets, which makes it a nice alternate route to the sidewalk. The kids were enthusiastic without being wound – perhaps the natural materials provided a calming effect.

The only major complaint I had about the park was the lack of shade. While there are some trees, the park is so new that they haven’t gotten very big yet. Although I thought it would be a relatively cool day, with highs in the 70s, the D.C. sun got the best of me and I was boiling by the end of the trip.

While not wild and crazy the way some nature playgrounds are, Constitution Gardens provided a nice reprieve from the molded plastic jungle gyms that all use the same interchangeable pieces.