Have Fun and Learn about the Environment

Woodlands Stewardship Education Center opens to the public.

From first timers to frequent visitors, families flocked to Chantilly’s Ellanor C. Lawrence Park for the April 28 open house of its Woodlands Stewardship Education Center. Combining education and fun, this new, state-of-the-art facility is a model of sustainability that encourages people to connect more deeply with the natural world.  

“I love it,” said Oak Hill’s Sangeetha Sharma, who was there with her two daughters. “They’ve done a really good job of constructing it in a way that’s good for the environment and the community.” Calling it a wonderful gathering space, she said, “The building is beautiful, and they’re educating people about how to take care of the environment.”

Sharma noted, as well, that “On the petal logos all around the building, there’s information about how they built this place in an environmentally friendly way – and how we can do similar things for ourselves at home.”

Manning the E.C. Lawrence Park Friends table are board members (from left) Amy Swindell, Ellen Bliss and Jennifer Grinnell.  


She and her younger daughter, Meera, 9, were looking at a watershed-education display, while her older daughter, Leena, 11, was there with her Girl Scout Troop 51065 of Floris Elementary. Among other things, the Scouts learned how various resources may be reused.

“I made a bird feeder out of recyclable materials,” said Leena. “And I also liked the room where you can click on a giant screen and learn more about nature and local wildlife.” 

Nestled in the woods, the 7,000-square-foot center has a shaded porch, two multipurpose spaces – one enclosed and one open – plus an education kiosk and kitchen. Inside are interactive screens with educational content, exhibit panels and changeable artifacts. Outdoors is the LOOP (Learning Outside Observational Pod) for STEAM education and nature play. And of course, people may also go for walks on the nearby trails.

Completed in December 2023, this cutting-edge, innovative, new building at 5301 Walney Road officially opened to the public March 1 for educational programs, special events and evening rentals. It also serves as a gateway to the greater Sully Woodlands – a collection of parks, including E.C. Lawrence, in western Fairfax County. So the building’s floor features a large map of Sully Woodlands illustrating to visitors how all these parks connect.

Furthermore, said Park Manager John Shafer, “Residents can find their own house on it and also see historic Centreville land-grant areas, the locations of Civil War fortifications, and the mills and farms that were here. We can use this map as a giant teaching tool, and we can even give a replica of it to parents and children so they can compare it with the modern-day map.” 

A project several years in the making, the center was developed by the Fairfax County Park Authority with support from the Board of Supervisors, the county Park Foundation, Ellanor C. Lawrence Park Friends, community members, private and corporate donors, plus money from a voter-approved park bond. 

This structure was built according to the rigorous, sustainable-design standards of the Living Building Challenge. It’s an international certification to create carbon-negative buildings that generate more energy and usable water than they consume. It’s the first building of its kind in Fairfax County – and one of only a handful on the East Coast – and 50 in the entire world.

Solar panels power the facility and produce 105 percent of its energy needs. Other green elements include radiant heating, passive cooling (large doors, fans and transom vents), and a wastewater-treatment system. Any extra water is treated on site and returned to the natural water cycle. There’s even a rainwater-reuse system in which the center’s toilets are flushed with rainwater collected in a large cistern outside.

In addition, the building’s interior walls are covered in reclaimed, Virginia barn wood, with the exterior covered in reclaimed sheet metal to reduce its carbon footprint. A masonry fireplace of local stone is also used for heating, and the whole operation is pollution-free.

And although the center already offers a slew of free, hands-on activities, Shafer said even more features are on the horizon for visitors to enjoy. They’ll be accomplished courtesy of donations to the Park Foundation.

“We’re just happy we’re nearing the finish line,” he said. “We’re going to be adding a bike-repair station and a solar-powered picnic table so people can use their laptops and charge their phones on it.”

“We’re also adding trees behind the bird-feeder area so people can watch the birds without scaring them off,” continued Shafer. “And we’ll weave in non-native, invasive plants to create that screen. We have to cut them down and remove them from the park anyway; so by reusing them, we’re making lemonade out of lemons.”

As for the open house, he was pleased with the steady stream of families that kept coming to the center. “It’s fantastic,” he said. “It’s their park and facility, so it’s nice to be able to encourage them to interact with it.”
Jackie McQueston was there with her son Evan, 10, who checked out the stewardship center and got a stamp of a fox on his arm. “It’s our first time here,” she said. “We’ve been to the trails many times, and the Walney Visitor Center is one of our favorite outdoor havens. And we’re excited about the new outdoor nature play area here.”

Karen Moore, the park’s resource interpreter and school coordinator, is also thrilled that the stewardship center is now open to the public. “We’ve been having some school field trips and Scout groups here from the visitor center up the road,” she said. “We offer merit-badge and other Scout badge programs.”

Although the spring field trips are already filled up, future ones may be reserved at www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/ecl. Scroll down and click on either “field trips” or “scouts.” Program registrations may also be done via www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/parktakes.

The park holds summer camps, too. They’re held mostly outside and have various themes. “We do nature- and history-based crafts, go on hikes, do experiments and also have free time to play,” explained Moore. “The camps are to spark children’s interest in nature and the outdoors.”

“Our park has forests, meadows, streams and ponds, so they learn about the different animals that live in these habitats,” she continued. “And they catch and release animals that live in the streams. Overall, we’re trying to teach the public how to become better environmental stewards.”

Jennifer Grinnell, president of the nonprofit Friends of E.C. Lawrence Park was also on hand for the open house. Her Centreville-based company, BrandPlanet, created all the informative petal logos, artwork and signage for the center pro bono.

The Friends’ mission is solely to support this park. “We hooked up local businesses with the park, and their donations helped fund the LOOP,” said Grinnell. “And we host all kinds of events here with bands and other entertainment and local vendors.”

All the events’ proceeds aid the park financially, enabling the Friends to fund scholarships for schools so all children may come and enjoy E.C. Lawrence. “The programs cost money, and not all schools can afford them, so we’re trying to help out,” said Grinnell. “We’re all about supporting the park while also building community among local schools, businesses and neighborhoods. That way, people can not only enjoy the park, but understand that healthy landscapes ensure healthy communities.”

For information about upcoming events and programs there, go to eclpfriends.org or @eclp.friends on Instagram. Regarding the new center, Grinnell said, “It’s been a long time coming and we’re thrilled with it.”

Meanwhile, children climbed on the educational equipment in the outdoor play area. Rachel and Mike Pawlo were there with children Miles, 6, Cora, 4, and Decker, 2, who enjoyed spinning the Archimedes screw, rotating a wheel that made water fall upward. Miles also did a fun game/science experiment through which he learned which items float or sink in a bucket of water. He said a plastic bottle filled with water sank “because I put water in it.” 

“We were visiting a nearby family and decided to come here and check out the new park,” said his mom. “It’s pretty cool, and it’s nice that there are things for the kids to play on. And anything that teaches them about the environment is awesome.”

For more information about the center, go to www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/eclawrence/woodlands-stewardship-education-center.