a shade sail, toddler "race track," and log and lumber pergola

Natural Playground Design/Build

Priorities: Safe Landscaping For All Ages – Engaging Natural Play Structures
Challenges: Poor Drainage – Tight Safety Constraints
Solutions: Deep Excavation – Expert Auditing – Creative Design Choices

St. George’s Episcopal School needed a long-planned playground rebuild. The existing grounds covered over two acres, but did little to add learning or play opportunities for the school’s young students. Outdated play fixtures and degraded surfaces were the general rule.

The school’s lead administrator, Jerri Thompson, has a career-long early childhood development background with a specialty focus on natural play. A natural playground focuses around play structures built with elements and textures from the earth, instead of plastic or steel.

In concept, natural playground designers create safety-compliant equipment and play areas with components like logs and stumps, boulders, plants, and mixed, natural surface materials. That’s exactly what Thompson and St. George’s wanted.

(Read the full story here. Or, stay on this page for a scope-focused report.)

a pergola with climbing structure logs, and stump steps leading to a sand pit


Maas Verde tasked its in-house playground designer, Marc Opperman, on the project. Opperman brought over a decade of natural playground design experience to the job. He had also developed some familiarity with the site itself by creating previous partial designs for the space.

Maas Verde began deep excavation work in early April, and worked on site daily for the next eight weeks. The final install includes log-and-lumber pergolas, log climbing structures, lawns and drainage swales, multiple new trees, shrubs, and planting areas, and even fountains — all of which meet playground safety regulations.

spiral-shaped fountain (foreground) and pergola (background)

The space breaks down into four main areas: three playgrounds designed for students in different age brackets, and an entryway area with a fountain and some sculpture installations.

Maas Verde measured out prescribed fall zones for play structures including climbing equipment and swingsets. Opperman chose natural materials instead of synthetic options in all applications. Borders between walkways and play pits are Juniper logs instead of segmented plastic edging. And vertical structures like the logs for climbing (fitted with real, commercial-grade resin climbing holds) are edge-chamfered for safety. Ground surfaces like mulches and pea gravel can break a fall but still create a consequence.

log and lumber pergola shading grassy swale (foreground) and sidewalks (background)

Two cambered “race tracks” function the same way. Toddlers and infants race toy vehicles down the slopes, honing their spatial reasoning. Runout zones are grass and mulch berms.

Artificial surfaces and exhausted fixtures came out, improving safety and updating appearance. Maas Verde removed astroturf and rubber bumpers surrounding a playscape, then replaced it with a mulch bed and the site’s signature log borders.

An existing shade sail had failed, so Maas Verde tore it out and installed a pergola. And bright white play sand replaced gritty aggregates in play pits.

a pergola shading a sand pit with climbing log structures

Challenges and Outcomes

Hidden obstacles included hundreds of square feet of unexpected concrete and asphalt buried deep below the existing turf. Deeper excavation was the only option.

A drainage flaw surfaced during one heavy rain. Water pooled on the playground surface and backflowed toward the main school complex. Maas Verde redrew plans to build in a grassy swale that would redirect the water back toward absorbent areas of the playground.

A previously installed, 25-foot-long creek runs on a solar-powered pump. The feature is a design centerpiece, but requires maintenance: heavy weeding and marginal drainage are concerns. Per Thompson’s priorities, Maas Verde will adopt the creek along with its ongoing maintenance plan.

a constructed creek with naturally-designed suspension bridge in the background

Carefully-chosen plantings complete the design. Plants should be visually stimulating but tough enough to survive inquisitive toddlers.

“For me, this is the vision of my entire career,” Thompson said. “Schools are clamoring to install things like these, and you can see why.”

Opperman summed up the transformation: “Before we started, it had the feel of something made in the ‘70s — it was kind of neglected. Now, it’s not only updated but it’s got natural materials and passes safety compliance.”

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