Playscapes are Naturally Fun

Tulsa’s Undercroft Montessori School’s playground is no ordinary playground. You won’t find fixed playground equipment for climbing, sliding, hanging upside down or for spinning in dizzying circles. Instead, you find a wooden bridge, winding paths, rock escarpments, a cemented skate pad, a kid-size tunnel, a stone and sand labyrinth and, what might be the largest sand box in Tulsa, Sand Canyon.

Undercroft’s 3- to 6-year-old class springs through the school doors into the cool, fall weather for
morning recess. Children pedal tricycles along a meandering footpath through the playscape, while others choose to run the path and occasionally hide from classmates behind clumps of Pampas Grass. Several boys and girls negotiate the tiered stones down into Sand Canyon.

“It takes awhile for some of the younger kids to gain the confidence to physically climb down the big stones into Sand Canyon. But once they master those stones they descend quickly,” Undercroft Primary Guide Lori Karmazin explained.

Once in Sand Canyon, children dig with sticks, play with sand tools or use loose logs from fallen trees to construct whatever their imaginations present.

“We are always amazed what has been created by children with the logs and sticks,” Karmazin said. “And, it is not just our primary students building with the logs, our middle school students enjoy Sand Canyon also.”

A playscape is a natural environment of rocks, plants, wood, sand and loose pieces of nature such as sticks, logs and leaves that create a more imaginative and challenging play environment than a traditional playground. A playscape is never finished, but instead, ever changing, unpredictable and is continuously altered by children’s play, weather and seasons.

Earthplay founder Rusty Keeler realized the need for playscapes in the United States after he spent five years in the Netherlands designing playgrounds.

“There is no fixed playground equipment in the Netherlands,” Keeler said. “Instead, play areas are natural with trees, wood, water, sand and earth. Art is incorporated into the playscapes. This natural environment allows children to use their imaginations when playing.”

Keeler, who is the author of the book Natural Playscapes, also notes that while fixed playground equipment might last 15 to 20 years, a playscape will last forever.

Undercroft invited Keeler to consult on the creation of their playscape.

“Rusty came to Undercroft four years ago to get the community excited about building a playscape,” Karmazin said. “We created a committee of parents and found a landscape designer, now an Undercroft parent, who helped with plans and materials. Our playscape was a community- build project. Parents built the bridge over the sand canyon and planted trees. They helped build our labyrinth and our skate pad.”

During the fall, Keeler was in Tulsa to deliver the keynote address at the OU-Tulsa Seed Sower lecture, “Take Those Kids Outside and Play.” He dropped by Undercroft to see how their playscape had advanced and, says Karmazin, he was very excited to see what the school community had accomplished and he spent at least an hour with the children in Sand Canyon

“Sand Canyon at Undercroft is the greatest sand play space in North America,” Keeler said. “What do you get when you put together creative students, a dedicated community, and a passionate leader? Playground heaven! Like a park made especially for kids, the new, natural, outdoor playscape at Undercroft is a shining example of what can happen when communities dream, plan, and build their ideas together.”

Phase II of Undercroft’s natural playscape will include more natural play and climbing structures and swings. And, the school’s 4th through 6th graders are assisting in the creation of the Phase II plans. Karmazin says their ideas include a willow structure, a painted structure and artwork.

To learn more about Rusty Keeler’s Earthplay and playscapes you can visit the Earthplay website at

Categories: Education – Early Years