New landscape architecture firm designs natural playscape for Max’s Playhouse

If you’ve walked by Culver’s recently opened Montessori daycare center, Max’s Playhouse, you may have noticed its backyard is filled with rolling hills, tunnels, logs, and sand-filled tires. Perhaps you caught a whiff of fresh basil or thyme or noted the exotic textured plants growing along the fence. Together, these elements form an unusual kind of playground known as a natural playscape. The design represents a blending of the hands-on Montessori philosophy practiced by Max’s Playhouse and the nature-inspired vision of new local landscape architecture firm, Culver Grown.

“The whole point of a playscape is to use your imagination in a different way,” explained Culver Grown’s Amy Gormaly. “Research is finding that kids don’t know what to do with nature anymore because they’re always in front of computers. The concept is to have them interacting more with natural elements and to be more creative in how they play.”

Gormaly’s design features a wooden platform on a hill as the focal point, with a pair of plastic binoculars attached. Eventually, the platform will look like the Maxinkuckee Monster, once Gormaly adds a head and slide to represent its tongue. A tunnel through a nearby hill already serves as the stomach of the beast. The toddler section features a sandbox and miniature climbing wall shaded with a cloth ‘sun sail’. The playscape is ringed with herb and texture gardens, which are filled with plants of every hue, shape, and smell.

“I wanted to incorporate both a texture garden and a scent garden to engage the senses,” said Gormaly. “There are the soft lambs ears and the herbs—three varieties of basil, marjoram…They’re touching and experiencing, rather than just observing from a distance.”

Brandy Pohl, the owner and manager of Max’s Playhouse, has found that the new playscape supports the hands-on, experiential, and flexible qualities of the Montessori curriculum, by allowing for a wide variety of creative and imaginative games. “A lot of the Montessori philosophy is about nature,” explained Brandy.

Pohl and Gormaly met at playgroup, and quickly discovered their shared passion for nature-oriented and imaginative child rearing. “The more I talked to Brandy about Montessori methodology, I thought, without giving it a name, that’s how I raise my kids,” said Gormaly. Gormaly asked if she could do some drawings, and the project was born.

A Changeable Playground

For Pohl, one of the major draws of the playscape is how it fosters creative play and changes over time. Extra tree trunk slices that had been used to create texture on the hills now sit in a corner of the playscape, waiting to be manipulated by the children as they choose. Pohl often gives the kids water or seashells to play with, or hides golden coins around the playscape. She arranges a lot of treasure hunts, always in pursuit of various natural elements, such as the softest plant.

Pohl has found that the kids interact with the playscape in surprising and creative ways. “[I enjoy] seeing how they’ll play with the different things that I wouldn’t have ever thought of. They use the platform like it’s a pirate ship. They play a lot of hide and seek,” said Pohl. “They take different parts of the plants and put them in bowls and pretend that they’re potions. I want them to do more of that.”

“I’d like to make an outdoor kitchen with ‘loose parts,’— little baskets hanging on the fence with pinecones and seashells. They can use their imagination as to how they’re going to play with them.”
Pohl notes that this flexibility to change and add to the playscape is one of its advantages over the traditional fixed and fabricated playground.

“I look out at our playscape and I already see a lot but I see a lot more that could happen. I think, let’s move this, or take this and recreate it,” said Pohl.

This flexibility complements the curriculum of Max’s Playhouse, which Pohl notes is ever changing. In accordance with Montessori philosophy, the interior of the preschool is filled with toys and games that teach numbers, letters, colors, and other concepts through sensory experience. The children are responsible for keeping their areas clean, and the older children help teach the younger.

Herb and Texture Garden

Gormaly noted that the gardens allow for an additional element of seasonal change within the playscape.

“Golden hops, they’ll be in soon,” she said, indicating a bare area of the fence. “They’re just beautiful- chartreuse. It’ll be great for the texture garden and kitchen play.”

Pohl explained that the gardens serve dual purposes, both teaching kids to appreciate healthy foods and to develop their capacity for patience and introspection.

“I try to teach the kids to actually stop and notice the plants. When you take them and say ‘rub this leaf and smell it,’ they get so fascinated. They’re going to learn to be more patient, to stop and appreciate things,” she said, noting that once they’re taught to look for these smells and colors, they start coming back to the plants on their own.

Although Max’s Playhouse is not licensed to serve food from the gardens, Pohl tries to draw parallels to the foods growing outside to help the children appreciate fresh foods. “Once they learn the process of planting and growing, it opens them up more to trying new vegetables,” she explained. Pohl has the toddlers help weed the garden, and plans to enlist Amy’s help to have them start their own plants from seed next season.

Culver Grown

Although Pohl and Gormaly joined forces in designing the playscape, Pohl noted that Gormaly’s creative and technical skills really made the project happen. “I knew what I wanted but I didn’t know how to get there,” said Pohl. “Amy has a lot of vision. You can give her little tidbits of what you’re looking for and she’ll take it there.”

She also noted that the playscape, with its locally sourced and found materials, turned out to be more cost-effective than a traditional playground. “Commercial equipment is so expensive. It would have cost me as much to put in just one piece of commercial playground equipment,” said Pohl. The Keller farm in Monterey donated the rocks and logs, and local Sellers Services Inc. did much of the work, along with Pohl’s husband Brian.

Through her company Culver Grown, Gormaly, a landscape designer and Master Gardener, offers site surveys, consulting, exterior and interior designs and auto-cad drawings. She is currently working on getting licensed to design LEED certified projects. Previous projects include a landscape design for Church of the Heartland in Plymouth and landscape consulting for several Culver residents. Although Gormaly is trained in a variety of architectural styles, she specializes in work that allows her to explore and harmonize the boundaries between man-made and natural elements. She prefers to use native plants and local labor and services wherever possible.

The playscape, she noted, “is appropriate to this specific site, using native plants, and involving local contractors…You’re keeping the money local, rather than having something shipped in from a company who has no real investment in what’s going to happen here.”

Culver Grown has been in the works for a while, but has only recently launched as a full-fledged business. Gormaly says the major inspiration for her business was moving to Culver after growing up in the suburbs. She spent her childhood playing and building forts in the golf course behind her house.

“I’ve always loved being outside,” she said, but noted she’d never really had an opportunity to garden until she moved here. She started her first ever garden in Culver seven years ago. “I just totally winged it,” she said. “I bought 1,000 seeds and put them in the sunroom. They ended up all over the house. Sean lost his bed since his room had a south facing window and my plants were all living in there.”

When things got out of hand, she transplanted her fledgling plants into Styrofoam cups and sold them over Craigslist to people all over the area. Thus, Culver Grown was born. Culver Grown offers site surveys, Autocad drawings, curb appeal, and architectural, landscape, interior, exterior, and hardscape designs. For more information, find Culver Grown on Facebook or Houzz.com, or contact

culvergrown@gmail.com. Max’s Playhouse is a licensed child-care center that is open year-round, for full or part-time childcare for children from 6 weeks to 6 years old. For more information, check out their website (http://www.maxsplayhouse.net/), find them on Facebook, or contact Brandy Pohl at brandy@maxsplayhouse.net or by calling 574-540-7312.