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If you have a child with special needs, you know the frustration of searching for a safe and accessible playground. While many parks have now been retrofitted with rubberized floors, very few were designed specifically for special needs or for a wide range of limitations. In the past 10 years, though, several communities have come together with the help of private donors to build fully inclusive and accessible playgrounds.
"It is great that more is now happening, but the need is for all parks to be accessible," says Nancy LaBelle, executive director of the Down Syndrome Connection of the Bay Area. "They’re just so expensive, so we need more motivated private donors to make it possible."
Here are many of the area’s playgrounds for children of all abilities.
The Mountain Lake Park playground opened in June 2017, making it the Bay Area’s newest inclusive playground. Funded by the nonprofit Friends of Mountain Lake Park Playground along with public funds, the $3 million project replaced an outdated 30-year-old tot lot with bright, new features that all can be reached and experienced by children with mobility or cognitive challenges.
By traversing spiral paths, ramps and bridges, youngsters can reach a mélange of nets, swings, jumping discs, ropes, seesaws and slides, all while staying safely within a low wall bounding the playground. Kids can also have fun looking for the playful turtle and frog sculptures, marsh reed designs and other elements that are intended to complement the beautiful natural lake next to the playground. Open 5 a.m. to midnight. 1000 Lake St.
The Rotary PlayGarden in San Jose, with a $6 million price tag funded by the Rotary Club of San Jose, is perhaps the Bay Area’s most impressive accessible playground, boasting scores of features that entice all children to play.
The play carousel has room for two wheelchairs and bench seats so a child can sit with another rider. The double-seat seesaw allows a parent to sit behind to support a child. The park, which opened in 2015, offers conventional swings along with accessible swings, including one with a harness and a large disc swing that a child in a wheelchair can easily transfer into. The slides, all reachable by ramp, are made of cement because the static electricity generated on a plastic slide can damage cochlear implants.
The PlayGarden’s proximity to Mineta San Jose International Airport allows visitors the unique chance to watch as large planes take off and land. Spring/summer hours: 10 a.m. to 6:30 p.m.; fall/winter hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. 490 Coleman Ave. Closed Mondays.
Playhouses and merry-go-rounds are among the accessible features that make the $4-million Magical Bridge Playground in Palo Alto as fanciful as its name.
Open since 2015, the 1.5-acre playground has eight different "zones," including zones for playing music, swinging, swaying and spinning, and a zone that encourages kindness and respect. Children of all abilities can climb into the two-story playhouse, perform on the little theater stage and communicate by moving lasers to play a "light harp." And for children with sensory issues, there are retreat areas where they can calm down and feel secure.
The nonprofit Magical Bridge Foundation is now raising funds to build accessible parks in Morgan Hill and Sunnyvale, while preparing to open a Magical Bridge playground in Redwood City in late 2018. The Palo Alto playground is open 8 a.m. to 10 p.m. 600 E. Meadow Road. You can read more about Magical Bridge Playground here.
A bit smaller than the other all-abilities playgrounds, Athan Downs playground in San Ramon, which opened early 2013, is still full of activities to keep kids entertained for hours. Kids can develop their stability by swaying on the swing with the backrest or trying the spinner, glider, roller table and more. They can build their motor skills scaling the nature-inspired Tree House and the double-decker tower. They can try a little music therapy by standing or jumping on musical pads, develop their tactile sense while digging in a raised sand area that even kids in wheelchairs can reach, and unwind in quiet areas when they’ve had enough. Open dawn to dusk. 2975 Montevideo Drive.
The giant, colorful cement balls are the first things that say "Play!" as children arrive at Heather Farm playground in Walnut Creek. The rest of the playground keeps playtime going for hours, with towers, bridges, decks and winding slides all reachable by ramp. Funded by the city and the nonprofit Walnut Creek Pride Foundation, the $1.2-million playground opened in late 2014. Kids of all abilities find plenty of play at Heather Farm to encourage their social, cognitive, physical and sensory development. And if they still have energy afterward, they can explore other areas of the 100-acre park, including a dog park, trails, a pond and lake. Open dawn to dusk. North San Carlos Drive. www.ci.walnut-creek.ca.us.
Spearheaded by local mom Liz Lamach and her son Matteo, Matteo’s Dream in Concord became the first Bay Area playground for kids of all abilities when it opened in 2007. Constructed by 1,500 volunteers and funded by the city and the local Lions Club, the playground offers fantastical features, ranging from tree houses to a massive rocking boat reachable by ramp. Visually impaired children may particularly enjoy the sensory garden. Children with balance problems can try the high back swings, and those on the autism spectrum can play in clear tunnels that help them transition from areas of light to dark. Open dawn to dusk. 2050 Olivera Road in Hillcrest Park.
Freelancer Angela Geiser writes frequently for Bay Area Parent.
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