Best Special Needs Playground in the Bay Area


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It seemed like a simple enough task. Olenka Villarreal set out to find a playground in their hometown of Palo Alto where her daughter, Ava, could swing.


Ava was born with developmental and cognitive challenges, and Villarreal had learned that swinging could help her child by stimulating inner ear balance and creating body awareness. But Ava didn’t have the upper body strength to hold onto swing chains, and the 5-year-old was too big for any baby bucket swing. Nowhere in Palo Alto’s 34 parks was there a swing for Ava.


In fact, there was not a single park for children with special needs.


The search for a simple swing turned into Villareal’s quest to build what aims to be the nation’s most innovative and inclusive playground, for children and families of all abilities and disabilities. Nearly six years and $4 million later, Magical Bridge Playground opened in mid-January in Palo Alto’s Mitchell Park.


"The first thing that makes it so different is an awareness that there is a variety of people living in our community," says Villarreal. "It’s designed for the parent using a wheelchair, the child who has autism, the individual who might be visually or cognitively impaired."


There are, of course, six supportive bucket swings, big enough for Ava, now 11, to use. But the 1.5-acre playground includes so much more.


Magical Bridge has eight different "zones," including the "swinging and swaying" zone, a spinning zone, a music zone and a Kindness Corner decorated with sayings about friendship and respect.

The focus at the entrance is on a two-story, fully accessible tree house and stage created by Barbara Butler, a South San Francisco artist and builder who has become renowned for her whimsical wooden play structures.


The tree house is a particular draw for Emily McQueen, a South San Jose mom of five boys, ages newborn to 10. McQueen joined the Friends of Magical Bridge board following her own struggles attempting to take her children to playgrounds in a wheelchair, which she has used since becoming a paraplegic when she fell from a tree in college.


"Surfacing and curbing can be complete roadblocks," says McQueen. And even if she can reach the playground, she has to worry about her children’s safety.


"If you have a 1- or 2-year-old who can climb or walk to anywhere, they can get very high, very fast," she says. "I have my emergency-only voice, but if I go to a playground that’s completely empty and I see that there are height or distance hazards, we’ll just leave."


But Magical Bridge’s tree house will allow McQueen to access its second story with her kids.


"I really do enjoy being up high," she says. "Being in a wheelchair, I’m permanently 48 inches tall. My line of sight is so low. The playhouse has access to a second level so I can get the view from up high and be in the branches of the trees and share that with my kids. It’s something I have yet to experience."

"To be able to do imaginative play with my kids is extremely valuable," McQueen adds. "Going beyond just making them safe is what makes this playground very appealing to me. I can have that next level of play with my kids."

Children and parents who use wheelchairs are also able to access a merry-go-round that has been installed flush with the ground and a custom slide that has an exit area where the rider can scoot to the side while awaiting his or her wheelchair.&pagebreaking&Sound of Music

In the music zone, artist Jen Lewin – who has created installations for Burning Man and other large-scale public art – has made a 20-foot-long, 24-string "light harp" that users "play" by touching and moving among its laser strings. Villarreal says it will be particularly effective for children with autism who may have trouble communicating verbally but can be "creative in many ways. It gives them another way to reach other children and make friends."


Children who get over-stimulated can take a break in "retreat huts" around the park. These and other features are labeled with QR codes that visitors can scan to get more information about equipment uses and benefits.


The playground is located in what was an underutilized section of Mitchell Park, which the City of Palo Alto donated, along with $300,000 in early funding for plans that helped backers secure $4 million in private funds. The Peery family and Enlight foundation were major funders, donating $1.2 million each.


Villarreal points out that the few playgrounds nationwide designed for children with special needs typically are privately funded – and driven by parents of special-needs children – such as Matteo’s Dream, which opened in 2007 in Concord. But she hopes that cities will begin to take into account the needs of all their residents when building new public parks and playgrounds, and that they’ll look to Magical Bridge for inspiration and information.


The playground is particularly well situated for the many community members with disabilities who receive services at Abilities Unlimited and Achieve Kids nearby. The playground will also be a draw for the many families who visit the new Mitchell Park Library and Community Center. Ada’s Café, a nonprofit that provides jobs for adults with disabilities and operates out of the center, has plans to bring a food cart to the playground during afternoons.


It all fits with Villareal’s goals of creating a space where children and adults of all abilities can come together to play.


"There are wheelchair accessible parks all over the country, but they don’t really achieve the goal of being inclusive of everyone," she says. "Our goal was to create a place that was so magical that this will be everyone’s favorite park – but if you happen to be a kid with autism, you’ll find places where you can go retreat and then you can come out and play again."

"It will bridge the gap between those with and without disabilities," Villarreal says.



And bridging that gap is important for children without disabilities as well, says Jill Asher, a friend of Villarreal’s and Magical Bridge board member who has three "typically developing" children.


"I want them to see children who are not like them. This will teach them about compassion, about being kind, about being a friend to someone who is different," Asher says. "This playground is so dynamic and so much fun for every type of child that children won’t know it was designed for children with a disability. But a child who does have disability will know this is a place where they can be safe."


And in that sense, Villarreal and her supporters believe that play is serious business, a true magical bridge that can help children understand and appreciate each other’s differences at a young age.


"A playground is like the first classroom a child encounters," Villarreal says. "When you’re a small child and go to a playground and can’t use the stuff that there’s there, it says: you’re not welcome, you’re not part of this group, you’re different. Those messages lead to isolation and bullying later, and then we try to rewind the clock and the damage that was done."

"That can all be eliminated if you start children in an environment that’s an accepting place, and they can experience different children and adults."


Janine DeFao is an associate editor at Bay Area Parent.


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