The Inclusive Playground Revolution: Because Every Bay Area Child Should Play

Peering through the chain link fence at the back of the expanding Rotary Playgarden on a wet March day revealed something curious. A recently uncrated high-backed adaptive swing could be made out in the distance, and it was hung from what resembled a long track.

The discovery was a park nerd’s equivalent of being behind a test engineer in the checkout line who pulled out the next generation iPhone, or seeing an autonomous air taxi on a test flight.

Julie Matsushima, who championed San Jose’s 4.5 acre inclusive playground, confirmed what will no doubt spark a frenzy when the temporary fencing comes down.

“It’s a zip line,” she confirmed. One that everyone can enjoy. “No child wants to sit and watch other kids do something they can’t do.” The new attraction will safely secure young riders of all physical abilities.

The Rotary Playgarden and Palo Alto’s Magical Bridge Playground both opened eight years ago, in the spring of 2015. In the early aughts, Matsushima had brought her physically challenged granddaughter Aimee to Los Angeles’ Griffith Park, one of the first playgrounds with wheelchair accessible equipment and she swung on a swing for the first time.

“It was the first time I’d seen an adaptive swing,” Matsushima said about a piece of play equipment that became her signature. As president of the San Jose Rotary Club in 2008, she arranged for 29 harness equipped plastic shells to be installed in 29 San Jose parks.

Matsushima wanted to go further, though, and create an environment so captivating that children of all abilities would play side-by-side. The Rotary Club raised $6 million, about a third of it from the club’s own members and endowment, to bring that vision to life. Paved in wheelchair-accessible rubberized hardscapes with at-grade carousels and climbing structures, the park also features original sculptures and water features that take cues from the adjacent Guadalupe River corridor and its native species.

Magic Garden

At the north end of the same county, in Palo Alto, Olenka Villarreal faced a similar challenge with her developmentally disabled daughter, Ava. Inspired by playgrounds such as Friendship Park in Ra’anana, Israel, Villarreal spent seven years persuading Palo Altans to fund and construct the first Magical Bridge Playground.

“We were soul sisters in this venture,” Villarreal said. “When we started, [Julie] had the money and not the land. I had the land and not the money.”

The two teams spent seven years in friendly competition, a classic Silicon Valley-style race to market, and opened within a month of one another. Both playgrounds moved the needle on inclusivity beyond what had been done anywhere else.

Moreover, they’ve been runaway successes, welcoming more than a million visitors each of all abilities, with some families driving for hours to the colorful and imaginative destination attractions. They are amongst the best play amenities for children of all abilities, wheelchair or no, and have put the Bay Area at the epicenter of the inclusion revolution.

Support for Inclusive Playgrounds

Inspired by the obvious need and enthusiastic reception, the Santa Clara County Board of Supervisors voted to fund $20 million in matching funds to promote inclusive playgrounds. Magical Bridge Foundation became a one-stop shop to help communities design and build new fully-welcoming play parks, from construction drawings to oversight. In 2020, Magical Bridge playgrounds came to Redwood City’s Red Morton Community Park and Palo Alto’s Addison Elementary School, and San Mateo followed the next year.

In 2022, playgrounds opened in Sunnyvale’s Fair Oaks Park and Morgan Hill’s Community Park. This year, Santa Clara’s Central Park will open a Magical Bridge installation. Also in the works are parks and schools in East Palo Alto, Mountain View, Baltimore, Denver – even Singapore and New Zealand.

Amenities include wooden tree houses and bridges designed by Hayward artisan Barbara Butler and finished in colorful organic oil stains. Butler’s “hideaway hut” at Magical Bridge provides a place for children on the spectrum, who can get overwhelmed and flee a park, a safe place to retreat if overstimulated.

Parks for Everyone

Villarreal has made equal opportunity play for a neurodiverse population a signature of her organization’s playground design. She points out that the parks are not just accessible to wheelchair-bound children, but a population that includes kids with sensory impairments and spectrum disorders, disabled parents and the elderly, embracing all-opportunity, intergenerational inclusive play.

The head movements and inner ear motion that come from swinging and play contribute both to the mental development of young and growing children, and to preventing mental decline in later years. “Vestibular motion is now being proven to ward off Alzheimer’s,” Villareal said, adding that the need for movement starts in utero.

“Our playgrounds are woefully inaccessible,” she said about the general state play amenities. “It doesn’t necessarily cost that much more to be more thoughtful.”

Another Magical Bridge innovation involves adding an extended landing for slides. The slideaway “allows someone in a wheelchair to move over and wait in dignity,” Villareal said.

As the accessibility revolution that began with Judith Heumann and the passage of the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) in 1990 gets taken to a new level with the push for equal opportunity play, the venues benefit from cross-pollination of innovative ideas.

On a recent visit, we spotted a hut for kids on the spectrum on a pallet at San Jose’s Rotary Playgarden expansion, amidst new acres of blue-paved pathways dotted with play structures, seating areas and colorful, modern yellow umbrellas.

Matsushima explained that there will also be a labyrinth and shaded areas that were omitted from the original design “because we couldn’t afford it.” The county and city grants and widespread public embrace have changed the landscape for playtime inclusion.

“The dream was that some day the park would be expanded. There will be more picnic spots,” she said . “It’s just going to be lovely and completes the concept of what the dream was for the park.”


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