A Bridge to Play
Magical Bridge Playground in Palo Alto, Calif.
By Dave Ramont
On a beautiful day in April 2015, a contagious sound was heard coming from a park in Palo Alto, Calif.: the sound of kids—all kids—having fun. Hundreds of people had turned out for the opening of Magical Bridge, called "the nation's most innovative inclusive playground." This day was seven years in the making for park founder Olenka Villarreal.
Villarreal's journey began when she discovered her daughter Ava had developmental challenges. Ava would benefit from vestibular movement—such as swinging—but it was impossible for her to hold the swing chains. So where were other kids with special needs playing? After searching extensively, Villarreal discovered that there were no truly accessible parks in her community.
An accessible playground is designed to meet the minimum requirements set by the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA). But as Jill Asher of Magical Bridge points out, "ADA compliance simply means that someone in a wheelchair can roll into a playground. It doesn't mean they can actually play on anything." She added that of the population who has a disability, only 10 percent use a wheelchair; 90 percent have cognitive issues. "Think of autism, visual impairment, sensory integration challenges or the medically fragile. That group is not even being addressed when it comes to ADA compliance," Asher said.
In an effort to initiate change, Villarreal started the Friends of the Magical Bridge Playground—operating under the umbrella of Friends of the Palo Alto Parks—who did all the research and fundraising. The City of Palo Alto donated the land. Total cost was $3.8 million: $2 million came from two donors, and the rest was raised through community donations, including lots of lemonade stands.
Since opening, the park has remained consistently crowded. Autistic classrooms and other groups from all over California have visited. "Typical" kids also love the park. It's laid out in socially inclusive playground zones designed for easy navigation, and there are retreat areas throughout the playground for children with autism that get over-stimulated by traditional park experiences. There are slides and swings and merry-go-rounds, and while sliding and swinging and spinning are fun for all kids, for those with cognitive issues these also provide serious therapy. There's a "kindness corner" to teach kids that bullying has no place, and a Tot Zone for the youngest guests. There's a community stage, and a magical "tree walk" that takes visitors through the trees. Artist and builder Barbara Butler built several pieces including a two-story playhouse/treehouse, fully wheelchair accessible.
There are interactive music experiences in the Music Zone. Scientists say that music stimulates more parts of the brain than any other human function. Villarreal said that while music plays an important role in all children's lives, for children with autism it's even more profound. "It's that ability to communicate or connect with people. Sometimes you don't have the verbal skills, but you have the interest in music," she said. Artist Jen Lewin created a 24-string laser harp. When a user breaks one of the laser beams, the harp creates a sound based on how quickly the person was moving and on the height of their hand (or wheelchair).
Villarreal said they found the most aesthetically attractive and universally interesting equipment to come out of Germany. "We ended up using a lot of stuff from there but because most of it is beyond what typical playgrounds in America need to do they tend to be expensive since they don't get distributed as widely." They gravitated toward metal, chrome and wood—avoiding plastic when possible. Other manufacturers used include Goric, Elephant Play, and Landscape Structures. They worked with TotTurf to create a soft surface that's truly wheelchair-friendly.
Asher and Villarreal said they've been besieged by hundreds of individuals, groups, cities and park and rec departments looking to create a similar playground. A park manager from Dallas visited, and later flew out all eight people from his department. "Due to this, we as a team decided rather than just disappear, we're doing this as a volunteer group," said Villarreal, "and this month (January 2016) we've begun as an official separate entity, nonprofit, setting things up online and offering some assistance."
Villarreal said that their playground model has proven wildly successful in the heart of Silicon Valley where innovation is synonymous with new ideas. "Our disabled population is living with things that are not even on the radar of manufacturers and parks and rec departments, and we feel like our whole mission is that it all starts on the playground." She wonders why building an inclusive park should even be newsworthy, that all parks should include everybody. As she likes to say, "When you design for everybody, nobody stands out."