It was a magical day as community members came together on June 23, after nearly six years of research, planning and fundraising, to break ground on the Magical Bridge Playground, an innovative, inclusive playground for kids of all abilities. The playground is being built at Mitchell Park on land donated by the City of Palo Alto and is scheduled to be completed in November 2014.
The park's founder, Olenka Villarreal, first came up with the idea in 2008 when she discovered her younger daughter, Ava, had developmental challenges. In searching for playgrounds that could accommodate her daughter’s special needs, Villarreal discovered that none of the 34 parks currently in Palo Alto had been built to accommodate children and adults with disabilities, so she made it her mission to create a place that would.
"It all started five years ago when Palo Alto Community Services Director Greg Betts was not only willing to learn, but to champion the reality that none of today’s parks have truly been designed with a disabled person in mind," Villarreal said. “We were determined to address the needs of children and adults living with various levels of cognitive challenges—those living with autism, visual and hearing impairment, sensory integration issues. We are, after all, building a community park so let’s include everybody in our community.”
The 1.3-acre park, the nation’s first 100-percent accessible and fully-inclusive public playground, will be comprised of seven distinct play zones designed specifically for children of varying physical and cognitive abilities. The playground will include a swing and sway zone, a music zone, a slide mound, an inclusive carousel that will be wheelchair accessible, a picnic and performance area, and a two-story, fully wheelchair accessible playhouse.
“We were so thrilled when we heard about the Magical Bridge Playground. It is truly a magical idea to bridge people together of all abilities at such an amazing place,” said Joel Yang, whose 6-year-old daughter is in a wheelchair. “Having all generations and all abilities come together and play together fosters understanding and familiarity. It also facilitates connection and friendship and it enriches our community. It will be an incredible place we will definitely be coming to, and I’m sure there will be many friendships and many memories made here.”
The Magical Bridge Playground is a project of The Friends of the Palo Alto Parks. The group has spent nearly six years researching the best design and play equipment for the park and on fundraising. To date, the group has raised $3.1 million for the project, almost entirely from private donations, including $1 million from the Peery Foundation.
“Magic is happening here soon,” Villarreal said. “We want this park to help us start a national conversation that we must design all parks to accommodate the needs of everyone in our community. It’s the only way that we are going to create the diverse, socially-inclusive, barrier-free world that we all want to be in.”
The park is being built by Barry Swenson Builders and the City of Palo Alto will take over its maintenance once completed.