“Playgrounds for All”: A better way to play in Santa Clara County

With accessible and secure slides, tree houses, carousels and swings, as well as retreat spaces that encourage imaginary play and quiet time, the popular Magical Bridge Playground in Palo Alto and Rotary PlayGarden in San Jose pioneered the playground of the future, engaging kids with and without disabilities. 

With only two all-inclusive playgrounds in Santa Clara County, however, “many families had to drive for miles to experience these creative and special parks,” said Board Supervisor Joe Simitian, who has led the County in support of accessible, inclusive playgrounds. “We want to give kids and families throughout the County the same recreational opportunities in the communities where they live.”

As a result, in 2018, the Board awarded $10 million in matching funds to help build seven all-inclusive playgrounds in the County’s five Supervisorial districts, as well as three smaller school-based projects. Further, at Simitian’s urging, the Board earmarked an additional $10 million for a second round of matching. In December 2018, the Board awarded more than half of the second-round funding for another seven all-inclusive playgrounds in County parks and schools.

“I’m so pleased that our County stepped up to help create more innovative playgrounds for all,” said Simitian. “It’s gratifying, and frankly, it’s the right thing to do – to provide all-inclusive places to play and socialize.”

The need for innovation

More than 10,000 children in Santa Clara County have “major disabilities,” and over 20,000 take advantage of special education services in their schools. Additionally, about 35,000 County adults under age 65 have some form of disability, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Yet the vast majority of parks, and city and school playgrounds in Santa Clara County are not fully accessible – or designed – for kids or adults with cognitive or physical challenges.  

Truly inclusive playgrounds far surpass Americans with Disabilities Act minimum requirements, with smooth surfacing, and custom-designed climbing, sliding, swinging, and spinning zones that improve balance, spatial orientation, focus and motor skills, supporting recreation and social interaction for people with autism, sensory challenges, cognitive, developmental and physical disabilities – as well as those without special needs.

In addition to accessible play structures and other interactive spaces, inclusive playgrounds indulge the senses with rich, calming colors, and fanciful tactile and audio elements, such as the 24-string laser harp at Palo Alto Magical Bridge or the speakers at the Rotary PlayGarden that pipe in pilot and air traffic control chatter from nearby Mineta San Jose International Airport.

A history of support

As a California State Senator, Simitian first championed the idea of an all-inclusive playground back in 2011, writing to the Palo Alto City Council in support of the first Magical Bridge Playground proposal. He followed up as County Supervisor in 2014, pushing the Board to fund the final $150,000 needed to start construction of the playground, which is in his district. The County had previously committed similar funding to the Rotary PlayGarden project in San Jose, which also opened in 2015.

The playgrounds were an immediate hit – and not just for kids. Senior centers and independent living providers also brought their clients on buses to experience recreational space that is uniquely accessible to adults of varying abilities.

By 2017, the two playgrounds were becoming overcrowded: Palo Alto’s Magical Bridge, for example, had up to 20,000 visitors a month. But expanding the number of accessible playgrounds in the County was a challenge for any one city or organization: with specialized equipment and design, each cost between $2 million and $5 million.

To address that challenge, Simitian proposed the All-Inclusive Playgrounds (AIPG) matching grant fund, which the Board unanimously supported.

In 2018, with recommendations from a committee of disability professionals and advocates, the Supervisors awarded $10 million in grants to pay for up to half of the design and construction costs for projects proposed by the cities of Morgan Hill, San Jose, Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Milpitas, and Campbell, as well as the Palo Alto Unified, Santa Clara Unified and Franklin-McKinley school districts. The second round of funding will support new parks in the cities of Cupertino, Santa Clara, and San Jose, as well as school districts in Mountain View, Palo Alto, and Santa Clara (with more to come).

“These high-impact projects are distributed throughout the County, and they really move the needle in setting a new standard for playgrounds,” said Simitian, who was particularly pleased to see more school districts receive grants and “extend the ‘all-inclusive’ concept into our schools.”

 County leadership in accessibility

“To have more top of the line parks is terribly exciting. This is another example of the County’s leadership in accessibility,” said Karl Garcia, a county resident and member of the County’s advisory committee.

“Parks and playgrounds are important ways to connect on a human level,” said Garcia, a Google employee and paraplegic who has used a manual wheelchair since a car accident 30 years ago. He has three daughters – none with special needs – and is largely kept on the sidelines by narrow pathways, tanbark and other surfaces that won’t accommodate his wheelchair at traditional playgrounds.

“At Magical Bridge, everything is accessible,” he said. “I’m able to get up to the top of the slide mound, or on the carousel, and my kids can push me around. I can get up next to them and push them. I can participate in the play rather than hovering off to the side, and that makes a huge difference.”

Inclusive playgrounds benefit more than kids and adults with disabilities, added Garcia: “Everyone plays there. It’s an opportunity for interaction, which is so important, because then there is much less of the ‘other’ – abled or disabled. We need more than one or two of these playgrounds in a region. They create community.”

Inclusive play at school

The County-funded school-based projects were smaller in scope, as a model to encourage other school districts to adapt their play areas. A $300,000 County grant to Addison Elementary School in Palo Alto, for example, was “a great opportunity to rethink our outdoor play space,” said principal Amanda Boyce.

“We’ve made so many great gains in education; one area that’s stagnant is playgrounds. It’s such an important and often overlooked part of education. Traditional playgrounds have a proscribed way of playing that isn’t user-friendly for all kids,” Boyce added. “Social and emotional learning – conflict resolution, friendship, sharing – happen on the playground during lunch and recess. That’s what kids talk about when they go home. It’s very important that they have that access.”

Partnering for better play

Magical Bridge Playground founder Olenka Villareal, one of the Bay Area’s inclusive playground pioneers, was motivated by the lack of safe and creative outdoor options for both her disabled and non-disabled daughters to have fun together. “ADA-compliant” parks made minimal concessions to wheelchair users, but provided nothing for the 90 percent of disabled children like her daughter, with developmental or sensory challenges. She dreamed of a place “so magical, it would bridge the gap between those with and without disabilities in a seamless way.”

After the Palo Alto Magical Bridge Playground opened, Villareal and two partners created the Magical Bridge Foundation to help other communities develop inclusive playgrounds. The national spotlight has landed on the organization’s work, which was featured in the 2018 “Access + Ability” exhibition at the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum in New York City. Four of the County’s matching grants went to Magical Bridge-affiliated projects, in Sunnyvale, Mountain View, Morgan Hill, and the Palo Alto Unified School District.

Simitian said he sees the grant fund as a catalyst: “If we offer matching funds, others will step up. Cities, school districts, area businesses, local donors and philanthropies – we’re leveraging all of those funds to spread all-inclusive playgrounds throughout the County. My hope is that our County-wide effort inspires others in the region, the state, and the nation to follow suit – until one day this becomes the expected norm.”




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