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Palo Alto Breaks Ground on Innovative Playground for All Children

On June 23, construction began on what is being coined the most innovative and inclusive playground in the United States.

The playground will be called “Magical Bridge” and will be located on 1.28 acres of land between Adobe Creek and Mitchell Park’s southern-most tennis courts. The park will have 15 zones that will accommodate the needs of all kinds of children. The intent of the park is to “bridge the gap between those with and without disabilities,” said Olenka Villarreal, a founding member of the “Friends of the Magical Bridge” organization.

There are an estimated 11,000 people with some sort of disability in Palo Alto. But not one of the 34 parks throughout Palo Alto had the equipment necessary for Villareal’s daughter to play (she has an intellectual disability and lacks the upper body strength to hold on to the chains of playground swings). In 2009, this need inspired Villarreal to find funding for a play area to cater to the special needs of all children in the community.

Villarreal set out to find someone who could set aside land for the park. Funding poured in from a variety of sources, including lemonade stands and a $1 million matching grant from the Peery Foundation (a philanthropic organization out of Palo Alto which aims to fund organizations that fight poverty and other ill effects in the community). All told, Villarreal raised $3 million for the park’s construction. The park will be handed over to the City of Palo Alto once construction is completed.

An official with Palo Alto’s community Services Department said the support for Magical Bridge has caused the city to address the lack of accessibility in existing public spaces, including the lack of wheelchair ramps and toddler bucket swings at Eleanor Pardee Park.

“It’s exciting to see the community unite over something that benefits children of all needs and stages of development,” said Michael Gilfix, a special needs trusts attorney with Gilfix La Poll Associates in Palo Alto. “While I wish something like Magical Bridge already existed in every city across the United States, I’m glad that Palo Alto is innovating change and focusing on the needs of all children.”

Villarreal said that she hopes that once Magical Bridge is created, it will prove successful enough to influence the building of similar parks across the nation. The park is expected to open in November.

“We want to celebrate abilities, not disabilities ... It still astounds me that we are building the first place to address the many different play needs of the many different kinds of children who live in our community,” said Villarreal.

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