“Our dream is that we no longer have to use the words “inclusive” or “accessible” when building something as vital as a playground.”

Olenka Villareal, Founder, Magical Bridge Foundation

By: Dee Ellmann

Because Abe’s dream of founding One Day began with his playground experience, I want to share a story about a mom in Palo Alto, California, who wish to create a socially inclusive playground for all ages and abilities began with her need to find a place where both of her daughters could play together and with family and friends. Olenka Villareal’s younger daughter Ava who is developmentally disabled has very different needs from her older daughter Emma, but both girls needed a safe, accessible play space. Doctors told Villareal and her husband that Ava would benefit from vestibular motion and that movement would help her brain and muscles develop, but with 34 playgrounds in Palo Alto, there was not a single one that was a usable and welcoming experience for their daughter. Because Silicon Valley is the innovation capital of the world and because Villareal is a problem solver by nature, she began researching for playgrounds designed to be used by a wider range of children. She found that ADA compliant playgrounds left out most children and people with autism, visual and hearing impairments, cognitive disabilities, and physical problems. There were not even playground manufacturers that were designing structures for kids in wheelchairs or for kids with autism who have a greater need to process sensory information at their own speed. Instead of turning away from this challenge, Villareal did just the opposite. She gathered together a variety of playground users at her kitchen table and included everybody, even the kids whose parents wanted them to learn empathy and kindness by having a playground for everyone. She calls this “Intentional Design” and this is what equals an Inclusive Society. We have to be aware that many designs unintentionally leave a portion of the population out and that this can amount to many people. During the course of seven years, Villareal was able to attract friends, neighbors, designers, and community members to join her to create a Magical Bridge Playground which is enjoyed by other 25,000 visitors each month. Features of the Magical Bridge Playground in Palo Alto include a Kindness Corner, a Community Playhouse, a Laser Harp, musical programs and events, and a volunteer program for local teens called Kindness Ambassadors. It is truly a playground for everyone for all parents want their children to belong and to be included. Now there are plans to build seven more Magical Bridge Playgrounds in local Bay Area communities and to design more inclusively at the local K-5 schools. In the words of Jill Asher, Villareal’s friend and business partner, “It’s important that the Magical Bridge Playground never gets pegged as a ‘special needs park.” There’s nothing special about needing to play.” You can learn more about the Magical Bridge Foundation at magicalbridge.org.

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