It is Time for a New Kind of Playground: A Community Playground

Despite their best efforts to make playgrounds accessible to everyone, play equipment manufacturers and playground designers need some help. We are 12 teens from Palo Alto California interning at the Magical Bridge Foundation, trying to make a difference in the way parks are built. It is time for cities and communities to design playgrounds, so everyBODY is welcome!

20 things we invite you to think about before building your next playground:

1.  Limit the tanbark: Most playgrounds continue to use tanbark as their primary ground cover because it is both inexpensive and compliant with ADA law. Wheelchair users have tremendous difficulty traveling across it and we encourage you to consider alternative smooth ground covers to ensure everyone has an easy time getting around.

2.  Instead of stairs, use smooth pathways: Forget “transfer platforms!” Wheelchair users and those other with mobility and balance challenges are unable to go up stairs. Period.

3. Make sure there is nothing somebody could fall into: Avoid open areas or large holes where anybody could fall into and hurt themselves.

4. Have swings for everybody: disc, bucket and typical:  Rather than only providing swings that able-bodied visitors can use, we ask that you put in disc and bucket swings as well so that everyone can get the many benefits of swinging. Other than children in wheelchairs, many individuals lack the coordination, balance, abdominal, and upper body strength required to use traditional swings found in most parks today.

5. Use poured-in place rubber and smooth surfacing: Rather than using surfaces like tanbark or sand that wheelchairs are unable to go through, we ask that you put in rubber instead because it is a surface that is easier for everybody to play on.

6. Ensure size of the equipment is big enough for wheelchairs to go through:   Avoid small spaces limited to wheelchairs to make your park more welcoming to everyone.

7. Provide places throughout the playground for kids to retreat to when they feel overwhelmed: People with autism often feel the need to remove themselves from the frenetic pace of the playground. 1 in 45 children are living with autism today and their play needs are not being considered.  Offering places within a playground for retreat opportunities is essential for them to enjoy themselves like everyone else. We recommend Playworld Systems for manufacturing a “cozy cocoon” piece of equipment to provide retreat spaces on playgrounds. However, we were astounded to discover that they are often installed right next to all frenetic activities of a park, which defeats the purpose of having it. Retreat cocoons must be installed away all from the noise otherwise, what is the point?

8. There must be lots of shade throughout the playground: Having shade is important, so people don’t get overheated and have a place to cool off. Those with down syndrome and other special needs are more sensitive to the sun than typical children.

9. Be sure the water fountains are at a height wheelchair users can use easily: On top of having regular fountains, include water fountains that a wheelchair user can use.

10. If you have tunnels in your playground, make sure they are wide enough for wheelchairs to go through: Tunnels are a cool thing to have in a playground, but if you have one be sure to make it wide enough for wheelchairs to go through, as well as turn around in.

11. Select picnic tables with open sides for a wheelchair: In additions to seating for able=bodied, also be sure to leave an opening big enough for a friend in a wheelchair to join the fun.

12. Have baby changers in the men’s bathroom too:  Offering baby changers in only a women’s restroom implies only women care for their children which are not true at all. If two men have a baby that needs to be changed, they have nowhere to go – and that is totally unacceptable.

13. Be mindful of equipment that makes a lot of noise: Many children, especially those with autism and sensory differences, can get over stimulated with things that make a lot of noise. When building a park, please consider that having a lot of loud pieces of equipment may make some feel uncomfortable.

14. Group similar types of equipment in the same area: Having different areas of the park and grouping equipment that is similar helps kids not have to go through the whole park looking for what they want, instead they can just go to a section they like. The predictability of the playground layout is also very important for a visually impaired child or one with autism to count on.

15. Color choices matter: Blue is a good color to use in a playground because visually impaired individuals are able to distinguish between different shades of blue better than any other color.

16. Give disabled people opportunities to play at elevated heights: A lot of the disabled community hasn’t been able to play on elevated structures until Magical Bridge was built. At most parks, whenever there is an elevated structure, you normally have to either climb a ladder or stairs to get on it.  Far too often, this leave a wheelchair out of the fun.

17. Make sure to have braille signage: Install braille throughout the playground to help the visually impaired to know what everything is and feel welcome.

18. Have fencing and gates to make sure kids can’t run off the playground: Make sure your park has a fence or gate around it to make sure that nobody can get out of the park easily and get hurt or lost.

19. Provide challenge levels for ALL:To ensure everybody has fun, provide equipment mindfully designed to challenge and delight all levels of abilities in your playground.

20. Before opening the playground, skip the walk through and do a roll though! Roll through your new playground in a wheelchair to make sure that everything is accessible and magically fun for ALL your visitors!

We know most cities are still using the 1990 ADA parameters to design playgrounds, but understand these laws are woefully outdated. The mix of our communities has dramatically changed since 1990, with autism being a huge addition and playground designers are not mindful of their needs. We ask that those building public parks not limit themselves to the ADA law but start to reflect the many types of physical and cognitive needs in our world today. Magical Bridge Foundation believes that real magic happens when we create places where everyone belongs. We invite you to join our vision!


Emma_MBAWritten by Emma Villarreal, an intern with Magical Bridge Foundation’s 2016 summer program and a rising junior at Palo Alto High School in Palo Alto CA. In her free time, Emma can often be found roaming around Magical Bridge playground in Palo Alto as an enthusiastic Kindness Ambassador.

About Magical Bridge Foundation


Magical Bridge Foundation furthers the promise of Palo Alto’s Magical Bridge Playground by advocating for and creating inclusive and innovative playgrounds in other communities. Led by Magical Bridge Playground founder and visionary, Olenka Villarreal, and co-founders Jill Asher and Kris Loew, the formation of Magical Bridge Foundation is responding to the global need for innovative and inclusive parks. We are pouring our seven years of research, fundraising, development, design, and construction strategies into building Magical Bridge Playgrounds across the nation.

If you are interested in bringing a Magical Bridge Playground to your community, kindly contact Olenka Villarreal at olenka@magicalbridge.org or Jill Asher at jill@magicalbridge.org.