The students at Stanford University’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design had four weeks and a challenge: Develop a product or experience that translated the “magic” of Magical Bridge’s inclusive playgrounds to the public school playground.

There were big questions to contemplate, most obviously around price point. School districts have nowhere near the $4 million dollars that private donors gave to build the Magical Bridge playground in Palo Alto. Was there a low-cost solution out there to serve the children who are often left out at recess? They needed to come up with alternatives for children who want to play outside but are sensitive to loud noises, use a wheelchair, lack the muscle strength to grip monkey bars — or have any number of special needs that make typical school playgrounds unwelcoming.

The student teams at the design school (known as the “”) were matched with public and private schools where they observed recess, interviewed students and teachers and tested prototypes. In their final presentations, the proposed solutions included compact cardboard games that children could set up without instructions; multi-sensory retreats for children who would enjoy a brief escape from the action; and sound experiences for kids to make their own soothing music, either together or solo.

The Magical Bridge Foundation got the chance to provide one of the real-world projects for the’s Design Thinking Studio this winter, after David M. Kelley, the founder of global design firm IDEO and the founder of the, toured the Magical Bridge playground with Magical Bridge Founder Olenka Villarreal.

“It is humbling that these bright minds from Stanford are coming to study our playground design,” Villarreal said. “While not all these students may elect to become architects and designers, working with us leaves them with a new perspective about the many members of our community who continue to be left out. In the years we have worked with students, we have seen some profound reactions to our work.”

Even as the Magical Bridge Foundation raises millions of dollars for new regional playgrounds in Redwood City, Mountain View, Sunnyvale, and Morgan Hill, Villarreal and co-founder Jill Asher always have bigger ideas percolating.

They know their impact reaches far beyond building playgrounds. Through every interaction with a family, an executive, a world leader, or a student, the foundation continues to transform how people think about inclusivity.

At the final presentations of the class, Magical Bridge staff members offered feedback on the prototypes and reminded students that there are always some children in each and every classroom with physical, cognitive, or sensory challenges, even if not readily obvious.

“Any student that has a kid is going to remember this class and think about what they’re doing, either consciously or unconsciously, to make their child’s environment more accessible or accessible for their friends,” said lecturer Seamus Harte, who taught the class along with lecturer Kelly Schmutte.



As Magical Bridge Foundation wrapped up the d School class, another began which promises more adventures in design thinking for all. Students from the PSYC223B: Topics in Neurodiversity: Design Thinking Approaches class toured Magical Bridge Playground in Palo Alto. Now being co-taught by  Dr. Lawrence Fung of Psychiatry & Behavioral Sciences and School of Medicine, and Dr. Nicole Ofiesh of the Schwab Learning Center at Stanford University, these future scientists and leaders are learning about universal design and we are hopeful these bright minds will create a better world for all of us.

In addition to the class at the, Magical Bridge has participated for the last several years in a Stanford engineering course called Perspectives in Assistive Technology taught by David L. Jaffe. The ten-week class challenges student teams, working with community members or organizations, to employ an engineering design process to address a specific challenge experienced by someone living locally with a disability or an older adult. Out of that class have come a variety of innovative ideas, including a tactile map of the Palo Alto playground made with acrylic (2015) and a caterpillar installation (2019) which clamps onto the playground fence with rings that children move back and forth for a multi-sensory experience.

Whether or not any of the students’ prototypes ever get to market, the bigger benefit of Magical Bridge working Stanford classes is the chance to influence how future engineers, product designers, and company leaders view the world after they leave school.

Stanford Junior Rachel Wallstrom took Jaffe’s class in 2018, as a sophomore, and her team developed a scaled prototype of a hand-crank powered merry-go-round intended to include wheelchair users who have some arm mobility and want some physical activity.

Wallstrom had arrived at Stanford thinking she would major in chemistry, but early on in her studies became interested in the academic side of disability and how different ways of moving through the world affect people. When she took Jaffe’s class, she had thought about accessibility generally, but not play spaces specifically.

“I was able to really appreciate the way that Magical Bridge was including everyone, and not trying to fix specific individuals but make an environment that was accessible to everyone, no matter what their body did or looked like or how it moved,” Wallstrom said. “It’s a very empowering message to send to children that how you are is OK and how your body is moving is OK and here’s a space where you can express that.”

Following the class, Wallstrom spent her summer working with the Magical Bridge Foundation to develop and experiment with navigational tools for people with visual impairments. As a result, she has now decided to major in mechanical engineering with a focus on accessible products. Her goal is to create products, not specifically for people with disabilities, but ones everyone can use, no matter what impairments they might face. The passion to address all abilities seamlessly is exactly what drives the Magical Bridge team to continue their work.

Students like Wallstrom, who quickly embrace the importance of designing for everyone, offer hope that this next generation will be more mindful of creating solutions for us all.


— written by Daphne Sashin


About Magical Bridge Foundation and Magical Bridge Playgrounds

In January 2016, Magical Bridge Foundation was formed to bring truly inclusive and innovative Magical Bridge Playgrounds to select Bay Area communities and nationwide.
Led by Olenka Villarreal, Jill Asher, and Kris Loew, Magical Bridge Foundation is responding to the global need to design and build innovative and inclusive playgrounds for everyone, regardless of ability or disability.
Magical Bridge Foundation, a registered 501(c)(3) non-profit organization. EIN: 81-2377796
In a society and economy that leaves far too many people on the sideline, the Magical Bridge Foundation stands for a new vision of inclusion that truly benefits everyone. Through innovative, creative, and compassionate design, a Magical Bridge Playground creates great play experiences that are simply better than conventional playgrounds (even for the “able-bodied”).
The fact that those with and without special needs can spin, swing, laugh and play alongside each other as peers create meaningful connections and lasting changes in how children and adults see themselves and “others” in society.
Through partnerships with cities, schools, foundations, community groups, and corporations, the Magical Bridge Foundation advances this vision of innovation and true inclusion far beyond the playground. Through research, advocacy, media, and other outreach efforts, we are working to lay the foundations of kindness and compassion that create stronger, healthier, and more socially connected communities.
1 in 4 individuals live with a disability and are left out of the playgrounds in our communities and schools. These children, adults and their families are among the most socially isolated and marginalized.
The goal and mission of the Magical Bridge Foundation is that every individual and family should have a place to play where they feel welcomed and accepted.