Ms. Tracy Grinberg had a feeling her third graders at Loyola Elementary School were going to do something amazing last year.

They were the most compassionate, empathetic, and socially aware group of 9-year-olds that she had encountered in her seven years of teaching.

It came through when her students took the hands of their little buddies from transitional kindergarten as they walked down the hallway, or when they did yoga in the special day classroom, perfectly comfortable relating to their peers with special needs.

And nearly every day, a bubbly third grader named Chloe Fazilat spent her recess sitting and talking or playing hide and seek with her buddy Eliza Poffenberger, an outgoing 4-year-old who would have rather been on the playground, but she couldn’t get her wheelchair over the wood chips.

So in January, when Ms. Grinberg and Loyola science, technology, engineering, and math instructional support teacher Grace Choi embarked on what they called a project-based learning passion project, they weren’t exactly surprised with what the kids came up with. But they were still blown away by where the children’s passion led them.

“I knew that there was something magical about this group of kids but what they showed me completely exceeded my expectations,” Miss Grinberg would tell the Los Altos School Board later that year. “We have empathetic students who are empowered to make a difference in our world.”

It began with a question: “How could we make someone’s experience at Loyola better?”

First, the children considered different problems that students encountered at their school. They thought a lot about recess, and kids who didn’t have anyone to play with, or were too shy to ask to join a game, or felt anxious around people. Their thoughts to turned to Eliza and other students they knew with different abilities and struggles. Born with spina bifida, Eliza has undergone a dozen surgeries and mostly uses a wheelchair to get around.

They wrote each problem on a post-it note. When they looked at all the post-its, a theme emerged:

“People who can’t move as much as we can.”

“The garden isn’t accessible for wheelchairs and walkers.”

“Some students can’t play on the play structure.”

“No swing for all abilities.”

“Someone in a wheelchair cannot really go on the playground.”

The school playground wasn’t accessible to all students.

What was the solution? No idea was too far-fetched, the teachers said. Solutions were evaluated against a matrix of short-term, long-term, realistic and unrealistic. Hoverboard wheelchairs, an anti-gravity room and a conveyor belt to carry kids onto the play structure fell into the category of creative and amazing, but not realistic. Opening the school makerspace every day instead of a few times a week seemed like a realistic way to give kids more options at recess in the short-run. Replacing the playground bark with wheelchair-accessible soft leather seemed like a long-term, but realistic, solution.

Over the next four months, the students would conduct interviews with their principal, the special education teacher, and the occupational therapist, and some kids at the school that couldn’t access the playground. They learned the difference between a playground that’s compliant with the Americans With Disabilities Act and a playground that all children can actually use. Ms. Grinberg showed them playgrounds around the country that were considered inclusive.

They learned that one of those playgrounds — Magical Bridge — was right in their backyard in nearby Palo Alto. Some of the students had been there, but had no idea it was designed with all children in mind. It was a place where Eliza could zip up and down the ramps like a daredevil and almost forget she was in a wheelchair.

They wondered: Why can’t we have one of those?

Ms. Grinberg arranged for Los Altos Mayor Jean Mordo to visit her class and talk to them about local government and how the kids could become “change agents.” They told him about the problem they saw — that the city lacked inclusive playgrounds. Mordo encouraged them to take their concerns to the Los Altos Parks and Recreation Commission, so Eliza and several third graders made a presentation during their spring break. Articles were written about the kids in the local newspaper.

Then, the class and their TK buddies visited the Magical Bridge playground for the first time.

“That was one of the most powerful experiences of my life,” Ms. Grinberg said. “One child got to go down the slide for the first time ever. Eliza was bright red sweating because she got to chase all of her friends on the playground, and that’s not something she’s ever been able to do. You don’t think how simple a playground is, and how big a part of a child’s life it is, but when you see an 8-year-old go down the slide for the first time and you hear a girl say, ‘I got to play cops and robbers with my friends,’ that was so powerful.”

The children developed a deep personal connection with Magical Bridge.

When one of Ms. Grinberg’s students, Andrew Wall, won first place for his grade in the annual Los Altos historical essay contest last spring, he donated his $50 prize to the Magical Bridge foundation.

“I like the Magical Bridge Playground because I like to see everyone play together in the same place instead of people being left out,” he wrote in a handwritten letter to founder Olenka Villarreal.

And when the class learned that the Obama Presidential Library was considering a Magical Bridge playground, they wrote letters to President and Mrs. Obama about what makes the Palo Alto playground so special.

Around this time, Magical Bridge Foundation Educational Director Jay Gluckman began making regular visits to Ms. Grinberg’s class. He taught her some braille and helped the children design a 3D model of an inclusive playground. Using a 3D printer, wood, pipe cleaners, popsicle sticks and other materials in the school makerspace, they made swings with harnesses for children with limited upper body strength; roller slides that engaged kids’ senses and were wide enough for a child and a caregiver to go down side by side; and a “cozy cocoon” for kids with autism and sensory challenges or who just need a break from active play.

Finally, at the end of the year, the children took their presentation to the Los Altos School Board.

Chloe was nervous but proud as she stood at the microphone with her arm around Eliza, waiting to read the remarks she had prepared.

“We have friends at school that cannot access our playground and we want to make sure that they know we notice and care about them, and that we are willing to do something to make them feel more included at playtime,” the third-grader told the school board members.

The children understood that the school district wasn’t going to suddenly replace all playgrounds with inclusive ones, but maybe, the next time a playground was being built, they would consider a different model.

“All kids, regardless of age or ability, deserve the chance to play with one another. We want all kids to be able to have fun at school,” Chloe said. Then she bent down and put her head next to Eliza’s. “We want to be able to play together at school.”

Ms. Grinberg’s class held their end-of-year party at Magical Bridge, and still have reunions there. She’s hopeful that someday, the children will get their dream. But even if nothing else happens, she thinks about how proud she is of them.

“They made a big change,” she said. “Whether something comes of it or not, they made a huge impact, and just for our students at the school who are often overlooked because of their abilities, they were thought of.”

Article Credit to Freelance Journalist, Daphne Sashin

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