Friday, April 17, 2015

Playground Review: Magical Bridge (Palo Alto)

For months, I've been heralding the arrival of Palo Alto's new Magical Bridge Playground, sharing posts as this incredible fully-accessible playground moved from concept to design to construction. I've oohed and aahed over pictures of the playhouse and equipment, and I've been moved by the heartwarming stories of kids and parents, with and without special needs, who will all be able to enjoy this park together. And now, my friends, I am delighted to announce that the big day has arrived: tomorrow, Magical Bridge will open to the community and, as its slogan says, become a place "where everyone can play!"

And today, in probably the single coolest experience I've enjoyed as SV Toddler, Toddler X and I had the opportunity to visit the playground before the crowds pour in, get a personalized tour, meet the visionaries, designers and builders who helped create and share this wonderful place, and -- best of all -- "play test" Magical Bridge's equipment and features -- all amazingly cool, and some totally unique.

The experience was, in a word, magical.

Tomorrow, Saturday the 18th at 10:00 a.m., this very special playground will open to the public, and kids and parents, regardless of their abilities and challenges, will have the chance to play together in this unique space. You're invited to join them from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. for performances on the adorable stage, music, food and so much fun.

When you visit, here's what you'll find:
  • A fully accessible playground, meticulously designed and crafted to meet the needs of all children and parents, regardless of their abilities or challenges. Seriously, the vast array of considerations the planners and designers incorporated when creating the playground is awe-inspiring. For example:
    • The entire playground is ramp-accessible for children and parents with mobility challenges, including the second story of the playhouse, the treetop platform, and the top of the multi-slide hill. Even the "bouncy bridge", as Toddler X calls them, was specifically designed so that the angle could be navigated by a wheelchair.
    • The play area contains no sand or tanbark, which could impede access for people with mobility challenges, and which, interestingly, also poses a danger for children with respiratory issues, who need to stay away from fine particles. Instead, the ground is all the squishy rubberized stuff I love, synthetic grass, and the coolest ground cover I've ever seen -- it could not look more like real wood shavings, but is instead a firm rubberized surface. Incredible.
    • The playground is broken into distinct "zones", each of which have a theme or purpose -- spinning or sliding or swinging or music, as well as a tot zone for kids aged 1-4. These zones help parents prepare children for what to expect in a certain area, particularly helpful for children with autism spectrum disorders. 
    • Specialized devices or features like a wheelchair-accessible spinner (it's at ground level -- you simply roll in) and a little bench at the foot of the roller slide (so a child who might need assistance or a bit extra time getting off has a place to sit without feeling like he or she is blocking the whole slide).
    • Here are a few pictures:
An explanation of each zone helps parents understand their purpose
Ramps, ramps, everywhere
Slide with dismount platform
Part of the Tot Zone
  • A huge array of creative or unique play structures and devices -- enough of them that, no matter the crowds, there will be something available for everyone. While some playgrounds have one accessible swing, here they have six -- as well as multiple saucer-type swings that are also accessible (and, incidentally, are incredibly relaxing -- it was on one of these that Toddler X uttered his best quote of the day: "Aaaah...I wannna live here...".) What's more, all the structures were chosen with some purpose or utility in mind -- their ability to stimulate different receptors in children's brains. Definitely check out the website for some fascinating information on this. A few pictures...

  • A truly INCREDIBLE two story playhouse, designed by Barbara Butler, whom I had the pleasure of meeting today. Downstairs features special pretend play areas with a tool set and bakery; upstairs, there's a cafe and fun outdoor steering wheel. Every single piece was designed and hand-crafted by Barbara and her team just for Magical Bridge, and the moment you step inside -- indeed, just looking at it from the outside -- you realize it's something special.
The front of the playhouse -- more pictures to come from the delightful interior!
  • A laser harp, which has to be one of the coolest things I've ever experienced at a playground. It's like a xylophone that you play with your body, walking, running or rolling along. While it's a delight for everyone, it's especially important for children who may be non-verbal, but who may find ways to communicate through music and creativity. Also in the musical category, and one of our favorite features, was the multi-colored flower bell set-up in the Tot Zone, which uses golf balls as bells!

  • An awesome three-slide hill structure, with a variety of cool ways to access the top (including a ramp, of course), with a basic straight slide, a twisty slide, and an awesome, super long roller slide that we couldn't get enough of.
  • A lovely amphitheater area, with "log" benches arrayed in front of the stage formed by the bottom story of the playhouse. There will be music and performances there on Opening Day, and in the future. (Pictures to come.)
  • Mature trees that provide SHADE -- a lot of it! While naturally various parts of the playground will have shade at various points of the day or year, there will always be some shaded areas for playing, relaxing or eating, created by huge old native trees, as well as mature trees that Magical Bridge had planted just for that purpose. (Note that they also specially installed a huge shade umbrella at the top of the slide structure -- brilliant!)
  • And finally, a warmth and sense of purpose that you can't find at just any playground. Unlike a playground designed just to give kids a place to burn energy (which is laudable, of course, but just a component of a bigger picture here), Magical Bridge was designed to bring people together and broaden the experience and exposure of all children in our community, creating a place where families representing the whole spectrum of abilities and challenges can play together and learn from each other. I mean, how many playgrounds have a "Kindness Corner"? You feel that purpose as soon as you set foot in this playground, and it's lovely.

From a practical standpoint, here are a few tips:
  • Magical Bridge is located within Mitchell Park in Palo Alto, in an ahead behind the tennis courts. There is plenty of parking alongside the Mitchell Park Library complex and in the Mitchell Park lot itself, and I believe there may be some dedicated Magical Bridge parking available tomorrow for the Grand Opening if you enter from Middlefield Road.
  • There are no bathrooms within the playground itself, but the bathrooms associated with the tennis courts are just 30 yards away, and are pleasant and clean. There is just one men's and one women's restroom, which may pose a problem with crowds. For tomorrow, I saw them setting up several large portable toilets as well.
  • There are several pleasant benches around the various play zones, as well as a few picnic tables under the trees and the lovely and always-shaded amphitheater area, so pack a lunch to extend your day.
Overall, this park is one of the most incredible things to happen to the South Bay children's scene in...well, forever. It's features are cool, yes, but it's also its mission and purpose that truly serve to create a play space that is unique and -- I'm sorry, but it's the only word that fits -- magical.

Check it out for the Grand Opening tomorrow, or at some point in the near future. It's worth a drive.

Happy toddling!

A news cameraman trying to film Toddler X checking out the playground -- he underestimated Toddler X's speed! :)
I have many, many more pictures, and I will add them soon!

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