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Friday, May 22, 2015

Playground Preview: The Rotary PlayGarden (San Jose)


Note: This is a playground preview to help build excitement for the Rotary PlayGarden's Grand Opening on Saturday, May 23rd at 10:00 a.m.. A full review in my typical format, where I'll address practical aspects like location (on Coleman at Autumn), parking (plenty), bathrooms (present) and shade (absent), will come after I visit the park this weekend. If you do plan on attending the Grand Opening on Saturday, know that they are reserving the PlayGarden's parking lot for those with handicapped placards for this event, and asking that those without special needs park on Autumn or across the street at the San Jose Market Center (where the Target, Panera and BJs are located). Enjoy this wonderful new play space!

What a day it was, back on February 21, 2015, when San Jose's long-awaited Rotary PlayGarden first opened its gates to the public! For months, the toddlers of Silicon Valley had followed its progress and anticipated its completion. With every trip to the San Jose Market Center across the street, they dreamed of the day when mom's version of heaven (Target and Starbucks) could be combined with their own (a gloriously creative, totally accessible community play space). Toddler X and I were some of the biggest dreamers of all.

Fortunately, we made it a priority to be there for that February ribbon cutting ceremony because, as it turns out, that was the park's only day of operation in early 2015 -- since then, it's been shuttered for over three months. They explained at the ribbon cutting that the true opening wouldn't take place until April, but that date was pushed back and pushed back until now! Finally, on May 23rd, the Rotary PlayGarden will re-open to the public, and kids all around the South Bay should be very, very excited!

The view from above
Here's a little preview of what you can expect to find, based upon my February visit. It's quite likely that there have been updates or improvements since that point, and I'll post a full playground review after our visit this weekend. In the meantime, you'll find...

Super Cool, Accessible Playground Features

Like the recently-opened Magical Bridge playground in Palo Alto, the Rotary PlayGarden was designed to be accessible to all children. It's intended to be a place where members of the community can play side-by-side, regardless of their varying abilities. As a result, the PlayGarden has structures and features far different from what you'd find at a typical playground. Here are some of the highlights:




You'll Find...the Earthen Mound (aka Slide Hill)

One of the most distinctive features of the park is the large hill that was constructed along the front of the PlayGarden, a passage through which forms the park's entrance. Once you get inside the park, you turn to discover that the hill is, in fact, a series of smooth concrete slides, accessible in a bunch of different ways -- via steps, via climbing grips built into the hill, or via long, gently-sloped ramps that wrap around the sides of the park.


The slides are awesome. They're fast and fun, and they look really cool. There are five of them, one of which is particularly wide to accommodate children who might need extra space, and two of which are shorter and designed with younger children in mind.

Big kid slides
Little kid slides
There are angled hillsides with grips/steps for climbing, long ones leading to the tall slides, and a shorter one leading to the little kids' slides.



Safety note: The taller hillside climbing features present a possible toddler danger zone. We haven't seen climbing grips built into hills like this before, and as Toddler X was scrambling up them, he would occasionally seem to think that, hey, it's just a hill -- rather than crawling, maybe I'll stand upright and walk instead! On an angle like that, however, suddenly standing upright is almost certain to make a little one lose his or her balance, and go somersaulting backwards down the hill -- something that almost happened to Toddler X twice. He's never had this problem before on even the tallest play structures, probably because the climbing features are suspended, rather than built into the ground (in other words, you wouldn't think to stand straight up while climbing a ladder, though you might think to do so while crawling up a hill). It's definitely worth keeping a close eye on your toddler if he or she chooses to climb the taller hillsides (there are shorter, more toddler-appropriate ones too), and perhaps offering the instruction that climbing, not walking up, is a must.


At the top of the toddler side, be sure to check out the cool purple "dots", featured in the picture at the top of this post. I envision lots of fun being had on those neat little orbs!

You'll Find...Features that Spin, Bounce, Swing and Sway

Like at Magical Bridge, the features here were designed to offer children fun and important sensory experiences that might not be available at a typical park, particularly in the areas of spinning, swinging and swaying.


The rope merry-go-round was a huge hit with Toddler X, and with pretty much every other child at the park. It's a nice feature because it offers different levels of challenge depending on the age/personality of the child, from just cruising around in the middle in a seated position to scaling the ropes on the outside. It was very crowded on the day we visited, but I imagine that on most days it won't look like this:


The ground level spinning contraption below offers a wonderfully inclusive design. It features two areas into which wheelchairs can roll, then be secured by bars, so that their users can be spun along with other children sitting on the benches. Watching children in wheelchairs really use playground features for the first time was an absolute joy.



For bouncing, the trampoline, suspended with ropes, is another toddler favorite. It's difficult to pull them off that one when it's time to go!



The see-saw is a hit with the older kids, while the swings and spinners appeal to kids of all ages.





You'll Find...Features for Climbing


In addition to the climbing features built into the side of the Earthen Hill, there are several neat and unusual climbing features that are designed for older kids, but parts of which could be enjoyable for adventurous toddlers as well.


You'll Find...Features for Music-Making

Always popular!


You'll Find...Sand and Water Fun


The PlayGarden features a fantastic water and sand set-up, accessible to all children. The design is beautiful, and the layout is conducive to lots of kids playing at one time.



Really Cool Design Elements

The play features at the Rotary PlayGarden are fantastic for their practical purpose, of course -- they allow for, and indeed encourage, inclusive play -- but many of them are also tremendously pleasing in an aesthetic sense. The more practical parts of the park -- the entryway, the seating area -- are lovely too. From the gates of the playground, which resemble reeds along the shores of the nearby Guadalupe River, to the beautiful river-themed water and sand play area, to the cool windmill features, the park was clearly designed with thought and artistry. It's as fun a place to be an adult, watching kids play, as it is to be a kid actually playing.






A Great Vibe

The PlayGarden is the Rotary Club of San Jose's centennial gift to the city, celebrating the club's 100 years of service in our community. In considering projects that would leave a legacy for the families of Silicon Valley, the Rotary settled on the idea of an inclusive playground, where children with and without special needs could play side-by-side, learning and growing together.

As a playground reviewer -- someone who spends an inordinate amount of time at local parks -- I can attest that there is truly a special "vibe" to be found at parks that are built for a purpose. While every addition to a community's play space is tremendously beneficial, parks like the Rotary PlayGarden or Magical Bridge or Tatum's Garden in Salinas -- parks which were built after a compelling story or concept brought people together in pursuit of something special -- engender a feeling of community and of connectedness that can't be found at every neighborhood park. 

While these parks were specifically designed to allow children of all abilities to play side-by-side, I get the sense that they also make parents feel a bit more open and approachable, breaking down some of the barriers that might make people keep to themselves at typical parks. The novelty of the park's features, its important purpose, and its creative design just beg for comment -- and who better to comment to than that parent standing next to you, a former stranger, whose child is playing happily with yours? There's something about the Rotary PlayGarden that encourages these connections and engenders that community-building. As someone who loves to chat with the mom pushing the next swing, I can't stop smiling when I visit playgrounds like this. A massive thanks to the San Jose Rotarians for making this park happen!

Well, that's it for now! On Saturday, the park will have its Grand Opening, and will, without a doubt, become the park that Toddler X and I visit most frequently. I'll post a review of the finished product, with any updates since our February visit, later this weekend. 

We look forward to seeing you at the PlayGarden soon!


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