Hannah Hassid, a second-grader at Oakland Hebrew Day School, on the Magical Bridge Playground in Redwood City: "It’s all just extremely awesome." (Photo/Andrew Esensten)
Hannah Hassid, a second-grader at Oakland Hebrew Day School, on the Magical Bridge Playground in Redwood City: "It’s all just extremely awesome." (Photo/Andrew Esensten)

Local ‘magical,’ inclusive parks inspired by one in Israel

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Yonaton Naveh is a longtime user of the Magical Bridge Playground in Palo Alto’s Mitchell Park. His mother, Yael, has taken him there regularly since it opened in 2015. Now 15½, Yonaton, who is autistic and nonverbal, loves to play on the large disc swings, spin in the pods and climb inside the treehouse.

The equipment is both large enough and safe for him to use on his own. But best of all, his mother said, is the mostly “judgment-free” atmosphere of the playground, where people “don’t look twice” at her son because he is different.

“Too often our kids have had to stay home from places like that,” said Yael, speaking for parents of children who are disabled or have special needs. “But it’s important that they’re part of the community.”

Magical Bridge playgrounds are not “special needs” playgrounds. Rather, they are designed for “everyone at every stage of life, regardless of your ability or disability or size or age,” said Jill Asher, co-founder and executive director of the Palo Alto-based Magical Bridge Foundation. Asher is one of several Jewish members of the nonprofit’s staff, board and network of supporters. (Her non-Jewish co-founder, Olenka Villarreal, has a daughter with developmental disabilities.)

Inspired by Friendship Park in Ra’anana, Israel and based on “universal design” principles, the pilot playground at Mitchell Park served about 25,000 visitors per month pre-Covid, including some who would come from as far away as Modesto, according to Asher. Last December, a second, larger playground opened at Red Morton Community Park in Redwood City. There are currently 11 other projects at various stages of completion in local cities such as Mountain View, Santa Clara and Morgan Hill, as well as two in Singapore.

Most public playgrounds in the United States are constructed from standard modules, which makes them cost-effective for cities to build and ensures that they comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act. However, even if such playgrounds are ADA-compliant, that does not mean that they are accessible to all, said Maria Hassid, Magical Bridge’s director of operations and talent. Nor would older children or adults find them particularly engaging.

Yonaton Naveh playing at Magical Bridge in Palo Alto. (Photo/Yael Naveh)
Yonaton Naveh playing at Magical Bridge in Palo Alto. (Photo/Yael Naveh)

Hassid described standard play structures as a “rat maze,” that is, “up the stairs, over the bridge, down the slide, and around.”

“Typically, those kinds of playgrounds have a pace that the neurotypical kids set, and if you have any processing issues, if you can’t keep up, you can’t play,” she explained.

In contrast, Magical Bridge playgrounds have separate zones, including those for spinning, sliding and swinging. There’s even a music zone with a 24-string, motion-activated laser harp. The entire playground is surrounded by a fence, preventing those with serious cognitive issues from wandering off. And instead of tanbark or sand, which Hassid said can cause respiratory issues, playground surfaces are covered in poured-in-place, a rubbery material that provides a cushion from falls, and rubberized mulch made from old tires.

The Magical Bridge team also has introduced its own innovative design elements, based on input from disability rights organizations and focus groups. These include “dignity landings” at the bottom of slides to give wheelchair users space to wait while others continue to use the slide, and “hideaway huts,” designed by S.F.-based artist Barbara Butler, for those with autism or sensory challenges who may need to retreat from the hubbub of the playground for periods of time.

More than once, Asher has heard visitors compare Magical Bridge to Disneyland. Of course, playgrounds this fun (and inclusive) are not cheap; they cost from $6 to $10 million to build and require large investments by cities, counties, philanthropists and community members. For the new playground in Redwood City, where the concrete alone cost $1 million, according to officials, Congregation Beth Jacob contributed more than $10,000, the Sequoia Healthcare District pitched in $500,000 and the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative sponsored a “tot zone” for ages 1-4.

Lee Michelson, former CEO of Sequoia, which serves a chunk of San Mateo County and is headquartered Redwood City, said he took an interest in Magical Bridge after learning about it from Joan Goldner-Lasofsky, who runs Seniors At Home, the senior services division of S.F.-based Jewish Family and Children’s Services. As he read more about it, Michelson began noticing things when visiting a regular local playground with his grandchildren, such as a boy in a wheelchair sitting on the periphery, watching the other children have fun without him.

“Most of us just take all of this stuff for granted,” he said. “But there’s a population of children who for years have been denied this right to childhood. I’m happy that so many more children and people are going to be able to use these parks that would have been excluded otherwise.” Of the Magical Bridge Foundation, he said, “I applaud what they’re doing.”

Maria Hassid and Jill Asher in front of the Magical Bridge Playground in Redwood City. (Photo/Andrew Esensten)
Maria Hassid and Jill Asher in front of the Magical Bridge Playground in Redwood City. (Photo/Andrew Esensten)

On a recent morning, the new playground in Redwood City was churning with activity. A father played with his children on a large spinning disk, while a visitor in a wheelchair rolled past. Nearby, Hannah Hassid, a neurotypical second-grader at Oakland Hebrew Day School and Maria’s daughter, splashed on the rocks in the water zone. Asked what she liked most about the playground, she replied: “I love to play in the water, but I also love to go on the roll-y slide and play in the [treehouse] kitchen. It’s all just extremely awesome.”

Parents with disabilities and various conditions, along with the elderly, can also benefit from the playground’s accessibility features. Anne Cohen Millet has myasthenia gravis, which causes her to become fatigued very easily. She said she dreaded taking her young son to standard playgrounds because of the effort it took to supervise him. “I would go back to my car and just feel defeated and burst into tears,” she said. “I felt like an absolute failure as a mom.”

But at the Magical Bridge playground in Palo Alto, Millet, 43, said she is better able to monitor her “very active” son, Zyler, while taking breaks on the numerous benches. “When we discovered Magical Bridge, it was a godsend,” she said. “The equipment is physically easier to get onto, and I don’t have to go up steps because there’s ramps.”

Millet, who works as a health care consultant and serves on the board of the Disability Rights Education and Defense Fund, was instrumental in bringing Magical Bridge to Mountain View, where she lives. Construction at Rengstorff Park is scheduled to begin later this year.

In the future, Asher said she would like to bring her playgrounds to synagogues, day schools and JCCs. (Magical Bridge advised Congregation Kol Emeth in Palo Alto on the design of the playground at its newly rebuilt campus.) She also hopes to serve more under-resourced communities, beginning in East Palo Alto, with funding made available by Proposition 68, a 2018 bond measure to refurbish parks in low-income neighborhoods.

Yael Uziyel Naveh, Yonaton’s mother, said that her only criticism of the playground is that it is always crowded. “The problem with a great playground is that everyone goes there,” she said. The playground capacity in Palo Alto (55) and Redwood City (80) is currently limited due to pandemic-related health protocols, and long lines tend to form at the entrances on weekends.

Asher’s solution: “Let’s build more. This should be in every community.”

Andrew Esensten
Andrew Esensten

Andrew Esensten is the culture editor of J. Previously, he was a staff writer for the English-language edition of Haaretz based in Tel Aviv. Follow him on Twitter @esensten.