Douglass Alumna Creates Magical Space for All Kids  

Douglass Alumna Creates Magical Space for All Kids  

Monday - 4/03/17

After a close friend had a daughter with special needs, Jill Asher, DC'92 realized that there may be limitations placed on special needs children in unexpected places. When Ava, the daughter of Asher’s friend, grew too big for the little bucket swings at the playground, she naturally wanted to use the big swings. Unfortunately, she was unable to use the big swings because her arms were not strong enough to hold onto the chains.  This presented a problem for Ava's mom, Olenka Villarreal, as she was told that vestibular development was very important for her child's brain development.  



Although playgrounds meet the standards set by the Americans With Disabilities Act (ADA) of 1990, the ADA has not updated its playground requirements in more than 15 years. Realizing that some children, especially those with cognitive differences and autism, were being left out of public playgrounds, Jill, Olenka, and a group of volunteers came together to create a new type of playground that would meet the needs of everyone in the community. They created the Magical Bridge Foundation. 


The first Magical Bridge playground opened in April 2015. Located in Mitchell Park in Palo Alto, California, it is considered the nation’s most innovative and inclusive playground. These playgrounds are designed to be socially inclusive for children, young and old, of varying physical and cognitive abilities. They address more than just mobility issues, they also ensure they meet the needs of the growing autistic population, those with visual and hearing impairments, and even the aging community.    


“We knew we were designing the coolest park our own kids had ever been to, but our driving passion was to ensure kids and parents of varying cognitive and physical abilities played as equals,” said Jill. “In fact, this playground had to reflect the unique needs of everyone in our community. We were never going to become a ‘special needs’ playground because, after all, how kind would it be to create this magical space and not invite our ‘typical’ friends in too?”  


Jill has a background in high tech public and media relations, content creation, community engagement, and digital media skills.


“At times, we were referenced as ‘housewives’ trying to build a special needs playground,” said Jill. “But this is where grit, confidence and persistence came in. We were all so passionate about Magical Bridge, we kept at it. Yes, we received a lot of no’s.” But then ‘yes’ happened. The former mayor of Palo Alto, Leland Levy, and his wife, Judy Huey, made the first sizable donation of $250,000.”   


After that, their second major donor, The Peery Family Foundation, provided $1 million, followed by support from Silicon Valley leaders, including Larry Page and Sergey Brin, founders of Google; Marissa Mayer, former CEO of Yahoo; Anne Wojcicki, founder of 23andMe; and several others.   


We dreamed big, and imagined a new kind of playground, a place that met the needs of everyone in the community. Like any Silicon Valley “startup”, we dreamed about something that had never been built before. We met with inclusion experts, designers, community leaders, disability groups, and those with disabilities.  We learned about how every disabled group plays differently.  We learned how children with autism like to retreat, and slowly come out to participate on the playground.  We learned how seniors with Alzheimer liked to swing and sway, but can’t fit on most “typical” swings.  If fact, most seniors are never welcome in the “typical” playground.  We learned how medically fragile kids need to avoid playgrounds with sand and tan bark.  We learned about depth perception for those with visual impairments, and how different colors matter.  We learned about the importance of predictability for many kids with disabilities.  We learned how important it was to fence in a playground.  We learned that gentle sounds and noises matter for kids with sensory challenges. We learned that touch and feel matters. We learned how many kids can get overstimulated in typical ramp-and-clamp play structures typically found on playgrounds. We learned, and learned, and learned…..and we still continue to learn each and every day.  

And then we innovated, designed and redesigned - until on paper, Magical Bridge truly met the needs of everyone.”