As we learn more about how kids develop and play, it has become evident that one-size-fits-all does not work for kids. We’ve gathered up this list of special spots and activities where you can know that children on the autism spectrum as well as those with other sensory needs and physical challenges can play along with their peers. Play for all!
Play Spaces and Playgrounds
JUST OPENED: Magical Bridge Playground, Redwood City
Parents were thrilled when this all-abilities Magical Bridge Playground opened in Red Morton Park at the end of 2020. You'll find all the elements of the Palo Alto playground that you love, plus more. Kids can head to the Innovation Zone to play the magical musical harp, and then head over to the tot zone area for some water play. Climb up the King Kong climbing ropes and slide down one of the various slides. Accessible swings, spinners for kids in wheelchairs and tons of other thoughtful features make this a great playground for all kids.
Magical Bridge at Red Morton Community Park
1120 Roosevelt Ave.
Redwood City, CA
Magical Bridge Playground, Palo Alto
Touted as one of the nation's most inclusive playgrounds, the Magical Bridge opened its Palo Alto location in April 2015 to pleased children and parents alike. With five different "play zones" to choose from, kids can swing, sway, spin and slide to their heart's content. The music zone was provided to motivate interaction, facilitate socialization and improve social skills among children. Pretend play is encouraged throughout the playground but especially in the two-story playhouse that is fully accessible to all children via ramps and bridges. Read more about the park here.
Good news: New Magical Bridge playgrounds are in the works for Santa Clara, Sunnyvale, Morgan Hill and Mountain View!
600 East Meadow Road
Palo Alto, CA
Kids Gym, Berkeley
This 10,000-square-foot facility is the crème de la crème for indoor play when you've got a kid who needs to get moving! Their open gym is available for kids up at 11 years old (plus their caregivers) and offers swings, an indoor zip line, toys for fine motor skills development, crash mats, pillows and more. Kids will work on skills like balance, coordination and sharing without even knowing it! Need a break from all the stimulation? Head to the quiet room for some down time. Check the schedule for special events like circle time, kids yoga and everyone's favorite—the dance party! Bonus: this spot also offers awesome co-working amenities!
Editor's note: Currently closed
2920 Seventh Street
Grins 'n' Giggles Party Space, Burlingame
Editor's note: Currently closed. Established by Gatepath, a nonprofit serving individuals with developmental disabilities and their families for more than 98 years, Grins ‘n’ Giggles party space was designed with specialized indoor and outdoor play structures to accommodate children of all abilities and accessible for those with special needs and disabilities. Best of all, it’s available year-round, rain or shine. Grins ‘n’ Giggles is staffed by credentialed early childhood educators with experience in caring for children of all abilities, who will help parents plan a fun-filled day of activities, which could include face painting, art projects, bounce house jumping, parachute games and guided play.
McCarthy Center for Children & Families
1764 Marco Polo Way
Rotary PlayGarden, San Jose
Donated by the Rotary of San Jose in 2015, this park aims to enable children with special needs to play alongside their siblings and friends. Right near the airport (with loads of planes flying overhead!), the park offers a wheelchair accessible merry-go-round (moved by kid power!), slides, swings and all sorts of kinetic art to get kids exploring. The entire play area is fenced for safety but there's not a ton of shade there so go on a cloudy day. Read more about our visit here.
Guadalupe River Park
Coleman Avenue at Autumn Street
San Jose, CA
photo: Kids Gym Berkeley
Classes and Events
Fiddleheads Outdoor Social Skills Playgroup, Various locations
With the goal of taking the stigma out of therapy, Fiddleheads offers a nature immersion after-school program that brings a small group of children together with the guidance of licensed therapists and interns. The classes blend sensory activities, hiking, storytelling, drama, self-awareness and social skills in a relaxed, outdoor environment. Class sessions run in winter, spring and summer, and there is financial aid available for those who need it.
Locations in Oakland, Berkeley, Richmond, Marin, Orinda, San Francisco and Petaluma
AcroSports, San Francisco
On Saturday afternoons from 1-2:30 p.m., AcroSports hosts an open gym that encourages children to explore this enormous gymnastics facility at their own speed. The aim is to help students reach their goals while building strength, improving self-esteem, solidifying friendships and enhancing their life experience. Coaches are available to assist children with learning new skills.
639 Frederick Street
San Francisco, CA
San Jose Public Libraries
The San Jose Public Libraries offer inclusive storytimes and playgroups for kids with all sorts of learning styles throughout the month. Take a look at the online schedule to find one that is convenient for you. Also, check your local library as many of them offer programs with the specific goal of making all kids feel welcome.
Sensory-Friendly Movies at AMC
On the second and fourth Saturdays of the month, select AMC theaters offer a sensory-friendly screening of kid-friendly new releases. They turn the lights up and the sound down to make it more comfortable for kids. Everyone is free to sing, dance, shout and walk around as needed throughout the film. These theaters offer this amazing program so check their online schedule for upcoming showings:
San Francisco: AMC CLASSIC Deer Valley 16, AMC Showplace Manteca 16
Oakland: AMC Bay Street 16
San Jose: AMC Mercado 20
photo: Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose
Afternoons for All Abilities and Play Your Way
Families with disabilities are invited to enjoy the museum during a less-crowded and quieter time on the second Tuesday of each month from 1-4 p.m. Children and caregivers with mobility challenges, difficulty communicating, or who become easily stimulated can explore the museum on their own terms while caregivers have the opportunity to connect with others who may share similar experiences. A special storytime in the theater and a sensory activity are offered. The museum also offers occasional evening Play Your Way events, specially designed for children on the autism spectrum.
Afternoons for All Abilities: second Tuesdays, 1-4 p.m.
Play Your Way: April 27, September 7
Children’s Discovery Museum
180 Woz Way
San Jose, CA
Special Needs Quarterly Playdates
This museum wants to make all kids feel comfortable there and does so by offering quarterly free play dates for families with special needs kids ages 0-5. This provides kids with the opportunity to check out the facility with fewer people around and also gives parents time to chat with other parents in similar circumstances. Free return visit passes are provided to all families who attend. Check here for the next play date.
2065 Kittredge Street
Sensory-Friendly Hours at The Tech
Sensory-Friendly Hours are a time for families to enjoy a quieter, less-crowded visit to The Tech at a discounted rate. This opportunity may be appealing to parents of children who have mobility challenges, struggle to communicate or become easily overwhelmed by stimuli. Evening events include an IMAX film played at lower volume, included in the cost of admission.
Bonus: The Tech also offers sensory-friendly field trips!
The Tech Museum of Innovation
201 S Market St.
San Jose, CA
Oakland Zoo Goes Blue with Autism Speaks
Join Autism Speaks at the Oakland Zoo on April 6, at 10 a.m. for “Zoo Go Blue” autism awareness day. Free admission to all individuals on the spectrum with the purchase of an adult ticket. Visit the Autism Speaks awareness table to learn more about how Autism Speaks is dedicated to promoting solutions, across the spectrum and throughout the lifespan, for the needs of individuals with autism and their families.
9777 Golf Links Road
photo: Kids Gym Berkeley
Support for Families of Children with Disabilities
This organization knows what it’s like to parent a child with special needs and it is here to support families in finding resources to accommodate their children. The purpose of Support for Families is to ensure that families of children with any kind of disability or special health care need, and the providers who serve them, have the knowledge and support to make informed choices that enhance children’s development and well-being. They promote partnership with families, professionals and the community at large, because it is through partnership that we create a community where our children can flourish.
Check out their events calendar for the next Family Access Day at a local museum, aquarium or zoo, as well as fun activities like ASL Game Night.