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Seattle Children's PlayGarden

Seattle PlayGarden: A magical place for kids with disabilities

Seattle PlayGarden is a public space, but awareness is key

There’s a calm in the air as I walk through the gate at the Seattle PlayGarden on a recent Monday morning. Passing by two giant silver sculptured dandelions bursting with seed and a row of perfectly clipped topiary animals, I am struck by the simplicity of the small playground to my left, the width of the sidewalks in front of me, and the beauty of the well-kept garden beds all around.

“The idea with the gardens is that we try to plant things that kids can interact with,” says Liz Bullard, the PlayGarden’s executive director.  “So there are things that are edible or things that are cut and then come again, like pansies or sweet peas that continue to produce new flowers if they are picked. The garden by the basketball court along the pathway is a pollinator garden. It’s all pretty hardy for a reason. If a basketball bumps into a bed we’re not going to lose anything.”

An intentional space

In fact, everything in this park was placed here with intention. The PlayGarden was created to give children with disabilities a safe, curiosity-igniting, fully accessible park and playground experience. Bullard was inspired to build the PlayGarden by the Rusk Children’s PlayGarden in New York, a space created for interactive therapeutic play. In 2003, Seattle Parks and Recreation provided the south end of Colman Playfield for the project, and three years later the PlayGarden began offering programs for kids. When the facilities were completed in 2010, the preschool also opened.

Seattle Children's PlayGarden

Play equipment in the PlayGarden is intended to help kids connect rather than isolate. Photo by Cheryl Murfin

Making space

On any given Saturday or Sunday, that bump into the plants could easily happen. Weekends are when groups that often include more typically developing, able-bodied kids and adults find their way to the park, located on Seattle Parks and Recreation land at 1745 24th Ave. S. and thus open to the public. 

That can leave the kids for whom this play oasis is intended a little overwhelmed, says Bullard. 

“The truth is, the park is inundated with families of young (typically abled) children now,” she says. “It’s to the point where the children with disabilities are pushed out. And that’s a real problem.” 

Bullard pointed to a recent incident when a family threw a birthday party in the park. The crowd and noise were sizable as the group took over the entire area and all the picnic tables. That kind of noise and those numbers of fast-moving, able-bodied kids, she says, can scare or discourage kids on the autism spectrum or with physical disabilities from using the park. 

Seattle Children's PlayGarden

All are welcome, but consider the park’s goal

“So we just continue to push the message out: While we are a public park, we want people to know that we’re really centering on families with disability, whether it’s a parent with a disability or siblings or the kids themselves. If there is no disability in your group, there may be a better place to have your party.” 

Bullard is quick to add that all are welcome at the PlayGarden but that finding the balance that leaves kids with disabilities comfortable to play is difficult: “We do want people to come and play and we want community groups to come and use this space. And we also want them to leave space for people with disabilities.” 

Bullard encourages those interested in visiting to check out the park’s website to see if its focus on access for the disabled is a good fit. When children and adults without disabilities visit, they should be aware of the needs and comfort levels of . During my visit, a preschool teacher pushed four children on a saucer swing just as a fifth child (on the autism spectrum) ambled over and attempted to lie down under the swing on the springy rubber playground mat. The teacher gently coaxed him away from danger; awareness is a key to keeping all kids safe in the PlayGarden.


Seattle Children's PlayGarden

A place where any kid can be king 

The PlayGarden’s wide paths make smooth sailing for wheelchairs, as does its ornamental hops-surrounded basketball court. Play structures and saucer-style swings are meant to hold multiple kids allowing them to practice connecting with others. And, there’s Jordan Mountain – a rubber, rock and water-feature mound where any child can be king or queen of the hill. Even a wheelchair can be assisted to the top. 

“In a regular park, when kids climb up big structures, these kids feel really left out,” Bullard says. “Here kids feel safe to explore, safe to just be themselves.”

Imagination of discovery built-in

On the south side of the 1-acre PlayGarden is a more freeform nature walk. The greenery is fuller, with the look of a light forest and a dirt path that winds down the bank.

 “We call it the Wild Zone,” says Bullard. “It’s the most naturalistic of our planted areas and mostly it’s for running around looking for bugs and playing hide-and-seek.” 

Just above the Wild Zone is a wide deck built to look very much like a tree fort, although it  can actually be wheeled or walked into as well.

“A lot of play happens here,” says Bullard. “It’s a favorite spot.”

Seattle PlayGarden Programs

Each year, PlayGarden serves around 8,000-plus kids through its preschool, programs, and summer camps. That number does not include non-program-related park use or neighbor kid drop-ins. About half of the children in the PlayGarden preschool have a disability and the preschool offers scholarships for students with disabilities.

The PlayGarden preschool is in session Monday through Friday,  9:00 a.m.- 1:00 p.m., September to June. Visitors to the park and playground during these hours are asked to check in with a teacher upon arrival, be extra careful opening and closing the gate, and keep a distance from preschoolers, art/play areas, supplies, and toys.  

Seattle PlayGarden is open daily from dawn to dusk, even during preschool hours. It is closed to the public during summer camp hours (9:30 a.m.-1:30 p,m., Monday-Thursday, through August 25).

Summertime Free Play days will run every Friday and Saturday, 9:30 a.m.-1:30 p.m., June 30 to August 26. During these events, kids will be greeted by PlayGarden staff and invited to engage in inclusive play experiences. Sessions are open to kids of all abilities and offer seasonal and culturally relevant activities such as gardening, cooking classes, music classes, dance, movement activities, art, and construction.

“Free Play is usually just a really nice eclectic mix of neighbors and people who come from far away to see what the play garden is, and people who come regularly to let their kids play in a safe kind of supported environment,” says Bullard.

Check the PlayGarden website for special events for teens and young adults.

Wheelchair Basketball is offered every Saturday,10 a.m.-noon on the PlayGarden Court ,through August 12th. Check the website for more information.

PlayGarden Summer Camps are fully inclusive, nature-based experiences created especially for kids with disabilities and their typically developing peers ages 3.5-21. Camps offer a high staff-to-camper ratio and come in one- or two-week options. Learn more or register online. Bullard says that summer camps annually have long waiting lists, which is why PlayGarden is working with other camps to educate camp staff.

Training for other programs. PlayGarden staff train providers from other summer camps on how to integrate kids with disabilities into their camp programs. Although they haven’t met it yet, Bullard says her goal is to have 100 kids with disabilities find a spot in a summer program equipped to serve them. The PlayGarden has created the Say “YES!” to Kids with Disabilities toolkit for organizations interested in expanding programs to include this group of children.

Seattle Children's PlayGarden

Welcoming dandelions at PlayGarden.

Building community

As I leave the PlayGarden, a line of busy preschoolers zooms past me on bikes, wheelchairs, and scooters, oblivious to my presence. Their energy is high, even while the sound is subdued. On the periphery of the park, a young autistic man who was once a participant in PlayGarden programs is now employed to help take care of the gardens. His favorite activity is watering the plants

“When he was little he loved water, too. I have so many photos of him through the years with water,” says Bullard. 

His presence reinforces what Bullard has been telling me throughout our tour, Seattle PlayGarden is a community created for and by people of many different abilities. Many of them are busy in the garden today, engrossed in exactly what park founders hoped they would be: healthy, safe, accessible work and play.

More at Seattle’s Child:

10 best playgrounds in and near Seattle for kids of all abilities

FutureWave: SIFF line-up for teens

The PUMP Act: A win for babies and businesses

Detour to the desert: A new hiking experience for the family



About the Author

Cheryl Murfin

Cheryl Murfin is managing editor at Seattle's Child. She is also a certified doula, lactation educator for and a certified AWA writing workshop facilitator at