‘First of its kind’: $1.2 million playground for kids with disabilities opens in Atascadero

A new Atascadero playground aims to be fully inclusive, with equipment geared toward kids and grownups with disabilities.

The new Joy Playground, which officially opened Friday, is located at Colony Park next to the Community Center at 5599 Traffic Way in Atascadero.

In the works since 2014, the playground is the result of a partnership between the city of Atascadero and Parents for Joy, a group of local parents, families and teachers who live with or are associated with children with special needs, a city news release said.

“It’s the first of its kind in San Luis Obispo County,” said Parents of Joy member Geoff Auslen, who’s lived in Atascadero “on and off” for 30 years. The closest all-inclusive playground is located in Salinas, he said.

The Joy Playground is “the centerpiece of Atascadero, as far as we’re concerned,” Auslen, the owner of Glenn’s Repair and Rental in Atascadero, said. “It’s amazing what this community has done.”

Sarah Sullivan, co-founder of Parent for Joy, was delighted to see the moment they’d worked for finally come true on Friday.

“Just seeing typical children — whatever typical means — playing next to our kids, playing next to a child with autism, Down syndrome, and they’re just having fun. They’re playing together. They’re becoming friends,” she told The Tribune at the grand opening. “I’m up here crying just away. I can’t even contain myself.”

Designed by Alabama company GameTime, the Joy Playground features an enchanted forest theme complete with logs, vine climbers, leaf spinners and a mushroom table and toadstools, according to the Parents for Joy website. The poured-in-place rubber surfacing features decorative paths and “rivers” running through it, the site says.

In addition to standards such as slides and swings, the playground features a rocking plastic egg, a wave-themed rocker that seats six, a merry-go-round with space for up to 12 children and a dragonfly teeter-totter with a tactile face for people with visual impairment or sensory issues.

There’s also a custom “accessible treehouse with slides and fun panels to play with,” the Parents for Joy site says. “So many children with special needs are not able to climb up a ladder to play in a treehouse. With our one-of-a-kind design, they can feel what it’s like to be high up in a tree, but still be very safe.”

The playground is fully fenced with a single gate.

The entire project covers more than 10,000 square feet, according to Terrie Banish, Atascadero deputy city manager.

The opening of the Joy Playground comes after five years of fundraising efforts by Parents for Joy. So far, the group has raised about $1.1 million toward the $1.2 million project, leaving it about $50,000 short, Auslen said.

In addition, Parents for Joy needs to raise $100,000 for a maintenance fund, he said.

In 2017, the city of Atascadero awarded $505,000 in parkland facilities fees toward the project, the release said. A groundbreaking ceremony for the playground was held in May 2018, and site work began shortly afterward, Banish wrote in an email.

As of Friday afternoon, a GoFundMe campaign created by Parents For Joy in 2016 had raised $942,120 of a $1 million goal.

The Joy Playground isn’t the only new playground to debut in San Luis Obispo County in recent months. Dinosaur Caves Park in Pismo Beach reopened in February after an extensive remodel.

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Entertainment editor Sarah Linn writes about all things fun, including movies, television, the performing arts, the visual arts and the best places to eat and drink in San Luis Obispo County. A graduate of Oregon State University, she has worked for The Tribune in San Luis Obispo for more than a decade and has earned multiple California journalism awards.