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Rocket's Universe
An Inclusive Playground @ North Weddington Park - Studio City, California

Landscape Architecture by Diane Scanlan, Sr. V.P. Design, Shane's Inspiration

Rocket's Universe

Located in Los Angeles, Calif., Rocket's Universe was created as an inclusive playground, dedicated to the memory of a young boy, John 'Rocket' Williams IV. The playground is an immersive area filled with educational, visual and sensory elements depicting space including: a custom designed rocket ship, space shuttle, solar system, moonbeams and rock climber with planetary interactive elements.

Rocket's Universe

Rocket's Universe

The planetary system is depicted on 8' high steel colored posts, with proportionally scaled planets, custom colored as realistically as we know. For security reasons, the planets are just out of reach to playground age children. Each post is positioned at a height readable from ground level for a school-age child and with adult support for a pre-school age child. Painted metal graphics accent the wall, and brass donor plaques, in honor of Rocket, frame each support pilaster.

Rocket's Universe opened in July 2017, marking the 50th inclusive playground design by Shane's Inspiration, a Los Angeles based non-profit whose mission is to create inclusive playgrounds and programs that unite children of all abilities, while fostering a bias-free world for children with disabilities. This 11,000-square-foot project became possible due to the generosity of the Ruch Family Foundation donating $1.3 million in memory of John 'Rocket' Williams IV. The playground was gifted to the City of Los Angeles, Recreation and Parks at the grand opening. The public / private partnership with LA Recreation & Parks granted the Right of Entry, allowing the freedom to design and construct.

Rocket's Universe transforms a child's play experience into an imaginative journey through space. The Williams family honored the memory of their son / grandson by recreating the world of planets, stars and galaxies he imagined during his short life, giving others a place where they could experience his dream in a sensory world of visuals and music. Sadly, John (nicknamed: Rocket) passed away from a rare congenital disorder at the age of two. His name became 'Rocket' when his parents drove by a Johnny Rocket's in search of food, and the name simply stuck. His love of space followed that fortuitous day.

The Williams family partnered with Shane's Inspiration for landscape architecture and playground design based on their extensive experience and dedication to the design and construction of fully accessible and inclusive playgrounds. They wanted the site near Rocket's family home so his siblings could enjoy Rocket's world. North Weddington was a highly used community park that housed a multi-use recreational facility, restrooms, parking and multiple expansive lawn areas for outdoor play and picnics. Located near the Rio Vista Elementary School and the home of Toluca Baseball Little League, it drew families from all over the Los Angeles area. The existing playground needed an upgrade and accessible restroom closer to the playground. Both elements became part of the final playground installation.

Playground Theme Inspiration
Rocket's Universe is dedicated to the enhancement of inclusive play for children and adults with divergent special needs. It is an educational, sensory world of visual, tactile and active play exceeding minimum standards of accessibility, with play spaces offering engagement for all. This playground provides mobility and cognitive learning opportunities; active movement and skill play, sound & music and sensory play are offered through sand and imaginative play.

Today's Challenge to Landscape Architects
According to Shane's Inspiration, one of the major challenges facing the profession today is identifying core sensory triggers in the play environment and resulting behaviors, especially within the arena of children with disabilities. Exploring and adapting modifications to site layout and equipment that supports children with sensory processing challenges, is critical. Per the CDC, 1 in every 59 children in the United States has some form of sensory processing disorder. Play is the building block for academic learning.
Inclusive play takes the above framework and adds physical and emotional space where children with sensory, physical and / or cognitive disabilities can play together with children not facing these disabilities, interacting socially as equals.

Primary Goal
Given limited design budgets and constrained space in most playgrounds, Shane's Inspiration strives to design new or re-design existing elements that offer multiple use for multiple users, and creates elements that engage children to play on their own or with others for more than a passing moment.

Thematic playgrounds help build a child's imagination...the Entry Space Planetary Wall establishes the space theme at Rocket's Universe. Some children struggle to navigate unfamiliar spaces...designing with a theme helps them gain recognition and confidence.
On each Planet post, a plaque displays historical information and fun facts on the front and planetary path on the back. Pluto was left out because it is considered a 'dwarf planet.' Since opening, this has become a gathering space as kids compare divergent fun facts with other children and adults.

A 4' high ornamental steel fence serves as a barrier between the playground resilient surfacing and the concrete walking path, all while supporting the space theme. Painted laser cut steel graphics of stars, Jupiter, a rocket and a flying space ship help kids feel protected in a wide-open environment.

Rocket's Universe

The rough, non-slip Glass Fiber Reinforced Concrete (GFRC) texture was critical to use for the Lunar Balance Beam. Designing the beam to elevate from 8" to 16" provides varying levels of instability, helping a child gain body awareness.

Rocket's Universe

Navigating this fully accessible four-deck structure begins at a custom designed Rocket Ship, offering sensory calming from its controlled rhythmic movement. The structure consists of a pilot control seat, a mission control panel with interactives, an open space for wheelchair access, seating and play table for group socialization. Overhead shade is themed with graphic stitching.

2-12 Age Space Themed Play Structure
At the Flying Saucer deck, a child will observe a planetary system plaque reinforcing what they learned at the entry wall. At ground level, a 4' alien discusses the planetary orientation and plays the musical Xylofun... if you ask. The metal roof, shaped like a flying saucer, has its own alien greeter housed in plexiglass. The next deck is accessible via ramp or by a series of Glass Fiber Reinforced Concrete (GFRC) moon rock steppers and an uneven, challenging lunar surface balance beam. Alternate routing allows wheelchair bound explorers to race side by side. A space shuttle cone roof with a USA flag frames the Rocket Tower full of interactive panels including side-by-side custom space-themed travel panels and the double rocket bubble panel.

The ramp under the Solar System sign and post topper leads you to the final and highest deck, where most interactive panels are located, including a color splash, optigear, rock n' ring, chimes, marble and rain-sound panels. These panels, and themed Headline panel, have added language prompts in English and Spanish in support of a partnership with Too Small To Fail, the public action campaign focusing on early childhood literacy. It is also where the most Ground Level Play occurs because the decks are high enough to double up on panels and position play structure seats under the 5' high decks, maximizing play value. This design allows a younger child or a child over-stimulated on the structure to play at ground level, avoiding high activity. A custom flying saucer step climber provides access to the top. The Rollerslide with the most sensory opportunities comes off the step-transfer platform at the highest point. A child can benefit from its proprioceptive stimulation. If they choose to lie under the slide, they will experience the calming effect offered by light reflection emanating through rollers.

The Space Sensory Wall is the focal gathering place at the playground and assists children in finding their way back to a familiar element. The solar system supports a tactile sensory environment with a spinning rain-sound wheel and primary color relief for the visually impaired. The rounded side serves as a climber, beginning with Neil Armstrong's steps on the moon! Look hard and you will find buggy tracks and lost objects relatable to children today, such as a cell phone and keyboard.

The Moon Rock Abacus supports small rocks threaded onto stainless steel rods. Children, sensitive to touch, may find the smooth rocks comforting, whereas, the rougher texture of the sensory wall may be unbearable due to over-sensitivity. Hypersensitive kids need options to engage visually. Once comfortable, a child can even create a game playing face-to-face with a friend.

At Rocket's Universe, the Cozy Dome creates a secure place for self-regulation for an over-stimulated child. The plastic dome has multiple entrances for escape, but often becomes a quiet calming node for kids on the Autism spectrum.

The inclusive Omnispinner and Wee-saw offer physical and sensory play opportunities for all children as varying speeds and degrees of force are used. Each can be a soother for hyposensitive kids but overwhelm hypersensitive. Both allow children with upper body strength to perform the heavy lifting activity and less able-bodied children to enjoy the rhythmic movement, thus displaying multi-user elements. The Double Bobble Spring Rider provides face-to-face play and benefits the vestibular system, forcing a child to practice balance and motion perception as they maintain head and body posture.

For this project, contrabass chimes, tuned drums and a pagoda were positioned throughout the playground. Introducing sounds one at a time offers the non-verbal child an opportunity to use music as a means of communication.

Rocket's Universe

The Space Sensory Wall is a 6' half circle shaped wall made of GFRC. Painted on one side is the solar system. Gazing balls with reflective surfaces were added to encourage children to explore facial expressions.

Rocket's Universe

There are six interactive panels on the playground designed to encourage childhood literacy. This color splash panel is one such piece of the playground, introducing color with language prompts in English and Spanish. The remaining panels emphasize topics such as sounds, motor skills and space.

Rocket's Universe

The custom, three-tiered table has varying heights and two sand shoots. Entering a sand area on one side or pavement on the other allows access to this GFRC countertop, which is also embedded with graphic images of planets.

Tactile Sand Play
Our custom Lunar Themed Sand Table is where tactile experiences provide an avenue into play. Some on the autism spectrum may find sand too rough and may look for smooth graphic images in the table. By making the table wheelchair accessible on one side, it ensures that children with disabilities are engaging in the same / space, same / time as peers.

The Swing Zone
Thematic sandblast details connect the Sand Play area and Swing zone. Repetitive movement can be stimulating and relaxing, but sensory overload may cause over excitement and become a safety concern. Landscape architects are limited in selection due to the cost of required surfacing. Inclusive playgrounds must provide high-back swings to support those with poor spinal stability and muscle control. Belt and bucket seat are favorites based on age. The Oodle Swing benefits children with spinal problems but can also be a soother for sensory seeking kids.

Resilient Surfacing
Support devices allow a child to go everywhere at Rocket's Universe with 100% resilient surfacing. There is no location, other than the sand box, where a support device bound child cannot access. Visual differentiation with color and themed graphics help kids who have difficulty locating themselves in a large space.

When you envision a future playground, there may likely be more sensory, interactive play through digital technology that won't be possible without today's generation capturing the opportunities, creating a better understanding of what all children experience and feel!

Project Team
Non-Profit Organization: Shane's Inspiration, CEO Tiffany Harris
Landscape Architect: Diane Scanlan
Project Development: Brad Thornton

Materials/Manufactured Products
Landscape Structure, Inc.: Play Structures
Victor Stanley: Site furnishings (Benches, tables, trash receptacles)

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October 17, 2019, 6:24 am PDT

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