Space to nurture

We Rock the Spectrum is the city’s first indoor sensory-friendly playground for kids of all abilities and with accommodations for those with special needs.

Play time: We Rock the Spectrum opened in the Parkwood Shopping Center last November as the city’s first indoor sensory-friendly playground designed for kids of all abilities and with accommodations for those with special needs. PHOTO: WRTS PHILLY

In raising three children, Barbara Dickson learned first-hand what the 15th century English poet John Lydgate meant when he wrote, “You can’t please all of the people all of the time.”

The family lived in the Northeast’s Lawndale section, where it seemed like an impossible task finding activities her two older children, Matt and Jennifer, could share with their little brother Lenny, who was diagnosed with autism at age 4.

“If I took the three of them somewhere the older kids enjoyed, Lenny would’ve been over-stimulated. And if I took them somewhere (Lenny) liked, the older kids would’ve been bored,” Dickson said.

Years later, Dickson has partnered with Jennifer and the daughter’s childhood friend, Nicole Denicolo, to create a playspace all young people can enjoy. We Rock the Spectrum opened in the Parkwood Shopping Center last November as the city’s first indoor sensory-friendly playground designed for kids of all abilities and with accommodations for those with special needs.

“If I had a place like this when my kids were younger, it would’ve been great,” Barbara Dickson said.

An all-inclusive endeavor: We Rock the Spectrum owners Barbara and Jennifer Dickson and Nicole Denicolo opened their doors at 12357 Academy Road last Nov. 12. The sensory-safe children’s gymnasium has a wide variety of equipment that can also be used in collaboration with a child’s therapy program. PHOTO: WRTS PHILLY

The kids managed to excel anyway. Jennifer graduated from Cardinal Dougherty High School in 2010 alongside Denicolo. The two friends then attended La Salle University together, where they earned bachelor’s degrees in psychology. In 2014, they joined the therapeutic support staff at Special People In Northeast, a non-profit agency supporting people with developmental disabilities. Lenny graduated from Franklin Towne Charter High School earlier this month.

Yet, despite those successes, the Dicksons and Denicolo saw through their own experiences how much better they might make life for other families in similar situations.

While staying at home one summer during her undergraduate years, Jennifer Dickson pitched the idea.

“I said it could be awesome if we could open up a Chuck E. Cheese’s-type facility with indoor play for all kids that’s sensitive to their sensory needs and that parents would feel comfortable with,” Jennifer said. “Where they wouldn’t have to worry about their kids being overstimulated.”

PHOTO: WRTS PHILLY

In 2010, a California mother named Dina Kimmel had a similar idea. Like Barbara Dickson, Kimmel has a son with autism who was struggling to fit in with other children at his local playspaces. So his mom opened the first We Rock the Spectrum in Tarzana, Calif., outside Los Angeles. Three years later, she began franchising the concept. There are now more than 60 locations across the nation.

The Dicksons and Denicolo made first contact with Kimmel’s company in September 2015. They signed a franchise agreement three months later and opened their doors at 12357 Academy Road last Nov. 12.

“We’re the only one in Pennsylvania for now,” Barbara Dickson said.

It’s a double storefront with 3,300 square feet of floorspace. The equipment is fun for all kids and can also be used in collaboration with a child’s therapy program. Typically, the facility is suitable for kids up to age 11 or 12, or special-needs visitors up to their early 20s. The mingling helps all types of young people grow.

“Every kid learns from each other,” Denicolo said. “A lot of times, other kids don’t even notice someone is different. They just start playing with each other.”

“Other times, (the difference) is obvious,” Barbara Dickson said. “But the more they learn, the more they’re accepting of each other. (Differences) become the norm.”

PHOTO: WRTS PHILLY

A bolster swing hangs from the ceiling and has thick padding along with a wide berth to accommodate multiple children or a child and adult. It’s designed to minimize twisting and maximize security. A pod swing looks just like the name sounds. Kids can climb inside and isolate themselves a bit. The rocking motion can be soothing to kids with sensory processing disorders and helps them develop balance.

A frog swing gets its name from the bouncing motion it promotes. Unlike the bolster swing, it’s also designed to rotate 360 degrees. Yet another swing features a web netting and promotes social skills and teamwork. The calming swing resembles a hammock and helps decrease a child’s overstimulation.

Undoubtedly the most popular device on the premises is a 50-foot zip line, the owners say. Kids don’t have to grab a handle attached to a pulley. Instead, they hold on by hugging a padded bell-shaped attachment.

“The coolest part is the kids developing confidence,” Denicolo said. “The more they do it, the more confidence they get when they don’t fall.”

The center has a party room for special celebrations and costumes for dress-up events. Kids can pretend to be an astronaut, racecar driver, kung fu black belt, police officer, firefighter, doctor, nurse, pirate, knight, cowboy or cowgirl.

“It’s all based on imaginary play. A lot of times, kids with special needs don’t use their imagination. They take things very literal,” Denicolo said.

“This also helps them develop an understanding of appropriate play,” Jennifer Dickson added.

We Rock the Spectrum is open to class trips and other children’s groups. The facility is also available for individual open play in two-hour sessions. The base rate is $12 for the first child and $10 for each additional child. Walk-ins are welcome but the owners recommend calling ahead to make sure there’s not a private party reservation. Call 215–632–9787 for information. ••

William Kenny can be reached at 215–354–3031 or wkenny@bsmphilly.com. Follow the Times on Twitter @NETimesOfficial.