3… 2… 1… Blast off! An interactive space-themed park is open in Kent and your little astronauts (or aliens, depending on the day) will be over the moon to come and play.
Landing on a lunar theme
Kherson Park in downtown Kent features a replica lunar rover, a lunar lander play structure, a life-size astronaut, and a mission control station. A 40-foot backdrop makes it easy to imagine you’re exploring the moon’s surface. Each piece was custom-built for this Kent playground, because well, you can’t just order a lunar rover out of a catalog.
“This is kind of a new idea,” said Brian Levenhagen, deputy director of the parks department. “We’ve combined our experience and landed on something pretty cool.”
A new video projector will make for some epic movie nights on the white exterior wall of the salon next door. Add a couple of picnic tables, and you have all the components of a fun mission.
Kent’s rover-related space history
“We love that it’s right downtown. It’s another really cool interactive activity for people to bring their kids to,” said Michelle Wilmot, economic development manager for the City of Kent. “We hope it sparks kids to think, ‘Hey, I could be the next engineer! The next astronaut!”
This $2.4 million project has been in the works for more than 5 years. The park is an homage to the historic NASA-Kent connection: the lunar rovers used on the moon were designed, tested and built in Kent by Boeing. NASA’s lunar rovers, also known as moon buggies, were built in 1969 and last used during Apollo missions 15, 16 and 17. Three of these lunar rovers are still on the moon and are Washington State historic landmarks. (Fun fact: Washington is one of only three states in the country to have objects on the moon designated as historic landmarks.) Today, Kent is home to half the state’s jobs in the space sector.
It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that kids learn through play. And incorporating a little STEM into their playground is a smart and sneaky way to encourage a love of science. Take a seat in the life-size lunar rover and try out the control panel – the buttons and switches make sounds and light up. Several retired Boeing engineers who worked on the real lunar rover gave input on this replica.
Step up into the spacesuit and peek through the helmet for an astronaut’s eye view. The mission control panel is a zhushed-up version of a toddler’s busy board with all the bells and whistles. You can play a light-up game, or use the intercom to talk to your friends in the lunar lander — it really works!
A sign on the lunar lander says the play structure is designed for ages 5 to 12, and they’re not kidding. The interior is better suited for a toddler, maybe a very, very petite adult. (I didn’t try; it would have been embarrassing to get stuck.) A spongy rubber surface in the play area cushions falls. We love that it’s wheelchair and stroller-friendly too.
Making space on Earth even more real
But wait, there’s more! The physical elements you see are only half the fun. A new Boeing-sponsored app, Space for Kidz, will let kids play with augmented reality features at Kherson Park using smartphones. The app goes live on May 20. When Seattle’s Child caught Wilmot on the phone, she was at Kherson Park with 20 little test pilots trying out the app. “I tried it myself. I was blown away,” Wilmot said, over a countdown and cheering in the background. “We think we’re the first park to offer augmented reality in a free place.”
Using the app, you can see the solar system at scale. Sitting on the lunar rover, you can see astronauts in the background taking rock samples. When you step up for a picture in the astronaut suit, you’ll be standing with fellow astronauts waving. On the lunar lander, you can plant a flag. And at mission control, you can launch a 16-foot rocket. Each time you go through the experience, you earn a virtual medal.
What parents should know about potty breaks and safety
We visited Kherson Park on a sunny weekend afternoon and found it hopping with kids (and their adults) excited to check out the new space playground. As with any city outing, use your common sense, be aware, and don’t leave your belongings laying around unattended. “The beauty of this is we’re just across the street from the police department,” Wilmot said. “Like every city around, there’s challenges with activities that are not necessarily what we want to be in our downtown spaces. But we’re right across the street from City Hall. This is well-lit. It’s busy.”
At the Kent Public Library a block away, we found out that the library restrooms are closed indefinitely for “health and safety reasons,” a staff member said, and we were directed to the public park restroom. If you visit during work hours, you can use the restrooms at City Hall across the street from Kherson Park.
The bottom line
Kherson Park (307 West Gowe Street, Kent) occupies just a corner of a city block. If you don’t live in the South Sound, it’s a very long drive for a very small park. My thrill-seekers were ready to move on in half an hour; they could only do the one slide so many times.
So make a playground-hopping day of it and pair Kherson Park with another amazing Kent park: West Fenwick Park (3808 S. Reith Road), a five-minute drive away. West Fenwick Park is a Chutes and Ladders board game come to life. It’s incredible. Bonus: it has a park restroom and a free parking lot.
Between visiting the moon and stepping into a life-size board game, your kids are guaranteed to pass out at bedtime.