When you play a word association game with ‘playground’, you’ll likely get some of the following responses: sand; ladders; monkey bars; summer; children. It’s worth noticing that the word ‘children’ is included, but where are all the ‘grown-ups’? A new movement for intergenerational playgrounds has the potential to change this outdated conception.
Historically, playgrounds were created for the use of ‘kids only’, but several countries have skirted that trend in the past few decades. Germany and China appear to have been some of the first countries to create intergenerational (i.e. multigenerational) playgrounds. These earlier efforts could be based on cultural differences in the concept of play, or a differing appreciation for inclusion of the aging population. Regardless of differences, communities and organizations in the United States have caught on to the idea of playgrounds built for all ages.
Intergenerational playgrounds offer an array of physical and psychological benefits. The organization Generations United notes some of the common shared values that both older adults and young children need:
- Appropriate autonomy
- Physical exercise
- Meaningful experiences
- Sensory stimulation
- Expressing empathy (adults)/learning how to express feelings (children)
- Social engagement and play (adults)/learning through play (children)
- Sharing stories and values (adults)/increasing cultural knowledge (children)
Adults need these experiences in order to maintain optimum health, and children need them in order to grow into healthy adults. An intergenerational playground is an ideal setting where these shared needs can be fulfilled. Research published by the United Kingdom’s National Toy Council shows that children who play alongside adults exhibit more creativity and improved language and problem-solving skills. Observers at intergenerational sites have also noted positive changes in mood and engagement among adults.
Grassroots efforts, ground-up community cooperation, and strategic planning may be the keys to recognizing and implementing long-term change. Intergenerational playgrounds offer a unique and purposeful opportunity to promote societal recognition and conversation about the necessity and benefits of active play for children and adults. There are a number of current trends in the United States that seem to be driving the intergenerational playground movement forward.
- Community partnerships. The health company Humana Inc. partnered with the nonprofit KaBOOM! in 2011 to build intergenerational playgrounds in cities across the United States. The initiative began with the completion of a playground in Lauderhill, Florida, and is ongoing. In December 2014, the duo completed their 53rd intergenerational playground in Tomball, Texas. The movement is connected to a joint recognition that there is more to building playgrounds than short-term community service, but that there is a real need to connect the importance of active play with lifelong health and well being.
- Grassroots movements. As part of that long-term change, organizations like KaBOOM! look to reward individuals and groups in communities who want to represent a voice for active play and establish intergenerational playgrounds in their community. KaBOOM! offers grassroots resources and grant applications on its website. The Knight Foundation promoted a related effort, holding an intergenerational playground design contest in 2013. These grassroots efforts often bring together community members of all ages in the planning and building of the playgrounds. The first all-volunteer-built intergenerational playground was completed in 2009 at Bret Harte Elementary School in San Francisco.
- Something for everyone. When community members, health and design experts, and organization volunteers are all involved in the planning process, an innovative vision materializes from many perspectives, and there end up being components that appeal to all parties involved. Intergenerational playgrounds might include walking paths that circle play equipment, painted checkers or chess tables, exercise equipment mingled with more traditional playground structures, or community-designed murals or sculptures. Some playgrounds have even integrated community garden plots, including the one located at Bret Harte.
- Themed playgrounds. Often, themed playgrounds offer natural appeal to kids and adults. Goric’s Kemp playground in Cambridge, for example, is a hands-on sand and water works exploratory that invites creative and social play between children and their caretakers. Though it may not come immediately to mind, playgrounds are also often integrated into hands-on museums. Another Goric example is The Magic House museum in St. Louis, which offers a variety of interactive sensory and sound exhibits for children and adults within the setting of a beautifully renovated Victorian Mansion.
While it may take a little while longer for the philosophy to catch at a national level, continued encouragement and acceptance of playgrounds that involve both children and adults should be applauded and watched for in neighborhoods across the United States and the world over.