Last week, an article in the Wall Street Journal drew attention to a growing trend: playgrounds for aging populations. Emerging two decades ago in China after a national law mandated fitness programs for all ages, adult playgrounds quickly spread to Japan and parts of Europe and Latin America. Now, according to the article, “hundreds of [United States] local and regional park systems have embraced the concept, especially in the South, where warmer temperatures beckon people outdoors most of the year.”
Playgrounds for aging populations vary widely, but tend to feature low-impact equipment intended to improve fitness and promote health and wellness. There might be recumbent bicycles, walking paths with ramps and arches, striders, leg presses, swing sets, ping pong tables, or bocce of pickleball courts. These installations, by and large, are designed to improve balance, build muscle strength and tone, and increase range of motion—traits that can help people live longer and retain greater personal autonomy.
According to several published sources, the playgrounds also provide a place for aging adults to socialize. Conversation and shared activities are important in counteracting the loneliness and depression, which the World Health Organization predicts will be the second-leading cause of disability globally by 2020. As one writer for Senior Planet puts it, “A well-designed senior or multigenerational playground encourages light-hearted fun. Some things don’t change – playing outside in the open air relieves stress and improves our mood, just as it did when we were kids.”
Amy Ng, in an entry for the Knight News Challenge, which grants funding for innovative media ideas through the Knight Foundation, notes a number of inspiring landscape design models overseas for encouraging mental and physical exercise: “In Hong Kong, tai chi wheels in public parks help keep seniors active,” she writes. “In Korea, several generations can take a walk together on a walking / biking path beside a stream located underneath a highway overpass.”
Yet, until recently, U.S. municipalities and park departments have lagged behind those in other countries in recognizing the social and health value of playgrounds for adults. Here’s Ng again, calling out the need for such playgrounds in places such a San Francisco.
“Ninety percent of San Francisco residents live within a 10 minute walking distance to a public park. Public parks have specific areas designed for children under 12 and for dogs to play. But there are no areas designed specifically for adults. How can we change the designs of our public spaces to encourage targeted empty nesters to stay active?”
Funding appears to be part of the solution. As the Journal notes, non-profits have been critical to helping the movement gain ground in the US. KaBOOM, a nonprofit based in Washington, D.C., has built more than 50 multigenerational playgrounds at costs ranging from $25,000 to more than $100,000. The San Francisco-based Trust for Public Land has installed 68 outdoor fitness zones in public parks since 2012, and others are planned.
Favorable research has also opened a path for the growth of adult playgrounds. A Finnish study involving a group of 40 seniors age 65 to 81 who had access to a senior playground found improvements in balance, speed and coordination among participants—traits that can lead to autonomy and longevity in aging populations.
The thoughtfully envisioned Alexander Kemp playground in Cambridge, Massachusetts, designed by landscape architect Robert Steck, offers a good example of how an intergenerational playground can encourage children and the aging to support each other in exercising the mind and body. Opened in 2009, the playground features a constructed suite of Goric equipment, such as a water and sand play area with a custom-built boat structure, a Rodeo seesaw, a hill slide with rubber palisades, climbing nets, and a carousel. Parents and caretakers work together with children to turn the water pump wheel, sift and portion sand, and engage in imaginative scenarios.
Another Goric adult playscape (this one in the commercial sector) is on display inside the Health Diagnostic Lab building where Whiting-Turner Construction Company worked with the manufacturer representative onsite to install 2 short spiral slides. Rather than using a staircase or the elevator, employees can zip down to the first floor on a slide with a see-through poly-carbonate cover.
Then there’s the work of Play by Design, an Ithaca, N.Y.-based company that is currently working with several communities to plan mixed-use outdoor recreation spaces for older people. A planned $250,000 design would connect Canadore College in Ontario in West Parry Sound with a 70-unit retirement residence next door and include concrete ping-pong tables, swing sets, exercise stations and places for meditation, according to campus manager Peter Istvan who is quoted in the Journal.
In the growing adult playground movement in the United States, there is a focus on intergenerational designs that allow for children and adults to play together. This makes good sense. Near my home in Chicago there is an elm and maple-canopied shade park for older adults that features memorial benches and chess boards formed into round cement tables. Across the street is a children’s playground with a swingset, slides, spinning equipment, and climbing structures, much of the equipment designed by Minnesota-based Landscape Structures.
Where do I see most older adults? The children’s playground where grandparents and older caregivers can play chase or telephone with members of the younger generation, help little ones climb down a set of orbital stairs, or talk through a tight spot in a tunnel. Each park offers something worthwhile, but their formal separation seems poorly intentioned by today’s standards, a relic of an era not so long ago in which the old and young were divided by design into two camps: those who are idle and those who play. Now that idea is giving way to something better.