• By Michael Cohen, Must Have Play.


    Two years ago, after 21 marvelous years creating playgrounds for children, I happened upon a news report about a  playground opening in Manchester, England, designed for older adults.  I had never heard of such a thing. Playgrounds for seniors? I was intrigued and needed to know more.


    I learned that this idea has its roots in China, where it combines two cultural norms of holistic health and respect for elders. For example, travelers to China typically report visions of crowds of adults performing tai chi in parks. In the mid-1990s, as part of their preparations for hosting the summer Olympics, China’s government built thousands of new of sports facilities, including, for the first time, playgrounds for seniors. These were not just spaces for tai chi, but included outdoor exercise equipment as well. They looked like outdoor gyms.

    The idea spread. Japan built their first playground for elders in Tokyo in 2004. This playground is notable because the apparatus was not merely outdoor fitness machines. It was designed especially with the needs of aging adults in mind.

    The Europeans were next, with playgrounds for aging adults appearing in Austria, England, Finland, Germany, and Scotland. In 2007 the idea found a home in Canada, where the  government of British Columbia funded the construction of 18 seniors’ parks.

    More than an outdoor gym

    All the designs I found looked like outdoor gyms. They were not very appealing.  I have a slightly different, richer vision for these playgrounds, influenced by my experiences building world-class playgrounds for children and by my love of gardens. In my view, providing opportunities for elders to exercise is necessary but not sufficient. Must Have Play’s designs had to address two other  important design goals: socializing and playfulness.


    Getting out and meeting people gets more difficult as we age. 90% of elders live at home, and isolation can become a real problem, leading to loneliness and, perhaps, depression. Our playgrounds must be appealing, attractive, accessible, and safe places,  where older adults will enjoy spending time.

    Site selection matters, as does thoughtful landscaping.  We also select apparatus which encourages face-to-face interaction. We include games which are inherently social, like bocce, cards, chess, and ping pong.  Conversational seating nooks, beautiful gardens, music, art, water features, are all elements which can enrich these spaces. Therapeutic horticulture has much to offer here.


    The overall tone and feel of our designs must be light-hearted and playful. This is not at all the same as childlike, and we must avoid any hint of infantilizing our elders. But our playgrounds need not feel like workout spaces, they need not be somber or overly purposeful. I believe good design can facilitate laughter and delight, carefully combining the elements described above.

    By providing our elders with safe, healthy playgrounds they want to visit,  to exercise, socialize, and play, we will truly have done something to be proud of. That is my mission.

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    This entry was posted on Tuesday, July 31st, 2012 at 3:36 pm and is filed under Policy & Business. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.

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