Senior Playgrounds: Bringing the Joy of Play to Intergenerational Wellness
Updated: Jan 23, 2022
US can borrow from European and Asian models for inclusive park planning
Senior playgrounds are commonplace in China and Japan, as well as Spain, the UK, Finland, Denmark, Germany, Austria, Canada and India. From large fitness circuits in sprawling urban parks, to modest installations in tiny corners of rural towns, they are an essential part of the culture.
The Mercat Municipal del Cabanyal, a popular food market in Valencia, has a humble strip of green space that accommodates older adults’ need for community inclusion and outdoor exercise. Looking at the image above, the wheeled structure shown on the left provides range-of-motion exercise for both shoulders, and accommodates a range of adult heights. Its vicinity to the simplified rowing machine on the right allows for multiple people to work out and socialize at the same time.
U.S. Park Planning
Compared to park usage in countries that build inclusive spaces into their design, U.S. rates suggest a pervasive ageist bias in public park planning. As of 2019, the BBC reported a disparity of at least 35% between park usage by older adults in China (the largest group at over 50%) and that of "olders" in the U.S (15% at best).
This is not to say that the U.S. has permanently dropped the ball, just that we’ve come noticeably late to the party. While China has been building elder-focused spaces since 1995, they have only cropped up in U.S. cities over the past decade or so. Elder and multigenerational playgrounds have appeared in states such as Texas, California, Florida, New York, Ohio, Maryland, Oregon, and Washington. New sites are still emerging, and residents in a number of other U.S. locations are actively lobbying for elder playgrounds in their own communities.
According to the 2020 engagement report by the National Recreation and Park Association (NRPA), 77% of survey respondents indicated that easy access to high-quality park or recreation amenities was an important factor in choosing the community where they would live. More specifically, this 2021 study of “older Americans” reported that participants were requesting “supportive senior-specific park infrastructure to encourage park usage and exercise.”
How to Get Started
This AARP Parks Guide provides a step-by-step blueprint for creating new park spaces. and information on how to either expand the function of existing recreational space, or repurpose space.
Although the initial investment in equipment may seem substantial, there could be a significant counterbalance in relief for over-extended program directors. While some outdoor fitness installations do involve regular group classes, they don’t necessarily require programming. These playgrounds are designed to facilitate independence and spontaneous social connection.
For communities wishing to work with manufacturers directly, some companies specializing in elder playground equipment are the veteran Finnish company Lappset, NY-based company Play By Design, and Goric Marketing Group, based in Massachusetts.
For established communities that simply don’t have a space to repurpose, a nearby public park with elder exercise equipment could still be an enticing and health-protecting feature for prospective and current residents. Fortunately, the AARP’s guidance readily applies to public space as well. This article discusses the process followed by Southminster wellness community in Charlotte, NC. For many elder communities, it may be a worthy investment of time and energy to work with local park officials to repurpose a nearby public space—or, better yet—empower residents to advocate on their own behalf.
As shown in the above photo of the Jardí del Turia park in Valencia, equipment made for elders attracts a variety of ages and fitness levels. Below, Olympic trials qualifier Pablo Gomez works out at this same park, using a machine that encourages hip mobility and strengthened obliques.
While elders in memory care communities and those with greater mobility or health issues may find intergenerational spaces intimidating, many older adults will appreciate the opportunity to interact with all ages in an active wellness space. The article at the bottom of this page details how a wellness playground can be made accessible to all ages, even to elders in wheelchairs or with limited mobility.
Reclaiming the Joy of Play
In many locations worldwide, particularly China, elder playgrounds are often reserved for that population’s use. In other places, including Spain, elder playgrounds are understood as such, yet are often built with an intergenerational sensibility. Grandparents can play alongside their grandchildren and enjoy social connection with other adults at the same time. The video below discusses the range of community benefits possible in a single park.
Across multiple elder demographics, including both residents of senior living communities and those choosing to age in place, the overwhelming message is that staying active and having fun are important at every age.
In her book Joyful, Ingrid Fetell Lee sums it up this way: “If we are at our most playful in childhood, the thinking goes, then an environment that transports us back there might stir joyful memories and reconnect us with our impulse to play.”