Just hearing the word “playground” probably has you imagining a boisterous group of kids jostling for position to take another go down a sky-high slide. But over the past decade, cities around the world have been reimagining what a playground can be — and who they can best serve. What they’ve found is that these recreation areas aren’t just child’s play.
While playgrounds for older adults are still a relatively new phenomenon in the U.S., it’s believed that the original concept dates back to 1995, when China opened the first senior-focused outdoor recreation area following the country’s implementation of a national fitness program.
It didn’t take long for the idea to catch on: Japan, Finland, Germany, Austria, England, Scotland, Spain, Canada, and — of course — the U.S. all followed suit.
In Spain in particular, where it’s estimated that 40% of the population will be 65 or older by 2050, adult playgrounds have become a common sight. (Barcelona alone is said to have more than 300 of them.)
Instead of high-flying swings and towering jungle gyms, adult playgrounds are outfitted with low-impact exercise equipment that’s aimed at improving core muscle strength, flexibility, balance, and overall well-being of its users. Much like a gym (minus the monthly membership fees), elliptical trainers, stationary bikes, treadmills, and group classes are common features.
“They focus on promoting balance, flexibility, and range of motion, all of which can help with the functional capabilities of older people and allow them to do more of the things they want to do,” Cedric X. Bryant, president and chief science officer of the American Council on Exercise — a San Diego-based nonprofit that advocates for the importance of physical fitness for all — told The Wall Street Journal.
At Carbide Park in La Marque, Texas, which opened in 2014, helping aging citizens improve their balance and coordination is the main goal. In order to accomplish that, the city spent $36,000 to install an extensive range of specialized equipment, including fitness steps, a cobweb floor, a wavy balance beam, low chin-up bars, and a stretching board.
“As we get to an aging population — those over 65 — you start looking at some of the major causes for hospitalization,” said Stephen Holmes, Galveston County’s longtime commissioner said of the decision to invest in the wellbeing of the county’s older residents. “Much like you see kids gathering at playgrounds, I’m hoping to see the same thing with seniors here, gathering at playgrounds and creating a social aspect for them.”
While some parks are adults-only, others are multigenerational affairs, allowing a unique opportunity for grandparents to play alongside their grandchildren, but in a way that caters to each age group’s specific needs. The social aspect of these community gathering places is another benefit of these playgrounds, as it gives parkgoers a chance to get out of the house and interact with their neighbors.
“These environments can be highly social,” Colin Milner, CEO of the International Council on Active Aging, told The Wall Street Journal. “There’s something positive and invigorating about that, especially if the children have moved away or a spouse has passed on.”
Or if you just need a little me time away from home.