A Playground for (All) the Ages

Bring Your Community Together With Fun And Fitness for Everyone


These days, many of us are living longer. And longer lives means more seniors to serve in our communities, and a broader range of active ages and interests and abilities to engage. To this end, the most innovative communities are not just adding facilities for older adults, they're thinking critically about how to serve the spectrum of their populations together. Perhaps you've seen the news reports about communities that have put childcare centers under the same roof with nursing homes—and reaped tremendous benefits, enhancing the lives of both groups.

"The idea is to create and sustain public spaces that are free and available to people of all ages and abilities, and to promote healthy, active recreation," said Tracy McGinnis, director of philanthropy for Southminster retirement community in Charlotte, N.C. Southminster recently partnered with Mecklenburg County Parks and Recreation and funded an all-ages playground, which is located near both a community recreation center and a senior center. "There is evidence-based research that speaks to the benefits of intergenerational activity and programming," McGinnis explained. "Our communities will continue to see their youngest and oldest populations grow over the coming years, and we need to identify community partners to work with and continue creating innovative spaces for all."

Nursing home-childcare combos might be one way to do this, but another great way (that's more in our area of focus) is multigenerational playgrounds. Since Southminster helped create the playground at Marion Diehl Park, there's been "unprecedented activity" there, McGinnis said. Senior adults, families and children are playing at all times of the day and all days of the week. Sound like something your community could benefit from? Read on to learn more!

What Is a Multigenerational Playground?

The simplest explanation of multigenerational playgrounds is that instead of focusing exclusively on children (though they are tremendously important!), these playgrounds broaden their scope to include equipment, activities and amenities for those older than age 12—and perhaps significantly older—so that anyone who visits the playground, regardless of age or ability, can find something there they enjoy. This is no small feat, and requires some planning and consideration, but there are a variety of ways to achieve excellent results.


One possibility for setting up a multigenerational playground is to offer assorted equipment geared toward a variety of ages and abilities. Traditional playground equipment is already designed for specific children's age groups, and to engage children with a variety of different abilities, so it's just the adults that may require some extra thought. However, more and more types of outdoor fitness equipment are available to choose from, and many companies have realized that adults like to play, too, so there are activity stations available that provide a workout as well as opportunities for socialization and fun. Many communities report positive feedback from outdoor fitness stations set up along a walking/running path that encircles a playground for kids. That way parents can exercise or stroll and children can play while everyone keeps an eye on each other and spends time together.

"More than ever, we are seeking to involve kids, parents and grandparents in outdoor healthy activities," noted Helle Burlingame, director of a Denmark-based play equipment manufacturer's Play Institute. "Fitness equipment in close proximity to play spaces is an ideal way for parents or grandparents to work out close to their kids at play, [and it's] a great way for adults to role-model healthy behaviors."

Another way to achieve multigenerational appeal is to add an innovative playground for children to a larger complex that already caters to youth and adults with amenities like sports fields and courts or outdoor trails. This type of project is currently nearing completion in Winter Park, Colo., at the Fraser Valley Sports Complex. Between the ice rink, community garden, pond, baseball and soccer fields, and hot air balloon rides, the complex already has around 75,000 visitors a year, reported Scott Ledin, parks and recreation director for Fraser Valley Metropolitan Recreation District. When its reimagined, updated and expanded playground opens later this spring, there will truly be "a little something for everyone," he said.


It may also help to think beyond the boundaries of the playground itself. Although their primary focus is not creating multigenerational playgrounds, People Make Parks—a collaborative group in New York City—often achieves this because they strive to consider the needs and interests of everyone in the community where the new park will be located. "In urban areas where natural green spaces are limited and few residents have private back yards of their own, public parks and open spaces play a crucial role," noted Kate Nemetz of the City Parks Foundation, one of the organizations involved with People Make Parks. "The key then is to create parks that are inviting, accessible and useful for as many people as possible."

Whether they're walking their dogs, doing tai chi, having movie night or playing a pickup game of some variety, New Yorkers of all ages know how to get the most out of their parks, which make them a great example for the rest of us. "People Make Parks helps foster this [collective use] by providing channels for individuals and community groups to inform the designs of their local parks and playgrounds to reflect their needs," Nemetz explained.

How to Get Everyone Out There

Whether adding outdoor fitness equipment to an existing playground or bringing outdoor play options for kids to a community complex seems a better fit for you, the following tips and suggestions from parks experts and communities already enjoying multigenerational parks and playgrounds will help you refine your plans and get the process under way:


Create strategic partnerships: Serving a wide spectrum of people is a great opportunity for collaboration, so look for ways to join forces with other groups in your community. Southminster and Mecklenburg County Park and Recreation have accomplished a lot more together than they would have separately in Charlotte, N.C. And in Labelle, Fla., the committee formed to fund-raise for Zachary Reyna Park included city and county grant-writing specialists, civic and philanthropic leaders, and friends of the Reyna family, whose son Zach is the park's namesake. Together with local businesses, this group pooled their efforts and have funded their playground entirely through donations and volunteer hours, reports Ramiro Rodriguez, Hendry LaBelle recreation director.

Get the community involved: A companion to the previous thought, getting as many of your constituents informed and excited and contributing to your playground project along the way will pay off big in the end. Labelle, Fla., relied not just on the playground committee, but asked everyone in the community to contribute ideas, and local school children raised money to honor the memory of their friend. "Zach could really bring people together, and I don't think they'd ever come together like they did when he was sick," said Marlena Lopez of the Hendry LaBelle Recreation Department. A small town, Labelle doesn't have movie theaters or bowling alleys. "We have parks and grass," she said. And the work they did together on their award-winning multigenerational playground gives the place special meaning.

Although it can be challenging to bring together the disparate, and perhaps even competing, interests of many different potential playground users, it's an important process "so the end result is as inclusive as possible, and everyone feels like their voice was heard," said People Make Parks' Nemetz. The results, such as the Hester Street Playground in New York's Chinatown, are steeped in local culture, beloved, and well-used by people of all ages and interests.


Offer shade and seating—and more: Lofty ideals aside, there are also practical components that will make your goal of all ages engaged and enjoying more feasible. The longer people stay in a playground or park space, the better chance there is for interaction, so include some comfort amenities to make your park a pleasant spot. "We will have benches around the playground and shade structures for parents or grandparents to sit and relax while kids are playing," noted Fraser Valley's Ledin.

Adding an exercise element for adults may make them even more likely to bring the whole family and stay a while. With the exercise equipment included at Labelle's Zachary Reyna Park, "adults can enjoy themselves so kids can stay longer at the playground. Even grandparents are coming out to enjoy it," Rodriguez said. He also notes that they positioned the playground beneath a natural shade canopy of trees, and they plan to get shade coverings for the exercise equipment as well.

After seeing the success of the Marion Diehl Playground, Mecklenburg County Parks and Recreation plans to incorporate more "fit zones" with outdoor fitness equipment into other parks in the community, said Division Director Terri Stowers, upping their multigenerational appeal. And Ledin noted that the town of Winter Park, Colo., added outdoor exercise stations along a linear recreation path a couple of years ago and has received positive feedback. "We're an active community… with an even-more-active-than-average senior population, so we're always trying to find something for all ages," he said.


Include an educational component: Physical challenge isn't the only way your playground can connect with its users. Including educational elements that exercise the brain and provide a chance for visitors to learn something new or see their community's history celebrated can be a great way to make your play space more interesting to a variety of ages, more connected to the community, and just a little different than the other places to play in the area. History to explore, games to play, and signs to read are also activities that young and old can do together, enhancing the experience of both.

To this end, the Fraser Valley Sports Complex playground features play pieces shaped like a stagecoach, a mill, Native American teepees, and a replica of the Fraser Mercantile Building, which has stood in town for 100 years. Each of these celebrates a part of Fraser Valley's history, and four signs installed on the playground will offer historical information to visitors.

Marion Diehl playground includes a fairytale structure that speaks to those playing on it in a variety of languages, providing a way for kids, caregivers and teachers to play and learn together, noted Southminster's McGinnis.

Design for all abilities, as well as all ages: Creating inclusive spaces is another essential for bringing communities together, so be sure you consider the range of abilities among your constituents, as well as the range of ages. Southminster worked with UNC Charlotte's Department of Gerontology and Kinesiology to identify the best types of equipment for assorted ages and abilities, as well as create programming and research long-term for the project, McGinnis explained. They also made sure the path around the play area is accessible to those with physical disabilities.

And in Milwaukee, Wis., the Miracle League of Milwaukee facility includes not only an accessible baseball field but an inclusive playground, both designed to accommodate those in wheelchairs. This makes their facility not just multigenerational but broadly inclusive as well.


Remember that adults like to play, too: "I'm 58, but I still act like a kid," said Hendry Labelle's Rodriguez. "I want to be out there playing." So when they started talking about designing a playground, he made sure it would be fun for "age 2 to 102," he explained. Often the solution for including adults is outdoor exercise equipment, but older playground visitors may want to enjoy the play features as well. "Swings, zip lines, large climbing nets and slides can be great options for adults," Burlingame said. Ball courts are also likely to be appreciated by all ages.

If you plan to invite those over age 12, though, make sure the play equipment you choose is safety-rated for bigger, heavier bodies and perhaps adjusted for their comfort. Flat-seated swings or even porch swing-style gliders may be easier and more pleasant for adults and seniors to use.

Something for Everyone


However you decide to approach your project—from the ground up or by adding features to existing parks and play spaces—know that expanding the appeal and inclusiveness of your playgrounds has a wealth of benefits. And as long as you engage the community and plan wisely, there are no real downsides.

"When people of all ages can come together in a park or playground, the foundation is set for these spaces to become safe sites of community building, cultural exchange and civic engagement," said People Make Parks' Nemetz. The more citizens enjoy their parks and playgrounds, the more invested in them they become, making them more likely to take good care of them over the long term.

And by providing a place where kids, adults and seniors can be active and healthy together, you'll be caring for your community over the long term as well.


Jessica Royer Ocken