Widening the Playing Field

Diversity & Inclusiveness in Multigenerational Playgrounds


Multigenerational playgrounds have been around in one form or another in the United States since the 1950s, but trying to appeal these days to a modern, diverse American audience all at once can be a challenging task. Tots, teens, gen Z, millennials, gen Xers and baby boomers each have generational characteristics. They gravitate toward several distinct relaxation styles and exercise techniques and are drawn to different play equipment.

Historically, when a family goes to a play space, the preteen/teenage members would be completely absent. Parents headed for the bench, kids went to the play area and except for brief interchanges, they would remain in these spaces until it was time to go.

"I think that owners of public spaces and equipment manufacturers are just beginning to really comprehend what that means to a family, and now they are responding with meaningful designs," explained Anne-Marie Spencer, corporate vice president of marketing for a large playground design and equipment manufacturing conglomerate based in Chattanooga, Tenn. "The trick to really engaging the entire family is creating a space with opportunities for activity that appeal to the whole family, as opposed to someone taking part in something they don't really enjoy, just to play along."

John McConkey, market insights manager, at a playground design firm based in Delano, Minn., agreed, adding that designers recognize this past disparity. "So the trend is for designers and manufacturers to find and implement strategic ways to focus on activities that create inter-generational engagement," he said. "The idea is to bring the adult and the child together or the grandparent and the grandchild together in the playground, instead of having siloed activities such as we might have seen in the past."

Trends & Innovation in Playground Philosophies

In response to this trend toward more family activity, Spencer explained, planners have started adding adult fitness areas in playgrounds designed for people ages 13 and up, so that they can get in a workout while supervising the kids, "which is a great idea because the parents and older siblings are active, setting a great example for kids to be active," she said.

"What's even more exciting," Spencer noted, "is that people who exercise outside not only stay longer, they also tend to repeat the behavior more frequently, meaning children get to play more, too."

Playground designers now have the ability to create things that are really interesting and bring excitement back to play again, added Todd Lehman, a Certified Playground Safety Inspector (CPSI), and owner and executive creative director of a New Hope, Minn.-based designer and manufacturer of playground equipment. "With that," he said, "we are getting parents off of their seats and playing with their kids again."

Multigenerational playgrounds have been around in one form or another in the United States since the 1950s, but trying to appeal these days to a modern, diverse American audience all at once can be a challenging task.

Lehman's philosophy centers on getting kids moving again, "and getting kids to actively play. It is all about creating excitement and getting kids to want to play in these unique environments. I think kids are tired of traditional playgrounds, with metal posts, where you climb up a ladder, go up on a platform, go across a bridge and go down a slide. That's the same playground kids have at their elementary school, or at their daycare center, or the park up the street. It's all kind of the same thing."

What Lehman suggested is to create activities that would lead to physical and creative use of a structure. Then you invite all levels of participation, from the oldest to the youngest visitors, and doing that through the use of creative design.

"Good design comes in all shapes and forms," Lehman said. "But particularly, for play, it is creating something that people can get excited about. And that is good, creative, unique play environments—not just the standard playground that looks like a bunch of crayons stuck in the ground. Been there, done that."

The idea, Lehman said, is to have an environment where from the very moment you pull up to the parking lot, kids will jump out of the car and run to these unique environments and unique structures.

Custom Design & Setting Up a Social Scene

One big trend, as Lehman sees it, is custom play, which allows each community to have a uniqueness and create a mark on their residents. "The idea is when someone goes to a particular city center's park, they know it is different and unique to that space. It has character to it. It creates a relationship between a user and their environment."


Traditional playgrounds don't create that relationship, Lehman said. They are just there. They don't evoke an emotion or relationship, "but when you do create something that people can relate to or have an imagination or create a memory," he said, "something that creates a new memory for a child or evokes an old memory in an adult, that's a goal.

"One of the keys to a successful multigenerational playground is, instead of a parent sitting on a bench on the sideline with their nose in a phone, you evoke a 'this is cool' reaction by the kids. 'Hey, mom and dad, come play with me,' and they all get excited about playing together. It is unique and different."

In this sense, multigenerational playgrounds can become social spaces, environments where people congregate. Think about creating a playground from scratch. Traditionally, you have the structures, a shelter, and benches and picnic tables. Parents come out and set their bags on a table. When the next person comes in, they see a bag, figure it is someone else's table and move on.

"Now think about going into a Starbucks," Lehman said. "It's not unusual to sit in a chair 18 inches away from the next chair, and that is acceptable. What we want to do then is not put picnic tables out there anymore. We want there to be a café feel or some unique seating so that people are comfortable enough to maybe interact with the person next to them. Ten years ago that wouldn't happen."

Good idea, said Sarah Lisiecki, marketing communications specialist for a Fond du Lac, Wis., outdoor playground equipment manufacturer. She suggested having equipment "that performs multiple functions and meets people where they are. For example, a group of parents might be sitting and having coffee inside the play space instead of outside away from the action and unable to engage with their children. The same site furnishings they are sitting on could also be used for kids to climb on and bring play value to the space. This allows different generations to interact in the same space using the same equipment for different purposes."

Universal Design & Inclusive Play Areas

Another thing that is becoming common in park design is universal design, or inclusive playgrounds, McConkey explained. "You have to go beyond just the ADA standards for accessibility, because if you just keep only to that standard, it is limiting and doesn't create environments that are as functional and fun for a wide array of users."

Universal design is a set of principles and an approach to creating environments that are more fun and functional for a wider range of users, regardless of age or ability, McConkey explained. "This is important because when we think about playgrounds, that is exactly what we are trying to achieve in play environments. Empowering diverse populations so that everybody can participate, have fun, and find things that are developmentally appropriate, engaging and challenging."


Some playground surfaces that are technically ADA-compliant sometimes limit grandparents, veterans with disabilities or people who use wheelchairs and can't transfer out of their chairs, McConkey said. "If you have engineered wood fiber, loose fill, as an impact-attenuated surface at a play area, anyone using a wheelchair trying to navigate through that right away realizes it is a problem. It's ADA-compliant because it is tested in a lab-controlled environment, but in general practice, it is not as functional. So, you have to be ADA-compliant, sure. But you need to take it one step beyond, with surfaces, with playground equipment."

Taking that concept one step further is Kent Callison, director of marketing for a Fort Payne, Ala.-based commercial playground equipment manufacturer. Accessibility in playgrounds has heretofore meant ensuring that a play environment was accessible by children with a physical disability. "This is important, and it is required by DOJ Accessibility Guidelines for public parks and play spaces," Callison said, "but access alone does not guarantee inclusion. Truly inclusive play includes access, but it also considers a much wider range of needs—beyond physical disability."

Out of 1,000 children between the ages of three and 21, approximately 85 will have some type of disability, Callison explained. "For example, one of those children will have a physical disability and 41 will have a cognitive disability."

But numbers like one or 41, or even 85 out of 1,000 don't really give a full picture of the population of children affected by a disability. According to the U.S. Department of Education, there are approximately 6.6 million children in the United States who are affected by some type of disability (physical, sensory, chronic health condition, social-emotional, communication, cognitive).

"To put all that into perspective," Callison said, "the entire population of the state of Tennessee is 6.6 million people. That's an entire state's population worth of children who could benefit from truly inclusive play spaces."


What makes a play space inclusive, Callison said, is creating a space that addresses the needs of those 6.6 million children, as well as every other child in the country. The idea is to create a space that allows every child to play together, and to participate fully in a variety of activities in a mutually beneficial way. And while the primary audience of a play area is children, an inclusive play space should be a multigenerational environment that allows people of all ages and abilities to play and recreate with friends and families."

Callison's manufacturing company uses design guidelines found in "Me2: The 7 Principles of Inclusive Playground Design," created in partnership with Utah State University Center for Person with Disabilities. "It's a guidebook of best practices and considerations for upgrading existing or designing new outdoor inclusive play environments."

Callison then noted four products that aligned with their corporate philosophy: a climber that provides auditory, tactical and visual feedback while children climb, play and explore, with three sensors featuring technology that allows individuals with limited upper-body or fine-motor control the ability to activate auditory features; a freestanding motion activity featuring a high-back molded seat with handles and front pommel, allowing children to maintain a neutral body position while spinning; a patented double-wide playground ramp that transforms an ordinary accessible ramp into a play experience for all children; and a collection of precision-tuned musical instruments.

By designing a play space to align with best practices, Callison said, "and selecting playground equipment that addresses the needs, and provides developmental benefits for children of all abilities, you create a play environment that is truly inclusive."

Using Multigenerational Playgrounds to Address Social Inequalities in Education

The playground can provide opportunities to focus on social issues, McConkey said, "and one of those issues is an awareness that there is a huge population of children that are entering kindergarten without the language and literacy skills necessary to be successful at school."

McConkey's company is now aligned with an organization called Too Small to Fail, a nationwide nonprofit working with different venues, such as playgrounds in parks, to create intergenerational opportunities for adults and children to have language-rich meaningful interaction.

"Their concept is called 'Talking is Teaching,'" McConkey said. The idea is to talk, read and sing to your children, and help to build those early brain and literacy skills. The organization focuses on the youngest, up to age 5. How it's done in a playground is through using a series of interactive play panels that all carry a theme, such as "let's talk about" something, which can be a wide range of things in a park.


"It's about educating parents to be more proactive and be more involved and have more language-rich back-and-forth conversations with their kids," McConkey said. "We are in about 27 different playgrounds in 12 pilot cities doing this program," he said. "We are creating interactive play panels that go on the play structures."

These interactive play panels, McConkey said, can be created on younger-age playgrounds and can be placed on a freestanding configuration around some of the older children's playgrounds. "When we create a playground that incorporates these panels we say there are two elements we are creating: language prompts, which are the panels that prompt the adult to enter into a conversation with the child; and then what we call 'Engagement Pathways,' a design characteristic where the panels are positioned in a way that makes it conducive for the adult and the child to sit close together in front of the panel."

It is a youth development initiative and a social awareness campaign, McConkey said. "How do we break the cycle of poverty? We have to have interventions that are targeting the earliest-age kids," McConkey said. "The cool thing about this it is not a campaign that pounds the message into the adult and becomes background noise. It is playful. And it's fun. Parents are having fun. And their kids are having fun together with their parents so it doesn't feel like there is a heavy education dimension to it."

McConkey has another suggestion: creating scavenger hunts or seek-and-find games that most often are focused on educating people about something that is unique and noteworthy about that particular environment. It might be the native plants and animals that are indigenous to that community. "We have a number of parks where we created a 'can you find all of these elements within the park?' And there will be pictures of birds. What we have done is create little concrete models that are hidden throughout the playground that are those birds, or squirrels. It becomes this interactive game between the grandparent and the grandchild. We see scenes such as a little 5-year-old standing with the grandparent holding hands in front of a panel, saying, 'Grandpa, I know where the raccoon is, but I'm not telling you.' Then the child will take the grandparent's hand and point to the model."

Attracting All Generations

Municipalities are committed to creating multigenerational recreation areas. "So that's an area of focus that's been driving our design process lately," Spencer said. "The key to a successful multigenerational play space is to combine age-appropriate products to provide a wide range of activities that appeal to everyone and address the specific physical and developmental needs of all age groups. Things that move and spin. Things that promote attunement. Things that are intuitive and fun, with many uses, so they fit the whole family."


Recently, another innovation in family play has revolutionized active behavior by creating a single activity that all can participate in and enjoy, a challenge course, Spencer said. "Similar to the explosively growing sport of obstacle course racing, but with a shorter distance and more easily achieved, intuitive obstacles," she said, "obstacle courses feature a timer to measure your speed against your family and encourage fun, healthy competition and repeat participation."

Even more fun, Spencer explained, "… is the option to time yourself through an app, which records your time and allows you to compete against others around the world that have the same course in their local park. Plus, there are points for how many times you compete and other active behaviors, so you don't necessarily have to be the fastest to gain in the standings. At these sites, it isn't unusual to have families compete against other—families, dads with kids, grandparent with son."

You might also include an adjacent fitness area for older teens (ages 13+) and adults, or a walking and jogging path around the perimeter of the recreation area to help engage family members of all ages, Spencer said.

"Equipment trends are about play spaces being more multifunctional," added Brian Johnson, chief marketing officer for a Fond du Lac, Wis., outdoor playground equipment manufacturer. "Outdoor furniture that does more. Benches that are also for balancing; tables that are for resting and socializing, but also climbing. Climbers that have seats for caregivers."