Supplement Feature - April 2016
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A Playground for (All) the Ages

Bring Your Community Together With Fun And Fitness for Everyone

By Jessica Royer Ocken

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.