Feature Article - October 2017
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Widening the Playing Field

Diversity & Inclusiveness in Multigenerational Playgrounds

By Rick Dandes

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."