One of the things I do when I'm not writing blog posts is serve on the 50-Plus Advisory Board to the City Council of Lake Oswego. It's a volunteer position and the Board has no authority but it can advise and, hopefully, influence the Council on issues that affect old people in our town.
Currently, I head up a small committee that is researching the idea of installing elder playgrounds in some city parks. It's a new idea that is popular in Asia, is catching on in Europe and already there are at least 18 in Canada.
Here is a 2008 news story about a then-newly installed elder playground in Manchester, England:
That news report caught the attention of international kiddie playground designer, Michael Cohen, who explains:
”I had never heard of such a thing. Playgrounds for seniors? I was intrigued and needed to know more,” he says.
And learn he did. So much so that he has become an evangelist for elder playgrounds, founding a company, Must Have Play, that designs playgrounds for elders and after we spoke for nearly an hour yesterday, I have come to think of Michael as the godfather of elder playgrounds.
With his two decades of experience in children's playground design, Michael has a lot of experience with the where, why and how of play. He says that while he liked the idea of the Asian and European elder playgrounds he saw, most were not very appealing – essentially just gym equipment plunked outdoors.
As he explained in an interview with Dr. Jill Bjerke of AgingInPlaceWithGrace blog, Michael had a richer vision,
”...influenced by my experiences building world-class playgrounds for children and by my love of gardens. In my view, providing opportunitues for elders to exercise is necessary but not sufficient. Must Have Play's designs had to address two other important design goals: socializing and playfulness.”
The three-legged stool, if you will, of elder well-being and in Michael's playgrounds even the elder-centric equipment is designed for face-to-face use by more than one person at a time to encourage that crucial social interaction – along with, of course, promoting fun.
As Michael told his hometown Ithaca, New York, newspaper:
“There's equal value in the giggle effect. Whether you meet a friend, or go with a friend, or make a friend, that's got value. I'm designing to encourage that.”
So in addition to the equipment, Michael speaks enthusiastically of the need for attractive landscaping, wide walking paths, gardens, fountains, spaces for other kinds of exercise such as tai chi and yoga, even board games and most of all, opportunities for conversation (he is a fan of curved benches).
Here's a rendering of one of Michael's more elaborate playground designs done for a space in Bellevue, Washington (larger view here):
Doesn't that look terrific. If my little group can convince the City Council, our first one, as a pilot project, won't be anywhere near that large. But if it works out well, I have some more elaborate plans for other areas of town.
Elder playgrounds have not gained traction yet in the United States. There is one associated with a senior center in Rockville, Maryland [video here] and possibly a few others but there is nowhere near enough of them.
I am personally convinced of Michael Cohen's vision and that there should be elder playgrounds in every city in the United States, particularly as the elder population explodes in numbers.
The playgrounds promote general health, wellbeing, spread joy and go a long way toward warding off social isolation which, as we discuss here from time to time, can lead to depression, illness and even early death. With so much concern over health care costs, to me elder playgrounds – which are not expensive to build - are a money-saving no brainer.
You can find out more about the reasons for elder playgrounds in this report [pdf] from the International Council on Active Aging that quotes Michael Cohen at length. There is also a lot more information at Michael's Must Have Play website and in his company brochure [pdf].
At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Arlene Corwin: Out There