“We don’t stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing.” --George Bernard Shaw
Playgrounds for older people -- are you crazy or what? This was the reaction of many Dutch people a few years ago upon hearing the news that a playground designed especially for older people had been placed in a neighborhood in Rotterdam.
Personally, I was not so surprised as I knew that in countries such as China and Turkey, playgrounds for older people are a normal part of the street view. Most of the time, these apparatuses are rather small and include a bike or walking machine. In France and other countries with warm climates, people regularly play ball games on the streets, and in Turkey and Spain, people use playground apparatuses to relax and talk with peers while doing exercises.
Until 2006 in Holland, these adult playgrounds were unknown and very strange. That year, the municipality of Rotterdam was approached by Lappset, a manufacturer of such playgrounds, and wondered about the possibilities of building and using a playground to improve the physical activity levels of older adults in the city. Improvement of physical activity levels of older citizens is a popular policy goal in Holland because exercise is recognized now to improve quality of life and health and can lower the fear of falling.
One of Rotterdam’s civil servants thought “out of the box” (most organized exercise happens in small groups inside buildings) and convinced the municipality to pay for a playground in one neighborhood as well as for the hours of a social worker, who was necessary to guide such a project. In 2006, Yalp, the Dutch partner of Lappset, built the first playground for Dutch seniors in the Feyenoord area of Rotterdam. (See an example of playground design below.) At first, nobody dared to play on it! So it was necessary to lower the barriers for participation. The social worker at a local community center recruited a group of 13 participants, including seniors, that was willing to exercise at the playground under the supervision of a physiotherapist.
The playground includes equipment that allows for more than 200 possible exercises that can improve strength, flexibility, and balance. People who are wheelchair bound can also use it for strengthening of arm muscles and hand coordination. Participants can also be challenged by thinking out new creative training possibilities.
Although individuals may use it on their own and at their own risk, the city encourages that people join a group under the supervision of a physiotherapist or sport leader educated in using the playground in a safe and healthy way. (Note: Playground placement is crucial to the facility’s success. For example, a covered area with sitting places should be available. This makes it possible for people to socialize before and after the training, and it provides shelter during rain or snow.)
In 2006, TNO (the Dutch national organisation for applied research) conducted a small research study, led by Dr. Paul de Vreede, and the results were very promising. At first, people were a little reluctant to start exercising, but this attitude changed toward a very positive experience within a few weeks. Mean age of the participants was 72 years. Participants trained two times per week for one hour for 10 weeks. The participants were very compliant, participating in 92% of the training sessions on average. Indications were found that balance improved and that fear of falling decreased. Both are known as important determinants of health in old age.