Multigenerational Playgrounds

James C. Gamble
Land Design Collaborative, Inc.

Article appeared in the January 2007 Park and Recreation
Design Issue of elevation:, newsletter of the Illinois
chapter of the American Society of Landscape Architects

In the future traditional parks will be challenged to accommodate the needs of active senior users as today's adults are enjoying longer and more productive lives. Many Baby Boomers are healthier, more mobile, and more financially viable than any previous generation. However, unhealthy boomers are often lowering their standard of living, being supported by family and moving to state supported care facilities when assisted living is required. Gail Sheehy, chronicler of aging and author of Passages, proclaims life begins at 60, with the "Age of Mastery" between 50 and 75 years. By the end of this century, men are expected to live into their late 70s and women beyond 80 years.

Living longer is only part of the whole answer. Living healthier lives is the key. Health problems and costs are a part of a growing national concern and campaign. Today, spontaneous recreation, which was a big part of healthier life styles in the past, is losing the competition for people's time with computers/the internet/TV/video games, and other "structured" activities. Children and adults are consequently becoming more sedentary and gaining weight, losing mobility, developing diabetes, heart disease as well as new ailments like carpal tunnel syndrome. Most importantly, because the Baby Boomers are living longer and working additional hours over extended years, they need to have multiple opportunities for health building. One way to obtain and maintain good health is through spontaneous recreation. Richard Jackson, University of California, states: "Building incidental exercise is a matter of life and death."

Parks and recreation programs teach active life skills at an early age when bodies and minds are conditioned to learn athletic activities. However, there are opportunities to modify the traditional park with changes that serve the new senior active lifestyle and encourage fitness through what seem to be normal lifestyle activities. For special needs adults, particularly those suffering with dementia or Alzheimer's disease, simple modifications to traditional park facilities can create safe areas for their spontaneous recreational activities.

Nationwide, health care costs are dramatically increasing with emphasis on the number of children and seniors requiring health care and prescriptions. Several alternatives that lower heath care costs are to shorten hospital stays, improve rehabilitation successes, and extend independent living by minimizing the need for skilled care. Another way to lower costs is through joint development of park facilities for health care maintenance.

Senior Playground and Stealth Exercise

It was discovered that many early development techniques for teaching preschool children could be applied to seniors suffering from dementia. The use of natural features, gardens, water, secured perimeters, and way finding features are beneficial to adults with Alzheimer's as well as the preschool child. These play gardens, with proper design, function as preschool play areas and as therapy gardens for adults with dementia and Alzheimer's disease. A facility featuring these very attributes was developed by Land Design Collaborative, Inc. for the Lake Forest Park Department shown in the accompanying illustration.

The playground has, since the 1900s, continuously encouraged spontaneous play and social interaction for generation upon generation of children and adults. The development of play equipment continues evolving as knowledge in technology, safety, physiology, and psychology increases. Today, certain playground manufacturers like TriActive America are trying to make a difference in our nation's health by offering equipment designed for use by multi-generational users. TriActive America has its focus on the three aspects of life; the mind, body, and spirit. Their equipment provides the older adult similar advantages as a children's playground does for spontaneous, safe, and healthy exercise.


Expanding on the adult exercise concept, Mr. Henry T. Wilkinson at the University of Illinois-Urbana Champaign, "Blueprint for Health Initiative" has pioneered new concepts to engage seniors in exercise by "stealth," i.e., spontaneous physical movements improving health. His initiative focuses on indirectly engaging senior participants in active, healthy spontaneous outdoor recreation. Whether participants realize they are getting exercise or not, "stealth exercise" is integrated into the park's design and programming to encourage walking, stretching, and strengthening. Park users will experience an increase in energy and gain the benefits of fresh air and nature all while doing ordinary recreational and leisure activities.

Healthcare Recreation Facilities

Healthcare gardens and parks are often jointly developed by the public and private sectors to serve non-patients and patients alike. In the private sector, heath care facilities are creating therapy and healing gardens on roof tops as well as in courtyards to create a peaceful environment. Some hospitals, such as Kaiser Permanente Hospital facilities, are bringing in farmers markets, walking trails, fountains, and flower gardens making hospitals look like luxury hotels.

At the session on "Designing Hospital Landscapes" at the 2007 ASLA annual meeting, behavioral scientist Roger Ulrich, PHD, states that "healing gardens make a patient's stay both more pleasant and shorter than a facility without a healing garden."

Existing facilities such as the Buehler Enabling Garden at the Chicago Botanical Garden in Glencoe is universal in its design and can be enjoyed by those without disabilities as well as those with visual, motor or cognitive impairments. The Bronson Methodist Hospital in Kalamazoo, Michigan created a large indoor garden for staff, families, and patients that has added uses of way-finding, water, and privacy. The garden is a peaceful retreat for patients, families, and hospital staff. In Hinsdale, Illinois Gene Rothert, manager of horticultural Therapy at the Chicago Botanic Garden, teamed with Robert Zolomij, principal designer at Land Design Collaborative, in the design of a roof top garden for the Hinsdale Hospital where patients can view, walk, and interact with the garden as part of the healing process and staff can escape to relax.


Another example is the therapy garden for La Rabida Hospital in Chicago, Illinois in conjunction with the Chicago Park District. Robert Zolomij, Principal of Land design Collaborative and therapy garden designer, stated: "the primary design objective for this facility was to create a seamless link between patient, non-patient and the typical park user allowing the patient to psychologically escape from the medical aspects of their care to a day at the park." This garden was developed as a joint use garden/park with outdoor therapy facilities integral to a play ground, fountain and walks connected to the Chicago Park District's lake-front park and bike path.

Future Benefits

Many physical ailments and medical costs can be reduced or eliminated with routine exercise and by maintaining a healthy weight. Spontaneous outdoor recreation is a major part of the solution to continued physical health and mobility.

The role of parks should change with people living longer active lives with greater attention to health and quality of life. Future Park and Recreation facilities serving the multigenerational family may be structured by both public and private partnerships providing recreation programs, facilities, and unstructured activities that are health oriented.

Multigenerational recreation facilities require recognizing and embracing preschool playgrounds, parks, therapy and healing gardens as opportunities for developing partnerships between public and private interests. These partnerships will provide improved recreational opportunities for all ages, lower medical costs and taxes, while creating life-long benefits for all.