New communities need to start planning for the health and well-being of the elderly with suitable spaces that promote social engagement, play and gentle exercise.

Australian society has an ageing population problem. This comes as no surprise, and as a nation we’ve been discussing this for some time. In the coming years, our baby boomer generation is moving into retirement, but the changing dynamics of society will not end there. Over the remainder of this century, Australia can expect to see a significant increase in the number of seniors within society. In 2013, the Australian Bureau of Statistics predicted that the proportion of people aged over 65 will double from 3.2 million in 2012 to 6.8 million by 2040.

This is something we really ought to be planning for in new housing estates and developments, with suitable outdoor spaces that promote social interaction, exercise and enjoyment for people in their later stages of their lives. When planning for these spaces, we also need to consider that as one ages we might experience a reduced level of mobility and an increase in various disabilities including different types of sensory loss.

Parts of Asia have been considering the benefits of senior play spaces for many years and the trend moved to the United Kingdom in 2008 with the first senior playground opening in Manchester in 2008. This was followed by the opening of London’s Hyde Park Senior Playground in 2009 which received extensive media attention. Senior playgrounds can now be found in parts of Europe and across the United States.

London's first senior playground at Hyde Park

London’s first senior playground at Hyde Park

Closer to home, this idea still remains a new concept, but one that fits well within inclusive design and universal design principles. These principles include consideration for:

  • spaces with equitable use
  • flexibility of use by people with varying abilities
  • being simple and intuitive to use, without unnecessary complexity
  • having perceptible information, in various formats, such as large text, Braille and tactile characters
  • equipment with tolerance for error, misuse or misunderstanding of its use without negative consequences
  • games, equipment and activities that require low levels of physical effort that are able to be used by people with varying abilities
  • spaces allowing everyone to approach, enter and use activities, regardless of one’s abilities

From a legislative perspective, one could also argue that any public space would also fall into the realms of the Disability Discrimination Act 1992, which requires access to and within all premises. Unfortunately though, children’s playgrounds and other public open areas such as park lands are often not considered accessible spaces and are designed without consideration of these universal design principles.

It would be advantageous for State Governments, Councils, developers and other industry stakeholders to consider these benefits when planning new developments. Communities would benefit greatly from senior playgrounds in addition to the usual sporting facilities, children’s playgrounds and community recreation centres typically provided in larger developments. There could be many advantages to society if an environment promotes the health and well-being of all residents living within the immediate area, including the elderly and people with disability.

Other considerations for good design of senior playgrounds

  1. Play spaces should be located in a convenient location, serviced by accessible footpaths and public transport.
  2. A reasonable number of accessible car parking spaces should be available close by, with accessible paths leading to the play space area. Ideally they should be distributed around the park rather than in one place.
  3. An undercover area should be provided for mobility scooter parking, ideally with ‘RECHARGE Scheme points’ for topping up electric scooter batteries.
  4. Accessible paths should be easy to navigate and provided within and around the space, with wider than average paths allowing sufficient space for mobility devices to pass each other.
  5. A range of toilets should be provided for users of the area, including accessible and ambulant facilities, as well as consideration to a ‘Changing Places’ facility.
  6. Exercise and play equipment should consider the principles of universal design discussed above and be accessible to all. All spaces should be connected via a traversable surface.
  7. Exercise equipment and games should promote social engagement, and gentle exercise with bending, balancing and throwing activities.
  8. Furniture should promote social interaction with armrests provided on benches, tables allowing wheelchair clearances underneath and services counters and windows at an accessible height. Some undercover seating should also be provided.
  9. Senior playgrounds can be located adjacent to playgrounds for children, allowing extended families to cater for all age groups.
  10. Larger play spaces should consider the added benefit of a cafe, with staff onsite to provide assistance and lockers available for storage of personal items.

There’s lots of great equipment out there for senior playgrounds, but it takes good planning and design to bring the space together as a functional and inclusive environment.