Elders Must Have Play(grounds): The Mission of Designer Michael Cohen

By Michelle Seitzer / Posted on 24 October 2012

Playgrounds are not just for children anymore. Throughout Europe and China, and hopefully soon in the US, playgrounds for elders will be constructed in a community near you.

What does a playground for elders look like, you ask?

Face to face tai chi wheels, swings, a leg press for two, freestanding drums, and ping pong tables — those are just a few of the features in Michael Cohen’s dream playground for elders.

But I’ll let him tell you more, by way of my recent interview with the designer who spent his career designing children’s playgrounds. Cohen, who grew up in England but has lived in upstate New York since 1980, recently “retired” to explore the vision he had for designing spaces for elders, spaces where they can maintain good health through fitness, social interactions, and the enjoyment of the great outdoors. Cohen discovered this concept of an elder playground “rather by accident.”

It started with a clip on “Good Morning America” highlighting a playground for elders in Manchester, England, which caught Cohen’s attention. Best described as “an outdoor gym with quite a bit of exercise equipment,” Cohen was especially drawn to the elders at play. “They were having such fun,” he said. “Perhaps they were just hamming it up for the camera, but there was such a playfulness about them. I was taken by the whole concept.”

The origins of the idea comes primarily from China and Southeast Asia, where they embrace a more holistic view of health and an entirely different view of aging. “Respect for elders hasn’t faded there,” Cohen said.

In the 90s, when China was organizing for the summer Olympics, there was a strong emphasis on exercise, health and fitness for people of all ages; to that end, they begin constructing more outdoor gyms and public spaces where people could gather. Think “tai chi in the park,” said Cohen. The concept spread to Europe: Germany, England, Austria, France and Finland all began erecting elder playgrounds of their own. There is an elder playground in British Columbia, Canada, too.

Although Cohen has seen quite a few of these playgrounds on the internet, he realized there was “nothing in the states” like this. The idea quickly became a passion, and his company, Must Have Play, LLC, was born.

Collaborating with physical therapists, occupational therapists, recreation therapists, horticultural therapists, a physician specializing in physical therapy, and several other advisers, Cohen wanted to determine “what makes sense for elders” in terms of the design, equipment, and general layout of the playground. Preventing falls, promoting balance, improving range of motion and dexterity, building muscle tone, getting the blood flowing through cardiovascular activity, increasing radial motion and the ability to stretch and bend (to put on shoes, for example) — these were all the core competencies of elder fitness, as determined by Cohen’s team. Any kind of playground that could incorporate these aspects of fitness would be “good for all sorts of things,” concluded Cohen.

But Cohen did not want to create an outdoor gym like those in China or Europe. “They can be intimidating and boring,” he explained. “And not many people feel comfortable with working out in public.”

Inspired by what he saw in other countries, Cohen’s vision “is a park or garden that is inviting. A place that has a serenity, lightheartedness about it. A place with music, sculpture, conversational seating sections, running water [i.e. fountains], multi-person equipment for exercise, balance paths, ping ping, bocce, and a place to play cards, jacks, checkers or dominoes. I wanted to put my own twist on the designs I was finding elsewhere, adding many more elements.”

Another important piece of design is safety, making sure there are no “hidden dangers” such as “pinch points.” The setting makes a difference: is it a public park? A private residential area? Housed in a senior living community?

If it’s in a senior living community, there would be special considerations if the play area would be used by individuals with dementia, Alzheimer’s or other cognitive impairments. Cohen would always seek the input and advice of experts at the community in these instances. Indeed, Cohen always seeks and encourages  input from all stakeholders as part of his design process. This includes residents and staff alike.

Still, the concept of safety is very different in the case of an elders’ playground versus a children’s playground. “For one thing, adults are more able to recognize and assess risk than children,” said Cohen. Also, the type of equipment is different: there would be no monkey bars, see saws, slides, or other similar children’s playground elements. Also, unlike the risk of falling at home, seniors at a public playground “tend to be more mindful of being there to exercise, to move intentionally,” Cohen said.

“We also want to maintain a sense of privacy without total seclusion when choosing a location,” said Cohen. “We’re still up against that embarrassment factor, but in terms of risks and dangers, we don’t want it to be in a completely remote area.” Using barriers and other visual breaks, Cohen hopes to accomplish this balance between seclusion and safety.

Cohen is working hard to promote his concept and find companies, communities and individuals interested in creating an elder playground. It hasn’t been easy, but he is hopeful that the concept will catch on, that he will soon have official clients who are ready to build. “The newness and novelty of the idea is a challenge,” said Cohen. “I do run up against people who are skeptical, or who say the whole concept is infantilizing. It’s a bit mysterious — even the language I use to promote the concept, to promote movement and interaction, makes it especially difficult.”

He’s committed to making it an elder-only playground though, because “the needs of the elders have to come first” for the space to be truly beneficial to elders. “Multigenerational playgrounds which I know of put kids first, and the needs of elders are a distant second,” he explained.

Yet Cohen is willing to fight through these misconceptions and face these challenges because he knows how vital socialization and movement is for elders. “Isolation is a real problem. If I can provide a place for engagement, great. If the elders who go there feel like exercising too, so much the better.”

Check out musthaveplay.com to learn more. Thanks, Michael, for sharing your vision with our readers (and for the wonderful photographs). We wish you all the best and can’t wait to hear about the first elder playground in the US.

There are 8 Comments about this post

  1. Lucy says,

    I think this is an exciting development in activities for older adults. I’m anxious for one to open in a nearby community.


    on 24 October 2012 / 2:56 PM

  2. I agree, Lucy! Me too!


    on 24 October 2012 / 3:07 PM

  3. I’ve seen the elder playgrounds in China and can totally envision and support the Must Have Play concept for elders, at all stages of aging! Let’s start a movement for inviting, engaging, and enlivening play spaces!


    on 24 October 2012 / 7:37 PM

  4. Valerie, that’s so cool that you’ve seen them in China. Glad you can envision them here, and I share your hope of play for all stages of aging! I am totally with you — time to start a movement!


    on 25 October 2012 / 7:36 AM

  5. Jan Ogden says,

    Great idea! This old lady still swings. Morgan’s Wonderland in San Antonio, TX, is a theme park for special needs. But everyone is welcome. We took a family group of eleven, ages 5-72. Fun was had by all. And no one was embarrassed!


    on 01 November 2012 / 4:56 PM

  6. Hi Jan! Thanks so much for your comment. I’m glad you read the article and agree that it’s a great idea/concept (also happy to hear you still swing!). Morgan’s Wonderland sounds fantastic, and I LOVE that you took a huge family group with a wide range of ages. That warms my heart. So good to know that families still do things together and have fun doing so!
    Thanks again for stopping by the blog and sharing your thoughts. Please visit again soon!


    on 02 November 2012 / 7:33 AM

  7. Fabulous! Not just great for activiy, but the social aspect is so important. Seniors that are more “socially” active have a better quality of life because of connectivity to their freinds, neighbors, and community resources.


    on 03 January 2013 / 12:31 PM

  8. Agreed, Margaret! It’s a good thing on so many levels. Thanks for your comment and for stopping by the blog!


    on 03 January 2013 / 12:39 PM


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