Not Your Toddler’s Playground

October 1, 2014, Department, by Samantha Bartram

Residents explore the new senior playground at Carbide Park in LaMarque, Texas. The special equipment is intended to improve seniors’ agility and coordination through games and exercises.“You don’t stop playing because you grow old — you grow old because you stop playing.” This insightful quote was recently shared via white board in NRPA’s break room, but it’s illustrative of an attitude being embraced by America’s growing senior population. The elders of our communities are living longer and staying more active than ever, and that’s a trend to which those of us in the park and recreation industry will want to pay close attention. The folks at Galveston County Parks and Senior Services are ahead of the curve, having dedicated the first senior playground in the country at Carbide Park. And while the intense Texas summer heat is putting somewhat of a damper on early use, park officials expect the Motion Wellness System will soon be occupied by dozens of area seniors eager to keep a firm grip on their youthfulness and vitality.

One of a Kind

Carbide Park is a 67-acre strip of green located in LaMarque, Texas — it boasts a basketball court, picnic areas, tennis courts, playgrounds for kids and, now, a playground for seniors. “We had a couple of traditional playgrounds [in Carbide Park] we needed to remove for safety reasons,” Julie Diaz, CPRP, CPO and director of parks and cultural services for Galveston County, explains. “I talked to [Precinct 3 Commissioner Stephen Holmes] about replacing one with a unit we found that was specially made for seniors. It’s outside the norm, but we thought it would be a good fit because a senior center is located in this park as well. [Holmes] was a huge proponent of the idea and said, ‘Let’s run with it!’”

Soon installation of the Xccent Fitness unit began, and in August the new equipment was unveiled to the community. With a price tag of just $36,000, the Motion Wellness System playground was a very reasonable investment, but more than that, “it just made sense,” says Diaz. 

“For [Galveston County] being so heavily involved in senior services — we have three senior centers — we thought the timing [for the playground] was right and it just clicked. This is what was supposed to happen here.”

Indeed, according to Diaz, Carbide Park employs the only Motion Wellness System in the United States, although she doesn’t anticipate that distinction to last for long. “I think [senior playgrounds] are becoming a trend because, let’s face it, an aging population is growing every day. I’m excited Galveston County is setting the standard now of focusing on seniors and giving them something to do other than walk.”

Playing for Health

The senior playground includes a number of agility and hand-eye coordination exercises like the rope-net floor, snake pipe with hand ring, balance beam, rope bridge walk, balance and hip twist and still others. “The unit helps seniors work on flexibility, mobility and fall prevention,” Diaz says. “Each component builds seniors’ strength — in their feet, legs, fingers, their agility in general — it’s about keeping them active.”

The exercises can be done alone or during fitness classes, which Galveston County Parks is currently working to program. Diaz says senior center managers will be tasked with coming up with exercises that utilize the playground unit and “we are trying to reach out to some local rehabilitation facilities and other assisted living centers and caretakers,” she adds. “This is a great opportunity to give seniors the chance to come to an outside setting to do their rehab exercises.” 

Like any typical playground, individuals are invited to play and exercise at their own risk, as no regular attendant is planned to be on duty. The unit does include explanations for each exercise and Diaz said her agency is working to produce large-print instructional cards that will be available for review in a nearby kiosk, alongside any current programmatic offerings. “None of the exercises are over 3 feet off the ground,” Diaz says. “Seniors we see who come every morning and walk for exercise or walk their dogs are active and we hope they are stable enough to do these exercises on their own. For seniors who reside in our centers and use walkers or canes, we’ll take them out to use the unit under supervision.”

Diaz expects it’s only a matter of time before similar senior playgrounds pop up around the country. “The amount of [media] coverage we’ve had has led to lots of different folks reaching out to say [Motion Wellness Systems are] something they’re proposing to their local officials because it’s such a great thing to do for our seniors. I definitely think it’s going to take off and we’ll see a lot more of them.”

Samantha Bartram is the Associate Editor of Parks & Recreation Magazine.