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No Kids Allowed

Adult playgrounds are reminding older folks that having fun is good for you

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Do you ever daydream about the idyllic summer days of your childhood, when your only responsibility was to go outside and play?


Adults have a habit of encouraging kids to be active, but in contemporary North American society, as you grow up, it is expected you should more or less grow out of play. In its place, lives become largely dominated by serious activities like work and errands. When adults do have down time, they are more likely to zone out in front of the TV than get out and engage in creative, brain-stimulating play.

In part, adults' aversion to play may stem from the fact that being silly or creative can be seen as childish. Yet, more and more it is becoming clear that play -- and this can mean many different things, from singing to soccer, water-sliding to chess -- is crucial for people of all ages.

Play is simultaneously a source of relaxation and stimulation for the brain and body. Across all demographics, it arouses curiosity, increases brain size and positively affects mood and well-being. Often described as the time when one feels most alive, play is as important to physical and mental health as getting enough sleep, eating well and exercising.

When you play vigorously, it triggers endorphins that lift your spirits and supercharge the brain, providing the mental breathing space to tackle challenges in new ways. Many experts even argue taking time to replenish yourself through play is one of the best things you can do to advance your professional career.

Heading out with co-workers to the basketball court, to build a model airplane, fly a kite or any other non-work-related activity promotes teamwork, relieves stress and boosts productivity.

Recognizing these benefits, many workplaces are now giving employees the opportunity to engage in play. Some permit online gaming or install a gym in their buildings, while others adopt more unconventional approaches such as the CEO who allowed his employees to shoot Nerf darts at him after a poorer-than-expected quarter.

These types of unprofessional shenanigans increase positivity and prevent burnout, and in showing that the situation is not so dire, boost morale and get workers energized to move forward productively.

Of course, play is not just about a chance to take your mind off your troubles; it is also about offering physical activity, which is why "adult playgrounds" have been popping up in cities around the world. Adult playgrounds vary widely (McDonald's even built an adult-size Playplace in Sydney, Australia), but in North America usually they are an outdoor area with a mix of traditional play-structure facilities such as monkey bars and climbers, alongside conventional exercise equipment such as rowers, air-walkers and body-resistance machines.

With many people intimidated by formal indoor gyms, the playground-style layout helps move away from the idea that exercising is a chore and lures people off their couches by recalling the joys of childhood activities.

Adult playgrounds have been so successful in Europe and Asia that earlier this year, the International Council on Active Aging endorsed them as one of the most potentially effective initiatives for getting baby boomers and seniors to embrace healthier, active lifestyles.

Taking this even further, a number of designers have begun to consider how to make cities more playful. In London, for instance, adult swing sets have popped up at bus stops. In Marseille, France, an urban designer placed a trash can on a basketball hoop, and Adidas put up a boxing ball for stressed commuters to take a swing at on a metro platform in Shanghai.

Perhaps most humorously, the local government in Utrecht, Netherlands, installed a novel feature to help commuters get down to the metro platforms. While the government officially calls it a "transfer accelerator," everyone else would call it a slide.

Some of these pieces have greater fitness benefits than others -- swinging especially helps older adults with circulation -- but above all they are meant to inject whimsy into an otherwise functional urban landscape. Of course, some will question whether public dollars are best spent on these types of decidedly frivolous public art/activity installations when adults could just as easily take their own initiative to be active and playful. Yet an adult playground is only about one-tenth the cost of a children's play area.

The fact is though, adults need and appreciate incentive too, and creators argue that fusing fun and physical activity together in accessible and spontaneous ways helps boost civic pride, health and well-being. It might also allow adults to daydream a little less and play a little more.


Benjamin Gillies is a political economy graduate of the University of Manitoba, where he focused on urban development and energy policy. He works as a consultant in Winnipeg.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition December 8, 2012 J6

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