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19.02.2016 - Ausgabe: 1/2016

What does the play of elderly people tell about children’s play?

By Henning Eichberg, University of Southern Denmark


In 2014, a senior playground opened in LaMarque, Texas. As a “motion wellness system”, it targeted the exercise of older residents. For this purpose, components such as low chin-up bars, fitness steps and a rope-type walking bridge are used. Furthermore there are a stretching board, knobs and bolts and a wavy balance beam. Some forerunners show that the idea was lying in the air. Hyde Park in London includes a senior playground, planned since 2008/9. The facility includes six pieces of exercise equipment “to help users improve core strength, flexibility and balance”. Similar projects have been installed at Dam Head Park (Manchester), Heathfield Recreation Ground (Whitton) and Hampton Common (Richmond).

These “playgrounds” combine patterns from children playgrounds of the functionalist type with fitness training facilities of the standard type, adjusted to elder people. In spite of their name, they seem to be more for fitness and physical reproduction than for play.

Anyway, the senior playground implies a double challenge. It questions, on one hand, our normal theoretical assumptions about play, and on the other, our empirical knowledge about play of elderly people.


What is play? Questioning the “progressive” assumption

The theoretical approach to play is generally dominated by the perspective that play is something mainly for children. Why do human beings play? Because children by play develop their competences for future life: Play is a means of learning, development, and progression. This is often compared with young dogs playfully biting each other in order to learn for life. This appears as a simple explanation – but at a closer observation, it is not that self-evident.

Indeed, play is central in children’s life. And yet, this is not enough to understand the significance of play for human life generally. Critical research has questioned the explanation of “play as learning” as narrow and biological-naturalistic, as a “rhetoric of progress”, having dominated Western thinking since about 200 years. Play was in the historical process seen as linked to an educational and qualifying ”function”: It pointed ”forward” in human life, being training towards productivity. (Senior “playgrounds” for fitness and reproduction are just a backside of this productivity paradigm.) This interpretation was not accidental. The configuration of progression developed with the rise of industrial capitalist culture and its patterns of growth, productivity, development of achievement, and forward mobility.

With the assumption of progress, however, it is difficult to obtain understanding for, why and how elderly people play. And this is what they are doing, indeed. Elderly people’s world of play is rich, but it is still waiting for deeper research. Elderly people often engage in forms of playing alone, like crossword puzzles, jigsaw puzzle, Sudoku, and solitaire. A whole sector of the media market has unfolded on this basis offering play-related publications particularly for the elderly age group, with crossword puzzle magazines etc. But also social games are widespread, like rummy, canasta, bridge, doppelkopf, domino, and bingo. While many of these games are not physically challenging, some games of bodily character are also played especially by elderly people, like petanque, golf, social dance, boules or bocce in Southern Europe, and other traditional games in different European regions. Research in Flanders has shown that elderly men from relatively low social layers in urban environment are overrepresented in traditional popular games. From the East, elderly people’s tai chi came to the West. And it were mostly elderly women who – challenging both Confucian and party-Communist values – developed “disike”, elderly disco, in China.


Age-differentiated play

This brings to our attention, how unbalanced empirical research is in the field of play. While literature about play and children, education and learning is immense and fills whole libraries, we know very little about elderly people’s play.

Play of elderly people calls attention to the diversity and dynamic of play among different age groups more generally. After a period when play – later in its sportive form – is a main activity among children, young people distance from “play”, which they now regard as childish. However, young people turn to playful festivity and party. They dance and experiment with sex and drugs. And many are engaged in new games, especially computer games and in street sports like skateboard and parkour, or they paint graffiti. Later, among adults it is part of ”mature” habitus not to ”have time” for play. However, people now strive towards what is called ”entertainment” and ”recreation”, among others by a playful ”hobby”. People also engage in arts and religious rituals, which are playful activities. They are often interested in the play forms of politics – power play and the lottery of elections. And not at least gambling is a grown-up activity – games of hazard making up a huge market whose volume for instance in U.S. America equals the one of the military budget.

Party, hobby, art, entertainment, gambling… – play is thus redefined again and again during the course of human life. "We don't stop playing because we grow old; we grow old because we stop playing", said George Bernard Shaw. But do we really stop? – Elderly are playing, too, but they do not just turn back to become play children. They play in other ways. We may doubt that elderly people by play want to learn “for later life”.


Comparison: Why and how do children and elderly use green nature?

Play can be compared to people’s movement in green nature. Elderly people love walking out into nature. And urban planning now slowly opens up into this direction. However, most of our research in the use of nature is restricted to young people, like scouting etc. Research in elderly people’s relation to nature shows the greater significance of seeing green color, meeting a tree, listen to a creek springing beside the grassy way, observing the flight of a bird…

Also here is difference in age behavior. Children when in green nature, often reject walking and promenading – they prefer to play here and now at the wayside. Young people prefer action – adventure race, camp fire, singing – as developed by Woodcraft and Scouting. Adults tend to follow a path. Elderly prefer calm and meditative movement, experiencing nature – walking, biking, golf, Nordic Walking – sometimes in social togetherness, picnic. These differences should be reflected deeper.


Play as a way of putting questions to the world?

Back to the philosophy of play: Play of the elderly may enable a new perspective on the old question, what play fundamentally is. If play is not just a quasi-biological instinctive “learning for later life”, there must be other driving forces. This theoretical challenge may also cast new light on the play of children. It may be too narrow to understand children’s play sufficiently as a way of training for progress and productivity (as well as elderly people’s play just as fitness reproduction).

Instead, we can ask with Sally Brown (from Peanuts): What is funny with a balloon?

The fun of play is neither in the thing – the balloon – nor in the design of the playground nor in the inner of the individual player. Play develops its driving force in a relation: playful curiosity as striving towards the other. This is not specific for children. Playful curiosity, seeking, and expectancy may constitute an alternative understanding of play, connecting it with the phenomenon of putting questions to the world.

All this is not just for theory. It concerns also the practical design of playgrounds. How do the fitness-machineries of senior playgrounds and the functionalism of equipment for children’s playgrounds relate to playful curiosity? To the questions we have to the world, to each other, and to ourselves?

Photo: playfit


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