Page last updated at 10:39 GMT, Wednesday, 8 February 2006

Finns open playgrounds to adults

By David Sillito
BBC News arts correspondent

Finns in playground
Elderly people find the playground play empowering

At the Santa Claus Sports Institute in Lapland, a group of elderly Finns leap around on climbing frames, swinging on the swings and bouncing on a see-saw that is more of a people launcher than anything I remember from my days on the playground.

It is the latest Finnish wheeze to get people more active.

The University of Lapland has been researching how to make activity more playful and pleasurable and is convinced that elderly people would benefit from joining in with the children in the local park.

A team at Rovaniemi Polytechnic studied one group of 40 people, aged between 65 and 81, and found there were significant improvements in balance, speed and co-ordination after just three months of larking about on the climbing frames and play equipment.

Given that more than a third of elderly people say they are nervous moving about because of a fear of falling, these are statistics that interest people working with senior citizens.

Mental health

There are also other areas that it is harder to measure.

Most of the subject group said they felt better mentally because of the exercise and empowered when they managed to overcome a problem piece of equipment.

It has opened up new possibilities, not just physically
Irmelin Roskila
And while many said they were initially worried about appearing foolish, that seemed to disappear fairly quickly.

Irmelin Roskila, 63, said she had started out feeling like "an elephant walking on a narrow beam".

Three months later her lap time had gone down from more than a minute to 17 seconds.

"Even in everyday situations when I'm walking around I will now try out playground equipment. It has opened up new possibilities, not just physically. I wish others could see this," said Irmelin.

Generational play

And this is one reason why the Finnish playground manufacturer Lappset is now selling the idea of "3 generational play".

All of its playgrounds are to be built to be used by all ages and it is seeking to transform our view of who should use a playground.

Finns in playground
Researchers say playing together can help social cohesion
No longer will dad be allowed to sit quietly and read a paper while his child dangles from the monkey bars. Now, dad will have to clamber on to the equipment as well.

It is not an idea that will appeal to everyone, especially some local authorities and, I imagine, some children.

Many fear that corpulent, inactive parents will simply fall off the swings and see-saws and sue the council, or aggressive teens and 20-somethings will drive the toddlers from the park and vandalise the equipment.

Indeed, the Finnish manufacturer has found that it has to make its equipment extra sturdy for the British because of the levels of vandalism.

It seems it simply does not occur to Finnish youth to destroy things that are built for their pleasure.

There are also cultural barriers. In tests on groups from different countries, the Germans were found to be fondest of having the generations play together.

The French seemed to prefer to control children.

Observation of French playgrounds showed that the children were often under constant supervision, parents frequently cleaned the dirt from the children's' hands and ensured they did not play with toys that had been brought in by other children.

The British were the most laissez-faire. But overall, the Scandinavians seemed to be more relaxed about rough and tumble.


Quite what this means is a bit of a mystery.

Perhaps it means the British are admirably comfortable about allowing children to learn for themselves, or maybe we're a nation of "deadbeat dads" who cannot be bothered to look up from our Sunday papers.

But behind all this is a view about childhood and neighbourhoods and what can be done to improve them.

The team at Lappset feel that making the playground a cross-generational meeting place will help the generations understand one another better and create a better social feel to neighbourhoods.

The more we can be encouraged to interact with neighbours on a wobbly walkway, the more we will learn to appreciate and trust one another.

Given the declining levels of trust in British society and the comparisons with the Finns and the Dutch, it is an issue that is beginning to concern policy makers.

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