The first seniors’ playground in London opened three months ago to quite a lot of hoopla and, yesterday, I went along to Hyde Park see how it’s going. The nearby tennis courts were full, a mother and adolescent son were playing mini golf through the rose bushes, there were queues for the table tennis at the Serpentine Pavilion across the road and the next-door café was overflowing, but the seniors’ playground was disappointingly devoid of seniors. Or anyone, in fact, apart from me and my 10 year-old son, who wasn’t technically supposed to be there.
There are lots of positive things to say about the playground. The Danish equipment is beautifully made and simple – not scary like gym machines with their incomprehensible computerised programmes called things like ‘Kilimanjaro’ and their layers of 20 different weights designed to humiliate you. (You mean you never get down to the bottom? Not even half way? A quarter – nope?) The area is as bucolic as it is possible to be in the middle of a world city, surrounded by plants and with the pleasing thwack of tennis balls from the courts nearby. There is, if you are tall enough, probably a view of the Albert Memorial. And it’s free.
On the other hand, the area given over to the playground is rather small. My son and I seemed to take up most of the space, and he’s only half-size. Despite being surrounded by attractive foliage and tucked away in a corner of the park (you have to go through a café to get to it) there is something quite exposing about doing your sit ups in front of a couple of park benches. And the equipment is limited: six very simple devices designed for gentle movement. The cross-trainer, for example, assumes oddly small strides.
There had been an open morning last Friday, one of the women behind the desk told me in between dealing with the constant flow of tennis players, but not many people had come. It would be wrong to judge from a single visit and a stray anecdote, but I was left wondering whether the combination of the small area and the relatively undemanding equipment makes the playground enough of a destination.
Madeline Elsdon, who had the original idea and lobbied through the Knightsbridge Association for the money (the bulk of which, £40,000, was provided by Westminster Council, with a £10,000 contribution from the park) says I was there at the wrong time. ‘Sometimes you go past and there are five people, and sometimes there’s nobody. We don’t expect it to be full all the time. People still have to find it. The Royal Parks are going to put more signs up. And it’s not quite finished yet. We’re going to have a board: how to use it, which machines benefit which parts of the body.’
My late father-in-law, a very keen sportsman who ran a sports centre, disliked gyms for being self-absorbed and narcissistic and missing the whole point of sport. The great thing about the playground, as Madeline Elsdon points out, is that it isn’t like this at all. ‘If you go to a gym, people are pumping away. If you go to the playground and there’s someone else in there, they’ll talk to you. It’s good fun. It’s even become a bit of a dating area for seniors. There are some rather nice men who go up there.’
This emphasis on pleasure means, as she concedes, that ‘you’re never going to build muscles.’ On the plus side, though, you don’t have that annoying thumpy gym music. And you don’t need to get into Lycra. This is play, not punishing self-improvement.
I’m all in favour of play, of which I think there’s not nearly enough, generally speaking, especially among women, and especially for older people. My only gripe would be with the no under-15s rule, which seems unnecessarily draconian. Madeline points out that children already have five playgrounds in Hyde Park and next-door Kensington Gardens, and says older people won’t use the playground if it’s ‘overrun’ by children, which makes them sound like an infestation. But you could perhaps have a rule similar to those in some children’s playgrounds where grownups are not permitted unless accompanied by a child: no kids without a participating adult.
Madeline says optimistically that with a Freedom Pass, older people can make the trip up from the suburbs, use the exercise machines and have a cup of coffee and ‘it’s a nice day out’. Well, once a year maybe. If, on the other hand, there were seniors’ playgrounds in everyone’s local park (perhaps even with machines spread out among the trees so those who wanted could jog between them, rather than crammed into the smallest possible space) then I’m sure they’d be widely used.
Unfortunately, the money for the Hyde Park playground came from a discretionary fund for extras not covered by Westminster’s core funding. There won’t be much of that sort of thing around for a while. Which is a great pity, because my son and I had a lot of fun yesterday, playing in the sunshine. And we didn’t even meet any of the rather nice men.