If you watch children at play, you'll notice that the more they are smiling and laughing together, the more fun they are having. Play is a fundamental necessity of a child's development. Play is just as important for older adults because it combats their often sedentary lifestyle.

Our clubs, our programs and, more importantly, our leaders can provide the opportunity for play for seniors. Just look at what works with children and why it works, and incorporate the principles of play into your exercise programs.

What is the most fun and the most active part of a child's day at school? It's recess! Recess is never more than 30 minutes long, but children run out of a school building, run away from stress and sedentary time to join their friends in games, sports and all sorts of activities. Recess energizes them, gives them renewed spirit and prepares them for a more productive learning experience.

Gerontologists will tell you that as people age, it's healthy to recall and relive childlike (not childish) experiences. The most productive fitness programs for your older adult membership should include exercises that incorporate “playtime” within the exercise routines.

Many ways exist to include fun, upbeat, social experiences within many of the programs you already have, but first you must make sure that you and your program leaders are fun. Are they someone who your members would like to play with? Are they willing to provide the “play” in your programs?

Don't take this for granted. Learning the skill of providing supportive play in exercise programs for our older market takes training, practice and a sincere desire to succeed with this market. Initially, you may have to tap into your creative juices, your childhood experiences, and some innovative tools and equipment not traditionally considered “fun.” However, soon you will feel the energy from your members as they respond with a greater joy while exercising their bodies with their minds and spirits.

For example, stationary bikes and sophisticated chairs on the market today come with cookie-cutter programs, educational DVDs and booklets full of pictures and explanations about how to perform the exercises properly. However, how much positive attitude, excitement, high energy or enjoyment can participants get from this option? If your senior programs don't illicit these feelings from participants, your members may perform their fitness routines sporadically or for a two-week period at best. That certainly doesn't ensure an active lifestyle or a commitment to a lifestyle of exercise.

Children love to play with toys. Using balloons, hula hoops, balls or even paper plates can add a challenge as well as a giggle to a simple walk around the room. Adding instruments like tambourines, bells, cymbals, drums or harmonicas add coordination and rhythmic skills to a march, as well as high energy and laughter. Music molds attitudes. It's far more fun to exercise to music with familiar lyrics and tunes than to a bass beat that forces you to count to eight or 16.

Costumes such as hats, shirts or anything with matching colors or logos add an element of fun, camaraderie and sociability to any activity. Children love them. So will your seniors.

Research has shown that structured and unstructured play for children are essential for academic achievement and help to ensure social, emotional and physical development. The International Playground Equipment Manufacturer's Association notes that Albert Einstein referred to play as the “highest form of research.” I strongly urge you to include play in your senior programs, too.

Sandy Coffman is president of Programming For Profit in Bradenton, FL, and author of “Successful Programs for Fitness and Health Clubs: 101 Profitable Ideas.” She can be reached at 941-756-6921 or at SLCoffman@aol.com.