One of the ironies of writing a book about the need for kids to move around and play rough is that I am spending hours sitting and writing. Last week I spent an hour in a coffee shop writing about the dangers of sitting.
I do move around during my day job, trying to keep up with ten four-year olds. But at night, I am often sitting down to write, or sitting down to watch something. Last Sunday, I was sitting down with my family watching a movie when my phone buzzed. There was a cryptic message from a friend. “Night games. 9:00 at the park.” It was from Julian. Julian is one of those rare souls who truly did not forget how to play.
He is the founder of some of my favorite events here in the Twin Cities. One of those events is the Powderhorn Art Sled Rally where people are asked to decorate a sled and go down a hill at the end of January (often the coldest week of the year here in Minnesota so it can be -10F). He also created the summer camp Adventures in Cardboard where children use cardboard to fashion armor, swords, shields and magical items. The kids spend a week creating shops to sell magical items, battle other houses (there are six houses, each with its own mythology), storm castles and wind their way through labyrinths.
Needless to say, we were going. I grabbed our flashlights, my wife called a few friends, and my daughter grabbed her sword. We arrived at the park a little before 9. There was one other car in the parking lot. It was dark, but our friends had a flashlight. It’s an urban park, not necessarily dangerous, but people are mugged here on occasion when walking alone at night. It was definitely not my usual destination on a Sunday night. We heard others on the hill under a street light. We walked up to find Julian, his son and daughter and three other teenagers. We had three tweens and four adults with us. It was time to play.
Julian pointed out the boundaries and explained the rules for “Manhunt.” The four teens were the hunters. The rest of us had to hide. They would try to find us and tag us out, but we could sneak up on them and tag the hunters out. Off we went into the darkness. As I ran off to hide, my heart started to race. It was dark and it was possible to hide in the trees, but as I saw four shadows approaching, a sense of fear gripped me. It wasn’t a paralyzing fear, but that sense of fear you get on a roller coaster. You know you are safe, and yet your instincts are telling you that your body should not be dropping at 40 miles per hour. It was the feeling I had as a child when I played “Ghost in the Graveyard,” “Bloody Murder” and other variations on Hide-and-Seek.
This was much different than when I play chase with the preschoolers in my class. I have fun, but admittedly I am self-handicapping to keep the play going. Tonight I was trying my hardest and eventually running my fastest. It turns out I cannot outrun a teenager (I’m in my late 40s). All of us were trying our hardest and wavering between fear and elation. When we ran out of breath, we kept running anyways until we were tagged out. The 11 year olds, the teenagers, the adults, all were having a similar experience. The darkness helped equalize the experience a bit, and made it more exciting (and yes scary).
It made me realize that this is what the preschoolers experience when I chase them. It’s not just that we are moving our bodies, there is also a sense of danger in a context of safety. Of course the kids could fall and scrape a knee, but they are not trying to outrun a wild animal. It’s a game and yet the emotions can react as if it were real. That is part of the play experience. And frankly, urban parks are often a place that can harbor fear, and yet a group of people can turn it into a place to play, and turn those fears into joy.
Side note: The images for this post are from Adventures in Cardboard and the Art Sled Rally. Check out the websites for more images, video and information: