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All the kids are doing it

Fun and games may be an essential aspect to human brain development and species evolution. In the meantime, it's playtime for adults.
Germaine Koh is the creator of League. She challenges the conventional notion of sport and invents games with people like Nic Miskin and Elisa Yon, seen behind the tree, using unexpected equipment and invented or modified rules.

Playtime isn’t just for kids anymore. Just ask Christopher Williams, 34. Or 46-year-old Germaine Koh.

They don’t just make time for fun and games. They invent, host and prioritize play. And they invite friends.

On the first Sunday in August, Williams stretched 60 metres of heavy-duty plastic down a steep, grassy hill at North China Creek Park. He then doused the chute with water and hosted close to 100 people for the third annual East Van Slip and Slide.

On the last Sunday of each month at Elm Park, Koh hosts League, a club that invents and improvises games as they’re played. Some are complex strategic mindbenders and others are bocce with odd-sized balls. On Sept. 8, Koh will host the n Games, a round-robin tournament with six teams drawn from the artistic, athletic and corporate corners of the city. Spectators are welcome and attendance is free.

“A lot of people are starved for play,” said Koh. “So many adults get to a point where they think that play is not a part of adult life anymore and I feel so sad for them because they are stuck in these conventional patterns of behaviour.”

In particular, she sees parents hold back when families first lay eyes on the games played for League. “The adults would encourage the children to go and participate in the sports events but some of the adults didn’t assume they could do it too. Adults can get very inhibited, but it’s really so liberating […] once you allow and even request that things be done differently than the conventional ways.”

Laughs and laps

Exercise is fun again. Urban obstacle courses styled after the Amazing Race reality television show like the City Chase and Awesome Race challenge competitors to solve puzzles, beat the clock and challenge their physical limits. Similarly, extreme events like the Tough Mudder take the concept of outdoor play much further.  But conventional athletic pursuits are also being disguised as exercise thanks to a heaping dollop of fun. Color Me Rad is a five-kilometre running event that encourages participants to wear white clothing and then bombs them with corn starch dyed every colour of the rainbow. Their marketing is also showered with a pungent dose of irony. The website promotes the event that will raise spirits when “Zoloft and animal balloons” fall flat and alleges, “Historically, running has only been acceptable when trying to escape the law, personal responsibility, the truth, and grizzly bears.” Run for Your Lives moves racers forward over five kilometres with the threat of zombies, and the five-km nighttime Electric Run rewards glow sticks and neon.

Koh’s impulse to find rules only to bend and maybe break them is shared by Williams, who said he tries to stretch limits and challenge people to try things they normally wouldn’t. Adults may have less time for fun, he said, but “we have the means and abilities to have better fun.” 

“There is nothing more satisfying than play,” he said, “and somewhere along the way as we grow up the idea of play, fun and imagination outside of the normal social constraints becomes oppressed through social norms and stigmas about how adults should act.”

The fountain for youth

If an adult is too shy, too self-conscious or just too uptight to risk embarrassment by cannonballing down a slippery slide, it may be because their sense of play was discouraged as a child. At a B.C. School Sports annual general meeting in May, VIASport ambassador Drew Mitchell told the crowd of coaches and educators that “sport is not the only space we need to play in.”

ViaSport is dedicated to increasing sports participation, but Mitchell recognized organized sports are not welcoming to all participants, particularly in an era of early specialization and limited diversification. “The thing we’re talking about are adult desires when you here feedback like, ‘suck it up, buttercup,’ or, ‘sink or swim,’ and then applying it to nine year olds. We in the sport system have to take on a better value system.”

Also missing from the lives of many city-raised children is what Mitchell called “organic play,” which happens on neighbourhood streets and in parks. But for adults today, there is a renewed discovery of play.  “The concept of play for adults is very real,” he said on the phone from Ontario where he now works as a consultant. “In my age group of 50-plus, there are many women who didn’t have a lot of sporting opportunities when they were younger. They weren’t offered.”

Life expectancy for some groups of North American adults is falling, according to research published last summer out of the University of Illinois at Chicago. An equally disturbing trend is the rising obesity rates among children and the weight gain that persists into adulthood. Only 15 per cent of children were overweight or obese 35 years ago. Five years ago, Statistics Canada revealed that nearly one in three adolescents had an unhealthy weight. Instead of outgrowing weight gain, most children and teens gain more and if the current trend continues, up to 70 per cent of adults 40 years and older may be overweight by 2040.

The practice of play

Play is fun, by definition, and play can be part of a healthy active lifestyle. But play may also enhance brain development. Stuart Brown, a psychiatrist and clinical researcher, founded the California-based National Institute for Play in 1990 and  began to see play as a long-evolved and essential behaviour for the wellbeing and survival of animals, including humans. In fact, he argues that humans of all ages are uniquely designed to enjoy in play through their entire lives.

In a popular TED talk, Brown asks if childhood play is a rehearsal for adult activity. He says it’s not. “Play has a biological play, just like sleep and dreams.” Play will factor in the next step of evolution, he believes, and is essential to crafting and challenging the brain. It’s not just something we do in our spare time.

Vancouver psychologist and artist Lisa Voth is a fan of Brown’s work. A believer in “necessary shenanigans,” she readily practises what she preaches as a consultant and teacher who hosts clowning workshops and weekend seminars called the Practice of Play, which are designed to break down inhibitions and stale patterns in order to find the creative and playful possibilities in everything we do. Voth is constantly trying to “unstick the stuck,” as she puts it.

Koh has another way of looking at play and, like Voth, it also has a lot to do with creative expression. A roller derby skater as well as a visual artist and the resident artist at the Elm Park Field House until 2015, she says play is about more than games. It’s about practice.

“Even though I’ve been a longtime jock, I’ve not always been a great competitor. I’m way more interested in the kinds of things that happen during practice when you’re trying to master a skill, come up with strategy, perfect a strategy.”

Trying something new, like changing one rule in a soccer game or sourcing a whistle blast while blindfolded, are ways to upend conventional norms and possibly discover better ways of doing things with the body and the mind in everyday human interactions.

“In other words, it’s less about problem-solving than problem-finding,” said Koh. “Asking, what could be better, what can you make interesting by problematising it or making it unconventional?”

The math principle to solve the unknown, or n, is the inspiration of this weekend’s League tournament the n Games. Koh saw a new solution, not even knowing there was a so-called problem, when she came across a spontaneous nighttime handball game in the back alley behind a friend’s workplace.

“The people were making full use of the infrastructure that existed there. I had never really seen the potential of that wall but now when I go into the studio, now I see it as the handball wall.

“Part of what play does is it helps us see and think about things differently. when you’re in a playful state of mind, all of the sudden the stuff around you has a greater sense of possibility. I felt privileged to have stumped upon this wonderful thing.”

At his slip and slide four weeks ago, Williams encountered the same thing but from the other perspective. A grey-haired man he estimated to be in his 70s saw the delight of people splashing down the slide. He soon stripped down to his equally white briefs.

“He'd been sitting on the bench all afternoon and as I passed by at one point, [he] quietly asked if he could ride,” remembered Williams.

“He was a champion and stripped down to his tighty-whities and ended up riding the inflatable tube down the hill. He wasn't really on my radar up until that point, but given the ageism that is endemic to our society, to see what appeared to be a frail old man ride an inflated tube down 300 feet of wet plastic and then carry the tube up the hill like one of the 20-year-old men was to see an astonishing change in I think both my perspective and his.”

Williams calls sliders like the older man a spontaneous rider and every year there are a handful who take leave of their plans to take part.

They tell Williams the event was, “the best time they've had all year." And, “Smile from cheek to cheek, beaming like a kid again.


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