A playful revolution

A playful revolution

Editor’s note: Each Thursday, we feature a throwback piece from Topology’s predecessor, catapult magazine. In this essay from 2011, Catherine Woodiwiss discovers how play can make a new city into a home. 

Every Monday evening in Washington, D.C., a group of 20- and 30-somethings gather in the fading summer light for a rousing game of capture the flag. Or yoga-ball soccer. Or Marco Polo in one of the city’s neighborhood pools.

To the passer-by, this group must look oddly out-sized. It has all the trappings of an elementary school playground—the laughter and shouts of excitement, the silly attempts at greatness—but without the scars and the sniffles. And with…adults?

Moving to D.C. shortly after my college graduation with no job prospects and no blueprint for navigating the ominous Life After College years, I nevertheless arrived wide-eyed and eager to learn how this “young adult” thing worked in a city I fully expected to love. What I got was the drudgery of paying bills, anxiety over finding a stable job that fed both my soul and my bank account, and the sinking suspicion that being a young adult in D.C. really meant an endless merry-go-round of dull happy hours, awkward networking events, uncomfortable business suits, and an inhuman ability to be up on the latest Beltway gossip at all times. Was this what growing up was all about?

As a culture (and young adults are no exception), we have largely forgotten how to play. Steve Keil recently gave a brilliant TED Talk at endorsing a multi-generational embrace of play as one of the most needed revolutions of our time. Despite the explosion of social ventures and the proliferation of online forums in which to chat, play games, and discuss changing the world, our work, says Keil, is “infected with the serious meme.” Where active play fosters collaboration, adaptability, communication, realistic expectations, creative solutions, responsibility in leadership, agile memory, holistic health and fitness, a sense of accomplishment, and the ability to cope with failure, many of our society’s strongest ecosystems—work, school, even home—have lost their emphasis on adventure and teamwork. These are important considerations for aspiring managers and CEOs, but what about us as individuals? How does this apply to us as we deal with the hassles and concerns of everyday life? Anne Lamott re-discovered some of her whimsy while taking up tennis again as an adult. In an interview with Duke Divinity’s Faith and Leadership forum, she says,

[I had to learn tennis] as if I was playing for the first time. How to hit this ball with the least amount of stress. It had to do with being playful and more natural instead of getting into that unconscious stress and gripping everything and trying to keep your eye on the ball.

Through this pastime she discovered grace—that “it was really about the gift of caring so much less. It was about having a whole new mindfulness—a new value of play. It was about having more fun with the people you were playing with instead of trying to beat them.” The change in her life, away from competition and performance and towards simple enjoyment, she says, was “revolutionary.”

As a 20-something trying to navigate my own uncertain world of professional aspiration, self-discovery, changing dreams and growing responsibility, I think Keil, Lamott and others are on to something. Too often in our development we mistake the childlike for the childish, losing a degree of wonder and innocence along the way. I believed in a culture of play. I just didn’t know where to find it. Then I met the Monday Night Activity Club.

I first encountered the group through a friend, who herself heard of it from a friend who had put her name on the weekly e-mail list. The initial group started with one woman who desperately wanted an outlet for play and invited a few friends to join her in fostering collaboration, creativity, and carefree silliness around their neighborhood. Word has spread from friend to friend, and this ragtag group has become a sort of home for those of us who agree with her—that a culture of play has the power to transform our society, revitalize our city, and renew our souls. We are our own underground collective, a loosely held but very intentional community. Anyone on the mailing list can throw out an idea for an activity, and every “member” can choose whether, when, or how often to show up. New combinations of people turn up for each activity, and the group culture can shift significantly from week to week. The only real guideline is that each activity be good-natured, playful, and free.

In the ten or so months since this group was formed, I have found my voice and a piece of myself here in D.C. So have others. In the winter months, we retreated indoors to “compete” in a geography bee, perform new works in a recital, and hone our storytelling skills. With the arrival of summer, we’ve rushed outside to play field games, participate in audio-tour dance parties, and splash in pools. The play has extended from one formal night a week to several. As friendships and subcultures form and spill over into the rest of the week, so do networks. I have discovered bicycle co-ops, collaborative innovation hubs, an aspiring art and music scene, potluck and group house cultures, and entire neighborhoods through the friendships sparked here. In the process my whole experience of Washington, D.C. has changed. Instead of a polarized city grasping with narrow ambition, I now see a city of innovative, welcoming, inspiring and delightful people who are transforming their place through their own lens of whimsy, each in some way stronger than my own.

In his talk, Keil describes revolution as a “drastic and far-reaching change in the way we think and behave.” If the last few months are any indication, D.C. is experiencing its recreational revolution, one passionate player at a time—a deep change that I am thrilled to witness. Tonight we will gather again, this time to learn magic tricks from an aspiring magician. With any luck, we’ll also learn how to preserve our childlike sense of wonder—to multiply our joy in play, to see new friendships materialize from thin air, to make our anxieties about growing older disappear.