The play’s the thing
This was originally published as Rant of the Month for June 2005. It was such a big hit with readers that I’ve republished it in the main section, along with reader comments.
Raise your hand if you have trouble finding motivation to go to the gym.
Now raise your hand if you have trouble finding motivation to goof off, screw around, be silly, and have fun.
Unless your acquaintances secretly refer to you as “Captain Buzzkill and the Bringdowns”, you probably have a taste for pointless enjoyment, otherwise known as play. In both humans and animals, play is serious business. It teaches skills used in adult life, builds motor coordination, alleviates boredom, enables the player to try out new things without serious consequence, and provides opportunities for unstructured learning.
These days, it seems, many of us have forgotten how to have fun. Bourgeois children have the play sucked right out of their lives in favour of formal, organized activities. Instead of kicking a soccer ball around with garbage cans as goalposts, they get driven to soccer practice. Instead of street hockey, they get driven to hockey games where their parents make asses of themselves insisting that children check one another into the boards, getting into fistfights, and calling for the referee’s head on a plate. (Or they threaten to go to court.)
Instead of spending hours playing in the dirt, kids get disinfected with Lysol wipes. Instead of making forts out of sofa cushions or an old cardboard refrigerator carton, they get educational toys, or toys with such specific purposes that the manufacturer practically encloses a script with them (Hello? What’s up with Lego kits? You can hardly find plain old blocks any more).
My summer cycling commute takes me through a park in an affluent neighbourhood where there is a baseball diamond and soccer field. The grass is dotted with tiny tots in colourful sports uniforms, and as I pass, I listen to them. The parental units sitting on the sidelines morph into demented avenging angels the second their little darlings hit the turf. Insults fly like foamy-mouthed spit from a rabid dog. The coach is a screwup. The other kids are screwups. Their own children are screwups. I think there are plenty of screwups here, but they ain’t on the team. Good thing the kids will have money to pay for therapy in 20 years.
When they’re not traumatizing their children, adults are the same way about their own lives. Exercise and activity is something that we go to the gym to do. It isn’t supposed to be fun – indeed, it has overtones of moral punishment – and it’s certainly not something that is supposed to be part of our daily lives. It happens only in an approved facility. It involves pain, shame, and guilt. The body is a lumpen obstacle to be overcome, not something that brings pleasure and does cool things.
A friend of mine who is a recreational soccer player joined a casual workplace soccer league for fun. She played three games and quit, disgusted by the ultra-competitive behaviour of teammates and opposing players. In university, my husband joined an intramural indoor hockey league with his roommates, again, for fun. Their team name reflected their commitment to silliness: they were the Banana Tokers. They were terrible. They fell down. They shot on their own net by mistake. They lost nearly every game, and had a great time doing it. Rather than enjoying their relaxed attitude, other teams got pissed off because the BTs weren’t taking things seriously enough.
At what stage in our development do we forget to chill out and have a good time while batting around a projectile? Is there some evolutionary purpose to becoming a complete pill? Some brain chemical that kicks in around age 25, inhibiting the silliness receptors? Why would people approach a pickup sports league with the same gravity and killer instinct that they would use for the disembowelling of a mortal enemy? Hey grayhairs, klutzes, and average schmoes, your moment to be in the NHL is over, so lighten up.
My old university office was located near a daycare with a large fenced-in playground. I often watched the kids play through my office window. They were so freakin’ happy to be out there! Sand is great! Swings are kickass! Slides-whoooo! Hell yeah running running running running nowhere somewhere everywhere running is fun look at me I’m running!!
I remember the days as a child when I would be so immersed in a task or activity that I was entirely oblivious to the world. As an adult, I often long for that singular focus, especially when I am reminded of it by the wee bairns who are utterly immersed in that moment of pleasure in watching an ant crawl by or the colour of a sand pail. Adults often yearn for what they imagine to be the good old days, and they assume that this is because the good old days when they were young were actually better. In reality this is because they were largely insulated from the world. People who were children in the vaunted June and Ward Cleaver days don’t remember the Korean War, racial segregation, or McCarthyism, because they were so busy having fun with their Slinkys and hula hoops.
When was the last time your activity was fun? When you forgot about counting minutes and reps and calories? When you stopped feeling obligated and started feeling inspired? When you felt your legs not as aesthetic embarrassments but as engines that powered you across a field with the wind in your face? When you did something and thought about nothing?
I often get emails from harried mothers who bemoan the fact that having kids prevents them from exercising. Given the immense time commitment of motherhood, this makes sense if one thinks of “exercise” as “something you take the time to go out to a gym to do”. It makes less sense if you remember that children are natural energy sources who love to play, and if you emulate them, you can both supervise and get some great activity. At the playground, parents stand around and watch their children. What if they were to play along with them? Parents, climb the slide stairs with the kids, hang on the jungle gym, put a little oomph in your swing pushing, race them across the lawn, throw a ball or frisbee, invent games that require jumping, running, swimming, and whatever else you like. Do as they do and follow their lead; their ability to play is instinctive and you have likely forgotten it. Instead of enrolling your kids in formal activities that require preparation, money, stress, driving, and adherence to a formal schedule, why not just play with them yourself? Any adult of moderate intelligence can devise games that will develop the sports skills that a six-year-old might need. Also, they are small and you can easily kick their ass. Hoohah!
If you are not burdened with child care responsibilities, you have even more opportunity to spend time playing. Why not try a new sport instead of hamstering on the treadmill?
some of the funnestest activities! whee!
These are things I think are fun. If you have other suggestions, send ’em in and I’ll add them to this article. Send pics of you doing said fun thing if you can. Reader suggestions below.
Million Dollar Baby and lesser clones such as J Lo’s forgettable flick Enough aren’t bad introductions, but if you really want inspiration, rent Girlfight and watch it with your female friends. Let the femacho vibes fly. Then go sign up for boxing classes. Lots of folks avoid boxing because they are worried they will have to get in a ring and fight someone. But you never have to hit anyone if you don’t want to. You can gain many of the skills and conditioning simply by practising the techniques: jumping rope, shadow boxing, and heavy bag work. Had a sucky day at work? Go and beat the bejeezus out of a heavy bag. You’ll feel worlds better, I assure you. Lessons are good for beginners, as they teach safety and proper technique, but once you get confident enough, spend $100 on a heavy bag and hang it in your basement or garage. You can even spend $20 more on pulleys and rope at Home Depot to hang it from a pulley so that it can be easily raised and lowered, or even moved out of the way. And don’t forget to hum the Rocky song to yourself: da da daaaaa, doo doo doooooo…
Remember how much fun climbing trees was? Time to get that back. If you can climb a ladder, you can climb a wall. An indoor climbing gym is a great place to hang out on a rainy Sunday. One lesson is usually all it takes to familiarize beginners with the very basic tasks of putting on a harness and tying a couple of knots. Then you’re set to hit the wall. Top-roping is the standard in climbing gyms, which means that there is a rope attached to you, the wall, and a second person called a belayer. If you fall, the rope is there to catch you. You can even just let go of the wall and hang there if you like. Walls range in difficulty from something approximating a ladder to nearly blank faces with only a few nipple-like protuberances for the skilled climber to grasp with her pinky. Women are particularly good at this sport because they tend to have better balance, a lower centre of gravity, and better flexibility than men. While it might seem as though climbing depends entirely on strength (and being as strong as you can does indeed help), it depends much more on being able to balance yourself and think your way up the wall by carefully choosing a route and a strategy for moving through it. Good climbers “walk” up the wall; they don’t pull themselves up the wall. And if you’re afraid of heights, just don’t look down!
Women Who Rock feature in Outside magazine.
One of the best moments in childhood was learning to ride a bike. As a kid, I was pretty much grafted on to my bike. For me a bike was freedom. It was speed. It was the ability to go anywhere I wanted, as fast as I wanted. While other kids waited for the bus, I rode my bike to school, taking that sweet three-speed on the road in all types of weather. There is something magical about a girl and her bike, whether it’s putting the little bobbles on the spokes to make them go clink-clink-clink as you ride, getting a wicked banana seat and handle streamers, or just going so freaking fast it feels like your little legs are going to explode.
In an urban or suburban environment, the bike is a perfect mode of transport for day-to-day travel. The other day I ran into a friend of mine on her retro, Barbie-pink one-speed. She was tootling her way down to the climbing gym. “Nice bike,” I said.
“Thanks,” said my friend. “I call her the pink vulva. She’s pink and I stuck a Vulcan sticker on her. Vulva.” This cracked us up for a good two minutes.
Cycling is one of those great activities that offers something for everyone from total just-got-the-training-wheels-off beginner to eat-dirt-for-breakfast mountain bikers. And hey, you never forget how to do it! That being said, if you plan to cycle in an urban environment or on ungroomed dirt trails, do some research on proper cycling technique. You may think you know how to ride a bike, but you may not know some of the other cycling techniques that will keep you safe.
Basically, urban cycling safety can be summed up as follows: use your brain; obey the rules; you can’t be too visible; assume that all drivers/pedestrians/other cyclists are dangerous psychos or utterly clueless, so keep your eyes peeled; travel off the beaten path as often as possible on lower-traffic side streets or bike paths; and learn to handle your bike and keep it in good shape. Red lights and stop signs are there for a reason. Obey them, dumbass. And always, always wear your helmet. I generally assume that drivers are about 99% oblivious to my presence, so when I’m commuting to work, I get decked out in SafetyDweebTM wear complete with bright orange vest. This doesn’t mean urban cycling is a paranoid ordeal; rather, if you assume the worst and cycle defensively, most of the time you’ll be pleasantly surprised. With a little practice and some knowledge, urban cycling can be a wonderful experience, and it’ll save you a bundle on transit and parking. The environment will be happy too.
Dance movies are a perennial favourite, and for good reason. The movies create a fantasy world with coordinated and graceful characters where we too might dance the tango, bring it on, or shake our booties. Or, as my eleven-year-old self envisioned, we too could get to suck face with Patrick Swayze. As a child in the 1970s, the few athletic pursuits open to girls were ringette (a crappy imitation of hockey because for some reason, girls couldn’t play hockey???), soccer, and of course, ballet. Lord, I hated ballet (my apologies to anyone who is a ballet fan – it’s not my cup of tea). Our instructors made us sit and point and flex our toes for what seemed like hours. Point. Flex. Point. Flex. Point. Flex. As we got older, they tsked about our expanding flesh. Anyone heavier than a praying mantis got a disapproving glare. Who knows how many eating disorders the sadistic ballet mistresses created, or how many girls left dance and never looked back.
But despite the Ilsa of the SS instructor memories, dancing is super fun. It’s no coincidence that one thing people do when they’re feeling happy or groovy is dance. There are many, many ways to shake your booty regardless of your shape, size, or skill. You can wiggle what your momma gave you in private to your favourite tunes. You can practice your steps to Dance Dance Revolution. Or you can take a class in any of the zillion types of dance, from salsa to cardio funk to bellydancing to tap to ballroom to strippercise. Hell–even square dancing if it floats your boat. One of my life goals is to hook up with the all-girl breakdance troupe in the city and take some lessons. I have a feeling it’ll be much harder at 31 than it was at 12, but that’s what Tylenol is for!
Mom used to yell at me not to hit my younger sister. Now that my younger sister is a kickboxer, trying to hit her is even more fun. That is, if she doesn’t nail me first. Given that humans are extremely inventive about finding ways to whup one another’s asses, there are about a zillion types of martial arts out there to try. They range from regimented and formal (e.g. karate, kung fu) to down ‘n’ dirty (e.g. krav maga, muay thai) to weapons-based (e.g. kobudo, kali/arnis) to elegant and dancelike (e.g. capoeira). There are primarily striking-based martial arts, which rely mostly on kicks, punches, or hitting with a weapon, and grappling-based martial arts, which rely mostly on throws and wrestling-type movements. There are also mixed martial arts (MMA), which seek to combine all the best elements of each type to maximize the beatdown potential. Even tai chi is technically a martial art in its movements and intent – it’s just designed for fighting an old tree sloth.
Each martial art demands different levels of base fitness, cardiovascular conditioning, flexibility, balance, and strength. Some types, for example, favour bigger people, while others favour faster people, or more flexible people. Some types rely more on lower body strength, while others target upper body strength, and still others depend on the strength of the opponent so it’s less important if you’re a hulkster.
As with boxing, you need not worry about having to really hit another person. Most of martial arts training involves conditioning, practice, technique development, and at the higher levels, sparring (akin to playfighting). Martial arts nerds spend a lot of time debating over which art is best/most deadly, or whether a woman could beat up a man, or whether this kick is better than that one, or whether Bruce Lee could beat up Mike Tyson. These dorks are found at every school, but they tend to lurk in places that pride themselves on being hardcore. Don’t get sucked in by them and think that martial arts is only for these survivalist nuts who are armchair ninjas. Martial arts is full of regular people just like you who are looking for fitness, fun, and possibly some self-defense skills. Your best option is to go and visit each school that interests you and check out the instructors, sit in on a class, and decide whether this art, school, and style of instruction suits your personality and interests. Women-owned and operated schools are popping up here and there as well. You might consider checking these places out if you’re not into the machismo. Kimonogirl is one such place in Toronto that teaches Brazilian jiu-jitsu to women. Here’s a little video I made last year with some of the Kimonogirls, talking about why they like BJJ:
Of course, if you are into the machismo, hey, knock yourself out. Har.
Here are some of the fun things I do with my two rugrats:
- Kayaking: I figure, if we have to tandem kayak since they’re too young to row, I get double credit, don’t I? They love riding, being with me, looking for fish, birds and turtles. Always an adventure.
- I play with them at the beach. Although sandcastle digging isn’t a challenge, we do walk in the sand and frolick in the surf for hours. My kids are water babies and nothing amuses them more than throwing a ball far out into the swells and watching me swim after it. Woof.
- My son has a kiddie quad (a four wheeled all terrain vehicle that runs on a battery) that he loves, and when he rides it I trot along
beside him. Top speed is 4mph so I’m right where I ought to be. I prefer that he uses his skateboard or bicycle but sometimes the quad wins.
- Re the playground: I really have to run to keep up with them! They are no slouches and what could be more fun than forgetting for a little while that there is dinner to cook and bills to pay, and instead jumping into their imaginary world of mostly pirates and other sea-faring folk?
- Both of my kids rode non-stop on bike seats attached to my trusty bike for the first two years of their lives. And, when my daughter had trouble learning to ride, I bought a tandem attachment (about $200) which made my bike into a tandem and gave her a feel for the required balance, without risking too much. This was WAY fun.
I see a lot of moms (and I’m a working-full-time mom) who sit and watch their kids and behave as if they are “above” kiddie games. Great, then I can get their kid in on our game!
I just read your June rant and IMHO, you left the best and most wonderful sport off your list. I am entirely serious when I say that rowing changed my life. When I was a little kid, I ran around like any other little kid, but once I got into school and gym class, I realized just how uncoordinated I was. I remember other kids making fun of me because I couldn’t catch, couldn’t throw, missed the ball/puck/birdie entirely in softball/floor hockey/badminton… Of course, in reality, the other kids probably weren’t paying any attention and didn’t even waste their time teasing me, but I certainly felt like a gym-loser. I began to avoid sports like the plague, called in sick to field day every year, walked my laps in P.E. in high school, and in general suffered from major jock envy.
In my junior year of college, I was helping run orientation for the firstyears, and during check-in I happened to pick up a flyer for the crew team which somone had dropped. It was one of the only two sports you could join with no experience (squash being the other, and given my lack of hand-eye coordination, that was out). I figured I’d last a week, if that.
But somehow, even though it involved physical activity, which I loathed, it was… fun! I loved the feeling of getting strong, of competing and actually doing well at something I’d always considered impossible, of being part of a team. Five years later, I’m rowing with a team which is going to nationals this summer. But even more important that that, the whole experience has turned me into an athlete. I started lifting when I joined crew, of course, and two years ago I learned to ski… and now I’m doing a marathon for cancer research in the fall.
Why rowing is a great sport for women to get into:
- It’s a full body workout, so it’s really good for you
- It’s a non-impact, non-weight-bearing sport, so it doesn’t destroy your body and doesn’t require that your body be in perfect shape (like, even if you can’t run, you can row)
- Women’s crew is many US schools’ answer to Title IX, so if you get into it in high school, it will help you get into college and perhaps even earn you a scholarship
- Because it doesn’t destroy your body, you can keep rowing your whole life (there are folks on my team my mom’s age who sill can kick some major ass)
- Because it doesn’t require that your body be in perfect working order, you can pick it up at any age
- Despite all these caveats, it will get you into *great* shape if you do it seriously
- It’s a sport where the desired goal is strength and speed, and so if your thighs get big, it’s because you have killer quads and so that’s a good thing — point is, there’re no unhealthy body-image issues involved and in fact it gives you a much *better* body image
- Because you have to be perfectly in synch with the folks in your boat, and because you never compete alone or in any way that distinguishes your performance from those of your boatmates, it’s the ultimate team sport
My hubby and I are great believers of the “fun and silly” principle… For example – we play “hide and seek” with our dog in the park. We each start to run in opposite directions. The dog chases one person and the other person tries to hide. Lots of fun – good exercise for the dog, as he does most of the running. I think our neighbours think we are nuts – but we all have fun. We also had fun tobogganing a few years ago… most parents were standing around complaining how cold it was and “just one more run, Billy”… My hubby and I were racing his kids to the bottom and helping build jumps on the hill.
Yeah for fun. Who says 30 has to be boring??
—Laura in Ottawa
Your comments about parents playing with their children as a form of activity rang so true. I remember my mom running through the house with my son when he was 3 or 4 with their Batman capes or Captain Hook gear on. I doubt it occurred to either of them that they were “working out” as well as having fun.
One activity that I enjoy that wasn’t on your list is golf. As a parent of a teenage boy, I find that it is not only a relaxing way to get exercise and fresh air but is also a great way to stay in touch with your teen. What could be better than spending a few hours a week walking about hitting a ball while getting caught up on what’s going on in each other’s lives? Taking lessons together is also fun and a good way to share a common interest.
This is just my opinion of course, but I think most people that are unhappy are so because they don’t have enough good friends to share with and confide in. Golf is a great way to get out and meet people and is a game you can play for most of your life.