On the last episode, Moms on Wheels, I talked to a couple of moms who were staying connected to their pasts, keeping their kids out of trouble, and just having plain old fun themselves, by roller skating at Zelma George Skating Rink in the Mount Pleasant neighborhood.
Talking to them got me thinking about grown-ups and fun. As adults, sometimes we don’t get much fun. We work, we eat, we sleep, we take care of kids. Even exercise, when we get it, can feel like a task more than a real outlet. You know, one more mile on the treadmill.
Which is too bad, because according to research, people who are playful are a lot better at handling stress than people who are all serious all the time.
On this episode, I talk to random people in Mount Pleasant about how they have fun. Then we’ll hear from a national researcher, a local nonprofit director, and somebody known as The Play Lady, to talk about the importance of fun for adults - and how neighborhoods can enable and encourage people to have more of it.
On the streets
I’m on Kinsman Avenue, in Mount Pleasant, on a weekday in May. The weather’s kind of gray and cloudy, and colder than it should be for this time of year. But people are still happy to talk to me about how they have fun.
I get all kinds of answers. One man tells me he likes to "save up my money [to] being able to buy the things I need and enjoy myself in the community - friends and family."
Another says he likes to go to baseball games and sporting events. He also really likes going to plays and the opera.
A young woman tells me her idea of the most fun ever is to "snuggle up in my bed with movies."
I talk to random passers-by, an older man in a convenience store who says he has fun just by walking with his granddaughter.
Then I ask people, what about ways to have fun in your neighborhood? As in, outside your house but still within a short distance? Is that easy to do?
"No," one woman tells me emphatically. "No it’s not. They need more stuff to have fun with. I don’t know like more community centers, recreation centers."
A not-fun epidemic
This is a feeling that’s not specific to Mount Pleasant. According to some research, adults are not having fun in neighborhoods all across the country.
"If you think about places you can go, they’re structured, they’re highly structured," says Lynn Barnett-Morris, a professor in the department of recreation, sport, and tourism at the University of Illinois in Urbana-Champaign. "There’s nowhere you can go and just let loose and do what you wanna do."
Barnett-Morris studies the ways kids and adults have fun, or not. She says even in her city, which is a college town with lots of bars and restaurants and movie theaters, "all are very structured and there’s a long list of rules that go with each one about what you can and can’t do."
And in a neighborhood like Mount Pleasant, where there’s a lot of disinvestment and underused buildings due to complex factors including institutional racism, there aren’t even a lot of those structured options.
That’s a problem, she says, because research - including some of her own - shows that adults who both know how to play and get opportunities to play - are better off than those who don’t.
Specifically, one of her studies - The Playful Advantage - showed that adults who are playful view their lives as less stressful. And it wasn’t because they had less stress to begin with. They just handled their stressors more directly, focusing on how to make themselves better. Less playful people, meanwhile, had more avoidant, escape-oriented strategies.
For example, less playful people might be more likely to drink, or isolate themselves in their houses with video games and the Internet. They beat themselves up, telling themselves over and over that the stress in their lives is their fault.
Playful people, on the other hand, either take action — by having that difficult conversation, for example, or going to therapy, or taking that first step toward finishing the big project that needs to get done — or they find a way to accept that things are just stressful right now. It’ll pass, and maybe at the end they'll grow as a person.
"So they’re dealing directly with that stressor, either mitigating it in some way or dealing with it and moving on from it," Barnett-Morris says.
She says there are a lot of things that can keep adults from being playful. We get a lot of messages that as adults, we’re not supposed to have much fun. Only kids have fun.
Also, even as kids, we may get messages that the way we like to have fun isn’t acceptable, so that by the time we grow up, we’ve had it ground out of us. In another one of her studies, Barnett-Morris found that children who are playful when in kindergarten tend to be negatively reinforced or even punished by teachers and classmates who view their playfulness as disruptive.
That’s especially a risk, she says, for boys.
"Boys act out their playfulness differently than girls," she says. "Girls do it much more verbally and it’s much more quiet. Boys are much more physical and assertive and so it’s easier to catch it and then do something about it."
One solution, she says, could be to build in frequent, short breaks into the school day so kids who are more demonstrative have a chance to get the sillies out of their system.
But while there are deep root causes of “all work and no play making Jack a dull boy” - Barnett says our neighborhoods and communities could also do a lot more to unravel all that conditioning.
"The more flexible the environment, the less it dictates how it should be used, that’s a better situation to encourage playfulness than a situation where you dictate the heck out of it," she says.
Of course, just having an empty plot of land isn’t the answer. Instead, she says, how about a park, or a building, where there are raw materials that people could use to perform, or make anything they wanted? Kind of like mini versions of a certain annual event that happens out in the Nevada desert: Burning Man.
"There’s just a whole group of people from all over the place that converge and all these raw materials provided," she says. "There are no schedules. It’s very open and very flexible. People get together and decide if they wanna do something."
Neighborhoods and fun
Pat Rumbaugh is someone who thinks full time about how to get adults to have their own kind of fun, right in their neighborhoods. She runs a nonprofit called Let’s Play America, which she started in 2009, in her hometown of Takoma Park, Maryland, right outside Washington, D.C.
Over the past 10 years, Rumbaugh has closed 25 streets in Takoma Park for what she calls “Play Days” - day-long events that sound a lot like the unprogrammed free-for-alls that Lynn Barnett was advocating.
"This is your street," she tells people. "You can play what you want to play, we bring what you like, but we do open them to the public because we want everyone to have the opportunity to play."
Some of the events are mostly for kids, and some are aimed at adults, but people of all ages are always welcome.
"What we have found is when there are a lot of choices for people of all ages you see intergenerational happen, and you just see spontaneous play happen," Rumbaugh says.
Some examples of the activities she offers (but does not require): "Touch a Truck," where people of all ages can climb up on big municipal firetrucks and tractors and backloaders; dress-up stations with wigs and clothes; a mud pie lady; and a box lady who brings 100 boxes of all sizes that people can do whatever they want with.
"We didn’t know if people would want to make mud pies but they love it," Rumbaugh says.
OK, some of you may be thinking, Playing dressup? Making mud pies? In public? That doesn’t sound like my idea of fun. At all.
Well, for you more introverted types, Pat also organizes what she calls ‘playful walks.’ The walks themselves are mostly just - well, walks. But at the beginning, you pair up with someone else and talk to each other about what you like to do for fun. And that alone, she says, can be enough to remind people where they find joy.
"You really should only do what you enjoy," Rumbaugh says. "If you enjoy the gym, go to the gym. If not, don’t. It’s between the ears."
Three types of fun
With all this talk about play and how good it is for us, I’m thinking - 'Wow. That’s the answer for everything, right? Find ways to play - especially in your neighborhood, with your community, without too many rules - and it’s smooth sailing forever?'
To find out, I visit Dr. Martha Potts, executive director of the Life Exchange Center on Kinsman Avenue. It’s a drop-in center where people in recovery help out peers dealing with mental health and substance abuse problems.
"I feel like maybe the emphasis on fun is good," she says. "But my emphasis is more on, ‘OK this is fun but what are we doing to support our health and our recovery?’"
I'd been figuring, the Life Exchange Center would be a great place to talk about the healing power of play, because right on the homepage of their website, it says, “Come on over and visit us! We have all kinds of fun and exciting programs, activities, and people just like you to spark your interest and uplift your mood!”
And sure enough, on the day I visit, there’s a DJ set up on the ground floor. Karaoke and movie nights are on the schedule for next week. I’m thinking, this is perfect.
But Dr. Potts is quick to let me know that there’s fun, and then there’s "fun that's meaningful," in her words.
"Fun for fun’s sake is short lived," she says. "It doesn’t leave a resonance. You can do it today maybe there’s a short memory for it but meaningful fun, there’s something that’s lasting."
For example: things like journaling, gardening, photography. All of which are offered at the Life Exchange Center.
"For me meaningful fun is a challenge, and really understanding that i have potential," Dr. Potts says.
There’s a reason she’s careful to make distinctions in types of fun. A certain type of fun - an escapist kind - took her down a dark road a long time ago.
"I was sexually abused as a child and I started using drugs and alcohol as early as 8 years old," she says.
She used illicit street drugs all the way up until her 30s - until she encountered crack cocaine, which made her very quickly hit a wall in a way that she never had before.
"I’ll never forget it," she says. "I was up all night one night smoking crack, sitting in my living room on the floor. And the daylight hit and even as I was getting high I knew, 'This is it for me. It’s done, I can’t do it anymore.'"
She continues: "There was like this battle between the fundamental darkness that drug addiction surfaces from within the depths of your life, and my fundamental light. And I knew if I didn’t make a decision that the fundamnetal darkness was having its way. And if I allowed it to get much stronger i would lose the battle."
She called the hospital when the sun rose and she was out of drugs. They told her they didn't have room.
"I said, 'Well, get a space ready in the parking lot, 'cuz I’ll be there,'" she remembers. "And I threw the phone across the room and headed to hospital."
It was the beginning of a long road to recovery for her. But eventually, she found her version of meaningful fun. She went to work, then back to school.
Serious school. She got her bachelors in business management, her masters in organizational development, then her PhD in organizational behavior.
"I spent so many years having fun that was not meaningful," she says. "[But] it led me to meaningful fun."
We get to talking about how it seems like for adults, there are three types of fun. There’s destructive or self-destructive “fun." Then there’s fun for fun’s sake - not hurting anyone, but not really uplifting anyone either.
And then there’s productive or meaningful fun. Dr. Potts says one way of understanding what the Life Exchange Center does is helping people move from one end of that spectrum to the other.
"People transition to ways of creating value for themselves," she says. "We construct experiences and opportunities for them to be able to tap into other places inside that maybe they have never tapped into before."
I ask if the Mount Pleasant neighborhood itself offers enough opportunities for adults to have fun.
"It depends on what kind of fun you’re talking about," she says. "The neighborhood offers opportunities for adults to have destructive fun - that’s evident. [But] I would imagine there’s pockets of all three types of fun and maybe the challenge is in getting those three aspects or communities of folks to cross-pollinate to talk to one another. 'Oh, I didn’t know you felt that way,' or, 'I didn’t even know you existed.'"
As I leave Dr. Potts, I think about how all three women I interviewed for this story may be saying different variations on the same thing.
We all need to find our own ways of having positive, productive experiences. And it helps if we can see each other having those different types of fun, out in our neighborhoods and communities, not just because it can be inspiring to others - but also because seeing each other can demystify the ways that other people have fun.
People that we otherwise might not even know existed.