Child’s play and why it shouldn’t stop when we grow up

Whenever I’m at the box for anything other than a WOD – a meeting, Elements shadowing, hanging out on my way to the local brewery – a funny thing happens. I’ll start leaning on the rings, slowly starting to rock on them as I chat. Then I’ll move to a bar I can reach while standing. I’ll hang for a second, letting my back stretch out. Then suddenly I’m swinging. Then I’m working on my kip swing. Now back to the rings. What would happen if I kicked my feet over backward? Oooooh, I’ve been wanting to try Skin the Cat. But all these “adults” are standing here…

And I know I’m not alone. I watch others resist the urge to knock out a couple pull-ups for the hell of it. Try a bar muscle-up because you never know.

My sister Emily, one of the OG playmates

Everything we do in adulthood is done with purpose. From our jobs to our home life, we rarely spend time playing. We feel guilty. We feel we’re wasting time. For those of us who are parents, even play with our kids is purposeful – dutifully spending time with family. But when we were kids, we did things just for the hell of it, with no underlying purpose.

We played.

Why does that stop?

Apparently, there is a National Institute for Play. Its founder, Dr. Stuart Brown, described play better than I can (obviously, it’s his job) in a recent NPR article.

Play is something done for its own sake,” he explains. “It’s voluntary, it’s pleasurable, it offers a sense of engagement, it takes you out of time. And the act itself is more important than the outcome.”

Play gives us a safe space to try new things without pressure; it teaches us resilience and critical thinking; it builds community. And, not to get too heavy, but Brown has also found evidence that there is a strong correlation between play deprivation and mental illness.

Place child here. Now play.

So it’s no wonder some of my favorite days in CrossFit are simply “gymnastics skill work” or “max height box jump” days. They are open opportunities for us to flip around on bars or play the “Oh yeah? I bet I can jump HIGHER!” game. Even days when programming is more structured, the box is a place we can challenge each other and take a few risks. We make bars float, race our buddy and flip upside down.

I choose to embrace play when I can, at the box. This is my chance to “shake my sillies out” and let my inner child tumble around. The rest of my day is full of judgements and expectations.

So the next time you’re timidly hanging around on the rings, kick your feet over. See what happens.