The Rules Of The Playground

It was a pretty regular evening. I was working on something or other, and a fairly full class was running in the parkour zone. I heard laughter, and looked over to see Nico and Chris 3 (there are too many people called Chris or Kris in the Chainstore, so I have created a numbering system) riding one of the boxes across the space. Urban box moving – it’s the new thing to do.

This is quite blatantly not how this piece of equipment is meant to be used. In fact, if you had come up and asked me whether jumping onto a box with the wheels out was a good idea, I probably would have asked what the hell was wrong with you. And this is one of the ways in which Chainstore is different.

Sometimes it seems as if there is only one real rule in most of the world – don’t be unusual. This means walking in a straight line, down the designated pathway, forever. It means not climbing on things unless they are specially made to be climbed on, preferably with accompanying paperwork. Don’t skateboard. Don’t use the grass for cartwheels. Don’t do handstands there. Don’t run. Stay off that wall, it’s not the path. Don’t explore movement, you’re an adult and that’s only for children.

Don’t play.

I’m not going to pretend there are no rules in Chainstore, because there are. They are, however, fairly minimal – don’t throw litter around the place, don’t smash weights into the unprotected floor, don’t smash into the relatively unsupported board directly behind the reception desk, don’t swing on the really big rope attached directly to the beam, observe very general gym ettiquette and don’t be horrible to each other.

In the rest of the world, everything not expressly allowed is forbidden. In regular gyms, equipment has its intended use clearly explained, and you are limited to that. In Chainstore, that would be impossible. You can easily list what can be done with a leg press or smith machine. How would that work with a railing? The list would be endless. If you can think of it, and do it safely, it’s fair game.

Instead of a list of proscriptive rules, we have respect. Respect for others, respect for yourself and respect for the environment we are in and the equipment that gives us so many opportunities and teaches us so much. This is not “know your place” respect. This is about honestly appreciating everyone and everything. It’s about valuing and empathising with the efforts of those training alongside you. It’s seeing how hard someone is working while pushing the sled, and stepping out of their way so that you do not hamper their effort. It’s seeing that someone is at their limit with a squat, and stepping in to spot. It’s seeing that someone is nervous balancing on a rail, and reaching out a hand to help. There is no need for a written rule to prevent me from seeing how far across the floor I can throw a kettlebell. I have too much respect for the floor, for the efforts that people make to keep Chainstore in good repair, and the safety of the guy doing pushups a few feet away from me. There is no need for a written rule to tell me not to train recklessly above my level. Respect for myself prevents me from carelessly throwing myself onto concrete.

Don’t recklessly break yourself, others or the environment, and make sure you play nice, and you are free to play. This is why the open space might suddenly become an impromptu skatepark (possibly with a weightlifter handstanding on a moving skateboard), and why people may use equipment in absolutely bizarre ways, and why someone might find themselves having their first shot at breakdancing one night.

Is this just messing around? Where’s the serious training? Where’s the work?

To be strong and confident enough to experiment and play, you need to work on conditioning. Respect for the physical toll that parkour takes on my body pushes me to do a lot of serious, carefully planned conditioning work that would not be out of place in a regular gym. I am not alone in this. There is always someone in the squat racks, or working their climbups, or rehabilitating an injured joint. This is vital.

A few months ago, I was in a class. We were told to improvise, using only the floor. How creatively could we move? When asked to move freely and spontaneously, what would we do? For a lot of us, the answer was to simply freeze. In everyday life, spontaneous, playful movement is trained out of us. I think this is particularly true for office workers, like me. Sets and reps can improve our skills and give us the strength and mobility we need, but they cannot give us back our spontaneity. We need to play, and as we learn to become stronger and more spontaneous, the line blurs.

Is the man handstanding on a skateboard messing around? Or are his proprioception and balance growing? Is he showing off, or is he exploring his limits? Perhaps there is no line. Perhaps planned, structured training and joyful play are a balance, like yin and yang.

This is an environment that chips away at your inhibitions and self-consciousness. People fall on their asses, laugh, and get up again. People get their legs tangled up trying new movements. People see each other at their most vulnerable when facing scary parkour challenges, and at their most playful, when they lose themselves in their movement and forget about their fears.

It’s interesting that in this free and supportive environment, there is no bullying. Nobody is cruel to anyone feeling self-conscious, or training at a low level. There’s no written rule about this because we don’t need one. It’s ingrained in our souls.

I’m very often self-conscious in regular life. I usually walk down the path in a straight line. Unless I’m with others to support me, I don’t usually climb on things that aren’t explicitly meant to be climbed. But last weekend, while waiting for friends outside a tube station, I found myself naturally dropping into squat position to start some mobility exercises and quadrupedal movement warmups. And just as people in Chainstore have reached out a hand when I need help balancing, I find myself reaching out to help overladen Tube passengers with bags or buggies.

You see, the Chainstore leaks. Once you experience a few moments of freedom from that “don’t be unusual” rule in there, it’s hard to go back. You start to feel like exploring movement is normal. You don’t see why you shouldn’t do handstands wherever you happen to be. You see the efforts of someone struggling with their bags, and help, without a second thought. You learn what may be the most valuable things that anyone in Chainstore teaches.

You learn respect, and you learn to play.