Some lunchtimes, I do something childish and utterly unacceptable in modern society. It’s a thing I have absolutely no business doing as an adult woman with a professional desk job.
I go out to play.
If you don’t know any better, it sometimes looks like I’m exercising or training for something, which puts people a bit more at their ease – stretching is a little odd, but if it looks like I’m doing yoga, then that’s fine. If I’m running around, that’s even better. Running is admirable as long as I’m doing it to lose or maintain weight, burn off chocolate or even train for a race, although at 34 years old society is a little doubtful as to whether I should really be doing sports. Isn’t that something you only do until mid-twenties. Juggling is also okay. It’s a little laughable to coworkers, but to random park users, it looks like I’m a busker rehearsing an act. Apparently adults can play with toys as long as it’s to earn money, but when bystanders ask me about it and I explain it’s just for fun, it can be quite confusing for them.
Skating, however, is not acceptable for adults. Don’t I know any better? People may think I look silly. And even worse, I sometimes go out in the sun and practise very basic tumbling and moving around on all fours. There is no excuse for a grown-up doing a forward roll or a cartwheel, or lolloping around like a monkey. Unless you are a professional athlete, it’s an undeniable truth that one day, you do a forward roll joyfully, freely, just for the sheer delight of it, and then you never do another. You have crossed an invisible line into adulthood, and like the border of a foreign country, there are things you may not carry through, and there are new laws you must obey.
You may not carry your skateboard, unless it’s to reminisce over. You cannot bring your yoyo, your hula hoop or your rollerskates, although bicycles are allowed for certain activities such as travelling to and from work. Movement is only allowed in special areas. You may move rhythmically to music in clubs if you are a young adult, or to dancercize music at any age provided you are inside a designated gym area. Exercise is for a purpose, not because you just like it. You must have a goal. You can choose whether it’s to burn calories, get stronger, be healthier or look better, but you must have one. Ball games may only be played with children, unless you participate in an organised training group of some kind. Stretching is allowed, but requires a mat and a flat, temperature controlled indoor space, and preferably an authority figure in the form of an instructor. In fact, the only forms of solo exercise a respectable adult may perform outside in the public eye are running and cycling – and female runners in particular are still subject to catcalls from those who have better sense than to do something so undignified.
When you are not exercising in a permitted manner, there is no wasteful moving for fun. You run only when necessary, because you are late. Otherwise, you walk. You do not do anything that may mess up your hair. You dress in limiting, uncomfortable clothing and avoid puddles, getting sweaty or touching the ground to keep it pristine.
As an adult, there is no climbing outside of very special gyms especially for that purpose. Pavements (and only pavements) are for walking on, and a wall may never be clambered up or over. Benches are for sitting on, never for vaulting. Clear, empty outdoor urban areas are for standing in or walking across to get from one destination to another – never for practising quadrupedal movement, or rolls, or sprints. Railings are never, ever for standing on.
Think I’m exaggerating? You’re wrong. I’ve been present while random members of the public approach my friends and I because they don’t want children to see us balancing and think it’s okay. I’ve seen old men complain because we are jumping from one flat paving stone in the grass to another. I’ve heard a police officer say – after acknowledging our right to be where we were and admitting we were not causing a nuisance, damaging anything or impeding anyone’s route through the area – that people don’t like that we’re doing it. I’ve had people mock me for running, and coworkers ask if people laugh at me for tumbling.
Adults do not go out to play.
You know what, though? It’s fun. It’s really fun. Have you ever envied the freedom of a child running just because they love it, instead of out of some sense of guilt or duty? Do you remember what it’s like to look at a flat, grassy area, a hill or a wall and see a million things to do? When was the last time you experimented from moving from one stretch or balance position into another just to see what would happen? Do you remember what it’s like to test your limits – not in a macho self-improvement way or to test your fitness, but just seeing how long you can balance on one leg or hang upside down out of pure curiosity? Have you ever taken one of those giant inflatable gym balls and instead of steadfastly doing your usual pilates routine, tried to see how far across the room you can get on it without touching the floor?
You’re still able to do all that. You never lost that freedom to feel wind in your hair when you run. You can still jump over puddles and random objects in the street. You can kick a football outside, or balance on things (just don’t damage them!). You can even do cartwheels – and nobody can actually stop you. Sometimes they will try. Sometimes they will make fun of you. But they can’t make you stop unless you choose to.
There’s lots of injustice in the world. Awful things happen to good people. The rich take from the poor, children die, law enforcement shoot people based on race alone. These are big things, and I am a small person, but the social stigma surrounding free movement and play for adults is the one thing I feel like I can stand up to. So can you. Set yourself free. Rediscover how your own body works. Show others they can do it too. Go out to play.