It was all fun and games until someone smacked Don Norman in the head —hard — with a feather pillow. Walking into his first two-hour "Playing in the Deep" session, a weekly organized event in Portland, Maine that engages stressed-out grownups in childlike activities, Norman, a 48-year-old database administrator, didn't know what to expect. Then he saw the pillows, a big pile of them, stacked high. Everyone around him grabbed one and was suddenly roughhousing like over-caffeinated kids at summer camp. Someone handed him his own pillow, but he simply held on to it, too inhibited to let his freak flag fly. He considered bolting.
"And then I got hit!" Norman recalls. "I figured, 'If they're going to hit me, I'll hit them!' By the end of the night, I was running around like a madman, and I forgot all about my self-consciousness. I forgot about everything. It was liberating."
Not long ago, one of the distinguishing characteristics of adulthood was knowing with reasonable certainty that you were unlikely to ever be attacked by cushion-wielding strangers. But all that has begun to change as the so-called Play Movement sweeps the country. Whether pulled together by coaches and consultants, not-for-profit associations or even a handful of burgeoning specialty companies, adults are gathering in cities across the U.S. in ever-increasing numbers for blithe, even silly, organized play.
In work-obsessed Washington, D.C., the two-year-old firm Spacious purports to lead "a playful revolution to help people bust out of their cubicles," staging regular post-work games of Twister and tug-of-war. Figment, an art fair held in cities across the country, features interactive installations like "Aqua Attack!," in which middle-aged men and women stand in wading pools and hurl wet stuffed animals at each other. The movement has spawned games like Mondo Croquet, played with sledgehammers and bowling balls, and Urban Golf competitions, staged on city streets and abandoned lots, and undertaken in anything but the spirit of competition: the sport's "Golden Rules" include "Don't be a control freak," and "Everybody sucks."
"I've seen a steady increase in invitations for adult play," says game designer and self-proclaimed "fun theorist" Bernie De Koven, author of The Well-Played Game. "Now that we no longer have the same sense of community at work or in our neighborhoods as we did twenty or thirty years ago, these opportunities for play are filling the gap."
The events may consist of kiddie games, but there's often a serious psychological, even spiritual purpose behind them. "People need to feel they're connected to other people," says Cary Umhau, the cofounder of Spacious, who says she was inspired by the adage "Love Thy Neighbor." "Most people are trying to numb themselves out from just the pain of life. If they don't have addictions, they spend much of their life watching TV. They need places to come together, to step out of the box and out of their social silo."
Agrees David Koren, the head of Figment, "So much of daily life is a transaction: 'If I give you this, you'll give me that.' You're on guard, without a connection to other people. Here you can build lifelong relationships much more than in daily life, because it's an authentic interaction."
Of course, few of the people who show up at such events are aware of such deep thoughts; they just want to horse around and maybe meet a few new people. But new vistas still open up. When New York City preschool teacher Tamar Gressel scrambled up an adult-scaled treehouse built by Figment, it helped her to understand the perspective of her three- and four-year-old pupils. "I thought 'this is how they feel when they're on a trip to the playground,'" she says. "As you get older, you take more and more things for granted."
For Don Norman, the chance to "play in the deep" was part of a larger-scale reboot of his life. The father of three grown children and grandfather of an infant, he had recently ended a 22-year marriage and was desperate for some positive change. Through word of mouth he heard about the goofy events staged by "play consultant" Natalie Kinsey, which include scavenger hunts and dueling Michael-Caine-impression competitions. Norman describes his group play adventures as "transformative," bringing a new, lighthearted attitude to his relationships and even his job.
He even attributes the success of a new love affair to his newfound sense of play. "It's wonderful—it brings a totally different sense of how I relate to this person, and how she relates to me," he says. "Even when it's a struggle, we can play with the struggle.
"Play allows you to reach your authentic self," says Norman. "Because when you're playing wholeheartedly, it's just you."