I became alarmed around the third time I saw someone almost get nailed in the boob. On a recent Thursday evening, I stood on the sidelines in a community-center gym in Washington, D.C., watching a group of millennials duck and run while covering their heads and muttering expletives. Around them a cloudburst of rubber balls streamed through the air, like unfed birds sweeping in toward death. I was there to observe a dodgeball game organized by DC Fray, an adult recreational league that organizes teams for after-work games like Skee-Ball, kickball, or ultimate Frisbee.
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Adult sports leagues have been popular for decades, centered around competitive activities like squash and soccer. But in recent years, a newer brand of grown-up recreation has begun to materialize across the country that emphasizes fun over competition, with a carefree name to match—adult recess. Last month, Players Sport and Social Group in Chicago hosted an adult field day, where folks ran relay races and bounced through inflatable obstacle courses. In Kokomo, Indiana, United Way hosts recess events up to ten times a year filled with grown-ups playing giant Jenga or four square. Other adult recesses feature scavenger hunts, tug-of-war, or capture the flag, all activities that require a little less blood, sweat, and tears than signing up for a softball league. They allow adults to focus on the real benefit of these after-hour meetups: playing.
When contract manager Oliver Chang first moved to San Francisco ten years ago when he was 27, his options for after-work activities were limited to either joining a supercompetitive rec team or partaking in something more laissez-faire, like kickball. So he decided to create the Play Recess league, which combines the ethos of each. “We wanted to bring that kickball attitude, that playfulness and lightheartedness, and apply it to all different sports,” Chang says. The group switches activities weekly to keep things interesting and easygoing; one week it could be ultimate Frisbee, the next a scavenger hunt. Play Recess started out with just one seasonal league, and it’s now up to five annually, with about 1,000 yearly participants, most of whom, perhaps unsurprisingly, are young professionals in their twenties and early thirties, says Chang.
DC Fray has a similar backstory. Its CEO, Robert Kinsler, started the group as a Skee-Ball league a decade ago, thinking it was “a super silly, fun thing to do at a bar” with friends. Now the company manages over 15 activity leagues in four different cities, where participants can enjoy everything from flag football to bingo to cornhole. It also hosts onetime events, like a Halloween scavenger hunt or an adult field day with potato-sack races and a watermelon-eating competition (plus drinking games like flip cup). Kinsler estimates that the Fray organization, which also includes NOLA Fray, PHX Fray, and JAX Fray, sees around 55,000 participants a year.
Kinsler thinks that Fray has been successful in part because it offers a forced break from the tiny computers everyone carries around all day. Instead of scrolling through Bumble or Instagram or stalking your ex’s Venmo account (no judgment), you’re interacting with people in real life, which is an added bonus if you’re new to a city and looking to make friends, as many millennials, a notoriously transient generation, are. You just need to sign up for a group. Someone else will organize the teams, matches, and postgame bar hangouts. “Fundamentally, you can’t do these things by yourself,” says Kinsler of the activities. “People are craving connection with others. They need a way of breaking out of the digital world that we’re all getting wrapped up into every single day.”
It also doesn’t hurt that playing has been proven to be good for you. The definition of adult “play” can be more nebulous than when it’s applied to children, but experts generally define it as an act without any sort of utilitarian purpose; engaging in play is more about the experience. “Play is pretty much in your head. So if I think, I’m playing, then I am,” says Garry Chick, a Penn State professor emeritus who focuses on play theory. “If it feels like play to us, then why not? It is play.” That means anything from a tennis match to a crossword puzzle qualifies—all that matters is that it’s pleasurable and not a necessary function of your day, says Chick.
Play is so important to human well-being that Dr. Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play, classifies present-day society’s tendency to overlook it as a public-health issue. “Severe play deprivation is associated with smoldering depression, ideological rigidity, a lack of optimism, and often a quick response to confrontations that could otherwise be settled without violence or hostility,” says Brown, who has examined the play histories of thousands of subjects throughout his career as a clinical researcher. Engaging in play can help increase optimism, self-motivation, trust, and empathy for others, he says.
The allure of these recess events is that they make it easier for people who may not be as, ahem, athletically inclined to get in on the playing. While baby boomers may have met up for activities like golf or squash, sports that required expertise, time, and financial commitments, a tetherball face-off or hula-hoop contest doesn’t call for that much equipment or skill (a welcome notion for the kids who sat in the outfield eating grass during PE, like I did). They also force players to commit to a time when all they’re doing is playing—and for a demographic that has been labeled the “burnout generation,” it may be more manageable to dedicate an hour to something fun if it’s tied to a reminder on your phone. “We need to make sure it’s on our calendar, where we know, OK, that’s the time I’m going to have fun with my friends,” says Kinsler of designating a night a week to bingo or flag football. “We’ve all gotten so busy that we have to be even more intentional about how we play.”
Still, some older generations may see recess participants as kickball-playing Peter Pan millennials who can’t handle adulting. “The cultural rules of the not actually too distant past were that these kinds of playful activities were not something that adults did, because adults don’t behave that way,” says Chick. But that assumption is simply incorrect, says Chang. “These are incredibly hardworking, very successful people,” he says of the folks signing up for Play Recess, who include lawyers, consultants, and nurses. “They, I think smartly, strive to find that work-life balance, and I think that’s part of what makes them so successful.”
Beyond these benefits, getting out and playing a game for an hour or two simply feels good. It’s just fun. “There’s a happiness associated with recess and getting outside and doing these things,” says Chang.
As I watched the players end their dodgeball game in the fluorescent-lit gym in Washington, I recognized—and I was envious of—that happiness Chang describes. There are few things that get me that excited in my adulthood. For a moment, I got it. Why do you come out on a Thursday night when there’s still laundry to be done and email to be sent and a lump on the cat that could be cancerous? You come to play, to forget, to listen to the sound of plastic on wooden floors. To disappear, just for a little bit, as another sweaty someone running through a crowded room, the world waiting behind the closed double doors.