I spent my first week in Växjö, Sweden, pedaling the hundreds of bike paths strewn across the county. One especially sunny weekday afternoon I was speeding around the lake enjoying the feeling of being thousands of miles from home. As I rounded a bend, the trees opened up to a gorgeous view of the lake and city beyond. The small park that ran along the water’s edge was well manicured and had an adult-sized jungle gym of exercise equipment. As I passed the open grass field, something odd caught my eye. I didn’t want to seem like a foreign gawker so I kept pedaling, but my interest had been piqued. I turned around and found a nice tree to rest against at the edge of the park.
At first I didn’t quite understand what I was seeing. Around 15 adults, most in work clothes, were playing some sort of baseball game. There was also a wine bottle resting near some of the bases. As I watched them take turns hitting a tennis ball, running, laughing, sometimes slipping, I had my first pangs of culture shock.
Here, after work, was a group of neighbors out playing with no kids in sight. I sat trying to understand the rules of what I later learned was Brännboll, fighting the desire to ask if I could play.
As dusk approached the now tipsy group of friends said their “Hej Hej’s” and wandered off to their homes, most riding their own bicycles into the connecting neighborhood of apartments. I climbed back onto my bike and meandered along the path that led back to the University. In my time there, I would come to appreciate the many opportunities for adults to play in Sweden and take for granted the cultural expectation that adults should exercise and play daily.
As our Facebook friend lists grow, the number of neighbors whose names we know shrinks. Block parties and neighborhood cookouts seem to be a thing of the past. It’s time to reclaim a true community. For me the beginning of the solution is simple: we need to start playing again.
We already know how. When we were young most, if not all of us, at some point knocked on a neighbor’s door to ask if a friend could ”come out and play.” New technology allows people to stay connected over great distances but also provides new ways for local connection. Personalized groups on sites like Facebook and Meetup could allow neighbors to plan park or beach dates. If knocking on your neighbor’s door seems a bit intrusive, why not knock on their e-door? Exercise is a great way to form connections. Invite your neighbors to take a run with you, or maybe think about a community run once a month.
There are already great examples of neighbors re-branding where they live as playful communities. Pat and Beth O’Conner’s backyard in Essex, Vermont is home to Little Fenway, where the neighborhood gathers for wiffle ball games. In just over two months Brooklyn Kickball will kick off it’s 9th season of community kickball, uniting (and sometimes playfully dividing) residents throughout Brooklyn, NYC.
Play is not just for kids, and through play communities are born. Are you ready to come out and play?
© Jonathan Iris-Wilbanks and Sunflower Creative Arts, 2012