It was just a row of squares marked in chalk on the asphalt. But it was irresistible to Ellen Cassedy, who eagerly bounced down the street on one leg.
“I haven’t hopped a hopscotch since I was about 12, so it’s been 50 years,” marveled Cassedy, who was on her way home from the Takoma Park farmers market this month when she and her husband noticed a commotion on Willow Street.
Parked along the block were a cornhole set, a gigantic chess board, a tennis net, a parachute, balls galore and a whole lot of people of all ages being silly. In other words, it was a typical meeting of Takoma Plays, a community group dedicated to the pursuit of a good time.
The ringleader, Pat Rumbaugh, was easy to spot in her “PLAY!” hat and broad smile, goofing off as much as possible. That’s because the 54-year-old takes this stuff very seriously. After a nearly 30-year career teaching physical education at Washington International School, Rumbaugh decided this year to become a full-time play advocate.
“If we all make time to play, our society is going to be happier and more relaxed. Our quality of life will improve,” explained Rumbaugh, whose interest in play began with kids — the ones she taught, the ones she raised (her son and daughter are now in their 20s) and the one she once was.
Growing up in western Pennsylvania, Rumbaugh spent her childhood running around with friends and making up games. So she understood when her students told her they wanted to “just play.” And she was inspired by what her son asked two decades ago at a library story time: “Why aren’t there real pictures of kids playing in books?”
Rumbaugh finally answered his question with the release this month of “Let’s Play at the Playground,” which features photos of exuberant kids by Daniel Nakamura next to her phrases reminding readers that “climbing is an adventure” and “jumping is like flying.”
In the lengthy process of creating her book (available at Politics & Prose and the National Building Museum) — Rumbaugh came to recognize that adults need play, too. When her mother received a diagnosis of pancreatic cancer in 2002, Rumbaugh used play to handle the stress of being a caregiver, and then to help her deal with her mother’s death.
Now, play is something she strives to have in her life as much as possible. It can be tennis, swimming, pickleball, badminton or yoga. Or it can be one of her daily “playful walks” with her dog Abbie, punctuated by stops at various spots along the way to chitchat.
Some people would describe these activities as working out. But to Rumbaugh’s mind, exercise is something you have to do, while playing is something you want to do.
“It starts with what’s between the ears,” she said. “Do you enjoy it? Is it something you give yourself? Then it’s play.”
To promote this mind-set and its beneficial effects on both physical and mental health, Rumbaugh founded Takoma Plays. From the group’s first event in 2009, the goal has been to bring play to everyone in the community, director Mary Hanisco said at the Willow Street event, proudly pointing to a woman in her 80s who was hitting a tennis ball back and forth with her teenage grandson.
Most of the 50 or so attendees were parents and small children, but the mixed crowd was welcoming to anyone willing to drop their inhibitions and pick up a ball.
“It’s awesome, especially because I kind of like beating adults,” said 11-year-old Hemi Pande, who was offering lessons in how to play four square.
Two people getting beaten were Steve Nadel and his wife, Cindy Dyballa, who are in their 50s but do their best not to act like it. “Since our daughter left home, we have been playing more,” Nadel said.
Dyballa jokingly revealed her secret: “I’ve loved to swing since I was a little kid. Sometimes I do it at night in the playground across the street from our house, which isn’t even legal.”
There shouldn’t be shame in having fun, but adults generally “don’t include themselves” in play, added 81-year-old Joan Horn, noting that taking part always makes her feel younger — even if she’s walking over the hopscotch board rather than jumping. “Life is a game, so I’ve been playing the whole time,” she said.
When kids see adults refusing to quit playing just because they’ve hit a certain age, they realize they don’t have to give it up, either, Rumbaugh said. And the more they play, the more their children will play and carry on the tradition.
Rumbaugh hopes what her community in Takoma Park has created will spread across the country through her next endeavor, Let’s Play America. Through the organization, she wants to show people it takes only a little bit of money for some supplies and a few people willing to live in a way that celebrates play.
“I try to model it. When I carry on conversations with people, I encourage it. And I invite people to join me,” Rumbaugh said.
Some people won’t require much of a push. After Cassedy completed her first hopscotch in half a century, she was ready for more. “I’m going to try hula hooping,” she said, spying a pile of the colorful loops. “That’s another thing I haven’t done in a while.”
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Hallett edits the Fit section of Express.
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