Walking up the steps to the playground behind my 4-year-old son’s school, I hear a small voice yell, “Watch out, the monster’s coming!”
There’s a rush of activity as my boy and many of the kids in the after-school program gather along the fence to watch my arrival. They always make me smile, no matter how tired or frazzled I am. Funnily enough, being called a monster is often a highlight of my day.
“Who wants to play Monster Tag?” I ask the children.
A chaotic chorus of “Me, me, me” drowns out everything else until I ask for silence.
First, I go over the rules: Be safe, watch where you’re going and what’s behind you, no pushing and only one person on the slide at a time.
Then we decide what creature I am for the day. Usually I’m just a monster. Other times I’m a robot or a zombie. Sometimes I’m a monster-robot-zombie. One time I was the gobble shark and they were the zippy minnows. No matter what, I’m the pursuer and they’re getting chased.
I start counting, “One, two, three …”
The children scatter, some running pell-mell in every direction, while others duck underneath the playset or climb to its upper levels. When I hit “10,” I’m off at a sprint while alternating between roaring at the top of my lungs and promising to eat some preschoolers for dinner. For good measure, I thrash my arms like an over-caffeinated version of Frankenstein’s monster.
The late afternoon air fills with good-natured shrieks and the rapid-fire patter of sneakers crunching across the mulch and pounding against the pavement. It doesn’t matter if I catch them — though I try to catch them all, so each child knows I’m paying them personal attention.
I love playing this game, because it allows me to interact with many of my son’s friends from school and get to know them a little better. I want to always be involved in his world and understand it the best I can.
On a deeper level, I love these games because in those fleeting flashes as I run across the playground I am free. I don’t have to worry about a looming deadline, the waking nightmares about all the bad things I imagine could happen to my family or the fact that I only got five hours of sleep the night before. This is my moment of Zen.
Some of that meditative joy comes from the feeling of being a kid again. Normally, it is almost impossible for me to experience the world in the same way I did when I was a youngster, but Monster Tag does the trick. It’s such primal play that it engages me on a childlike level. I don’t need to think much; I just embrace the now.
After playing Monster Tag, I’m relaxed and have reset — and I’ve racked up a bunch of extra steps on my Fitbit. I’m prepared to move on to the next phase of the day, which involves cooking dinner and helping get my son ready for bed.
I’m always a little sad when the timer on my phone goes off, signaling that my son and I must head home. I want to prolong my moment of Zen, but I know I can’t. I didn’t know I needed Monster Tag in my life until it was a part of my life.
When the weather got colder and the days grew darker earlier, sprinting around on the playground wasn’t the safest way to spend an afternoon. When I arrived, the children were inside the school’s small library, but they still wanted Monster Tag. They looked so sad when I told them that the monster couldn’t play in the winter.
“But why not?” they asked, looking up at me as if I had just told them that Santa Claus was on a permanent holiday.
“He’s hibernating,” I told them. “Like a bear. Don’t worry, he’ll be back in the spring.”
Many of them had recently studied bears in class, so the answer satisfied them, though they were still disheartened. Every day after that — no matter how cold, how dark or how snowy — at least one kid would ask me, “Is it spring yet? Is the monster awake? Did he have a nice nap?”
It was difficult to disappoint them daily. I could empathize, because I missed Monster Tag, too.
Thankfully, warm weather came early this year. A few weeks ago, I arrived at the school to find the children on the playground, full of energy and clambering all over the playset. Jackets were off. The sun was shining.
“Poppa,” my son greeted me, as he ran over to give me a hug. “Can we play Monster Tag?”
All the action stopped. Every eye turned to me. For a moment, I got to experience how Bono must feel when he strides onto stage. I milked the sensation for a moment, then raised my arms over my head, fingers spread wide.
“The monster’s has returned,” I announced. “And he is very hungry after being asleep all winter. One, two, three …”
A joyful babble exploded as children began running every which way. I smiled. I could feel myself beginning to relax and reset. It was good to be back.
Martell is the author of several books, including “Freak Show Without a Tent: Swimming With Piranhas, Getting Stoned in Fiji and Other Family Vacations.” He tweets @nevinmartell.
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