How Moving Well Can Make You Confident and Popular
Last week, I was doing some research for an article I’m writing on play as exercise, and I needed a photograph of a playground. Of course, that meant I had to test out the playground, which got me thinking on how central the playground was in my daily life when I was a kid.
Movement as a Rite of Passage
The American School of Dubai, where I went to elementary school, had a pretty awesome playground. The front consisted of three corridors of hanging traverse: there was a line of monkey bars flanked on both sides by lines of hanging rings. The rings on the left were short and closely spaced, while those on the right had much larger spaces.
I remember aspiring to complete the full set on the right side, like all the big kids. Every day, before school, at recess, and after school, I would practice swinging from the rings. Some days I would just do the short rings, to build confidence, but I usually gave the long rings a shot. I would patiently wait my turn in line with the big kids, enduring sneers and ridicule (I don’t honestly remember), until I came to the front of the line.
My heart would catch. After waiting in line for agonizing minutes, would I now waste all of that by falling to the sand in failure after one measly swing?
Often the answer was yes. I jumped and grabbed the first ring, but I wasn’t strong enough to hold on, or I’d swing but fail to reach the second ring, or I’d miss the first one altogether. Either way, I usually ended up crying in the sand, more out of frustration than injury.
But I kept trying. As the months went on and I got taller and stronger, I would manage to grab a second, then a third ring. Each time, I would hold my breath, daring to hope I had the technique to make it all the way.
And the day that I swung all the way across, I must have been completely surprised. I guess there was a moment, on the last ring, when I knew I was going to make it, but couldn’t yet believe it until my feet were planted on the other side. I was ecstatic! I could play with the big kids (without the stigma of holding them up all the time). More importantly, I was a big kid now, not because of my size or age, but because of how I could move!
Of course, one time was not enough, and I spent many recesses perfecting my swing traverse, but eventually it became second nature, just another way to get to the main section of the playground. Having that skill opened up new possibilities for me. It meant that there was no element of the playground I could not explore, no place I could not go. To a child on a playground, it meant freedom.
There’s no telling what the long-term impact of this confidence builder was. It set a precedent of attempting things a bit beyond my abilities, and reaching for goals and relationships that would pull me up, rather than those I was already comfortable with.
Movement as a Sign of Tribe Membership
The monkey bars were not nearly so difficult to master, which is why we never settled for using them as intended (I think that is a key aspect of play: you always push beyond what you are comfortable with, since it is by definition an exploration).
It was easy to get across the monkey bars on the bottom, so we started challenging ourselves to skip one or two bars. When that became easy, we decided to try the top.
It took some work to figure out how to get up there, but I eventually devised an interesting maneuver in which you swing your feet up to the bar in front of you, hook your knees over, slide your foot under the next bar so you had leverage, and pull your torso between the space using your arms and legs. Then, you’d scootch your butt back so you were sitting on the bar you had been holding. From there we could walk across the top of the bars, or just hang out with our legs dangling.
There was only a small group of kids who knew this, and it became a sort of membership badge for my friend group. The Top-o’-the-Monkey-Bars became our official clubhouse. I could always count on my friends being there after school to discuss our never-ending plans to either take over the school or escape from it (most of these schemes were hatched by yours truly…clearly I had trouble with authority). Since no one else could get up there, we didn’t have to worry about being overheard. (For some reason, the teachers never yelled at us to get down. Notions of safe play were very different back then).
Basically, this sacred monkey-bar-climbing-technique was exclusive knowledge, and it was only taught to members of the group. Looking back, it seems very much like the secret ninja killing techniques protected by each ninja clan, though perhaps less sinister. It not only identified members of the group, but it also gave them access to special places, forming a sort of tribe connection in movement.
I know from having a Yogini sister that similar dynamics are at play in the world of Yoga, and my experience with CrossFit, Parkour, and gymnastics also reinforces it; movement skill denotes membership and grants freedom and confidence. Yogis work months or years to master a difficult pose, and when they finally do, it means much more than simply being able to hold a position. Getting there, and getting past, is part of growth. In CrossFit, we all aspired to a muscle-up. There was even a muscle-up club at my first gym. Those who could were revered and respected.
What is the significance of movement and play in your life? Are there any skills or abilities that you fought to acquire? And any childhood memories are encouraged in the comments.