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Fit in my 40s: playground games are stupidly enjoyable | Zoe Williams


These are not my people, I thought. But here I was, in the park at 11am on a Saturday. Whose people are anybody’s, in that kind of scenario? Young professionals, I guess you’d call them, very hale and serious. We were here to rabble, which I’ve decided is a verb because language needs it: it’s fitness by way of playground games. I imagined us all running around chasing each other. Surely in playtime terms, “it” was it? Maybe we’d play a bit of British Bulldog, though I can’t see the fitness benefit in hurling yourself into people.

So time has moved on, and now there are a million games, all highly labour-intensive. We stood in a circle to warm up, playing a variant of catch, where the person holding the ball yelled their own name; then after a bit, you yelled the name of whoever you were throwing to. Insanely biased against poor catchers: we couldn’t remember anyone’s name because we’d been too focused on the ball. Yet something flickered inside each one of us, as we passed the final 30 seconds hurling the projectile towards the one guy everyone could remember, because his name was Ben: that maniacal competitiveness of childhood, where you seize the advantage by haring off before the rules have ended. I didn’t know what those other non-Ben guys were called, but by the time we started Donkey Tag, by God I wanted to beat them.

A game of infinite variations, it starts when you take a lanyard and stick it down the back of your trousers; initially, two people are tasked with chasing everyone and catching their “tails”. But as you are caught, so you become a chaser and thus it builds from pretty easy to fiendishly difficult. There is an extra layer in the movement: we started with chase-by-skipping, then chase-by-sideways-running. Everyone cheats in their death throes and starts running normally – cue that unfamiliar, yet deadly familiar look on a grown adult’s face, as their urge to shout “Miss, she cheated” battles decades of maturity.

If Donkey Tag mainly challenged muscle-intelligence – what move am I making? Why? Who am I supposed to be running away from? – Capture The Flag was in another league. There was a dividing line, marked by cones: some you were meant to run away with, others were there to mark the line. You had to have been listening. You could steal cones from your opponent’s base once all the cones had gone from the centre. Caught stealing, your opponent could chase you. More rules were added each round. Now they could throw a ball at you. Now you had to freeze until you were rescued. Now you had to do a press-up (nobody knew why, something to do with the ball).

I started to think wild thoughts. I should bring my kids to this! No, wait, it’s for adults. Maybe I should train as an instructor? I should set one up myself, for my kids. What am I talking about? This is what they do in playgrounds already: that’s why they’re called playground games. It was exhilarating, exhausting, stupidly enjoyable.

What I learned

They call it the “enjoyment-based model” of performance, where competition boosts effort for no reason at all but the sheer pleasure of it.

Source: TheGuardian