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Get out and play! Tampa nonprofit nudges us to get outdoors just for fun

Ryan Swanson, Creator of Fun at Urban Conga has fun and poses amid a Wes Roos painting.

Can you remember the last time you played outside with your friends? Chances are, it’s a childhood memory.

But playing outside together shouldn’t be just for kids – at least that’s the message being spread by The Urban Conga, a Tampa nonprofit that promotes community activity and social interaction through play. By setting up interactive installations in unused spaces, The Urban Conga brings the idea of play to the masses.

Perhaps its most head-turning call for play took the form of a 12-foot beach ball bouncing through the streets of downtown Tampa. The kicker is that it did more than just pique the curiosity of passersby. It got strangers to interact with one another, share a laugh and have fun through a shared physical experience.

“People have sort of forgotten how to go to a park and throw a ball around, or throw a Frisbee, or just hang out outside while engaging with others,” says Ryan Swanson, co-founder of The Urban Conga. “We want to show people how easily they can get out and play.”

For Swanson, creativity is the name of the game. He and his crew were recently awarded a $1,000 grant by Awesome Tampa Bay to install a semi-permanent ping pong table in a downtown Tampa park. 

It was through his involvement with Awesome Tampa Bay that Swanson crossed paths with Michael Flanagan, a local TV producer, photographer and writer who’s also one of the organization’s Trustees of Awesomeness. According to Flanagan, Swanson’s enthusiasm and passion for cultivating spontaneous play in the community is infectious. It comes as no surprise that the pair have teamed up for an in-the-works documentary focused on the idea of play.

The value of play
The documentary, which will explore how different people interpret play and its value in the human experience, is something Flanagan is eager to get off the ground. For him, the idea of connecting with others really took root during his time hiking on the Appalachian Trail.
“When you’re out there in the middle of nowhere, and you come across another person hiking, there’s this immediate bond, even if it’s as simple as a look in the eye or a smile,” says Flanagan. “It was such a great equalizer that whether someone was a garbage man or a lawyer, on the Appalachian Trail, you were all just out there surviving together.”

It was disheartening to Flanagan to come home from these trips and notice that most strangers in the community didn’t share the same “trail mentality.” After connecting with Swanson, he realized that bringing people together through spontaneous play had the same effect.
He’s since signed on to help direct and film the documentary, which is currently seeking funding on Kickstarter. 
“We still have a long way to go to meet our goal,” says Swanson, who recently launched the Kickstarter page to raise the funds needed to film the documentary. “We want it to get out to the masses to spread this movement and this word about play.”

In Swanson’s experience, impromptu physical play bridges socioeconomic gaps, brings strangers together, and makes for an enriching experience all around. 

No age limits

For local artist Elizabeth Mitchell, 63, participating in spontaneous play is important on an even deeper level.
“Activities that are out of the ordinary stimulate our minds in a different way – and that’s what play is all about,” says Mitchell, the delightfully playful woman you might recognize from the documentary’s teaser video on Kickstarter.

Mitchell says that us adults can learn a thing or two from children, who are less inhibited and naturally play more freely. She credits this to their lively imaginations and lack of judgment toward one another. But as people grow older, she says, they begin to conform and find more structured ways of socializing.

“Imagination takes you places you’ve never been before, and that’s what play opens the door to,” says Mitchell.

When asked what play means to her, Mitchell’s response was equally simple and powerful.

“When I feel happy.”

Marianne Hayes is a writer, wife, mother and bookworm in the Tampa Bay region of Florida. You can read about her adventures in motherhood on her blog, With Kids in Hand. Twitter: @HayesMarianne. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Marianne Hayes.

Marianne Hayes is a feature writer for 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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