On Wednesday mornings, a few minutes before ten o’clock, my two-year-old son and I arrive at the YMCA. I restrain him from escaping my lap while wrestling off his shoes. Once free, he darts across the shiny floor to the bounce house.
Small bodies scramble through the netted door, while screams echo off the cinderblock walls. A pack of children jump and tumble causing their arms, legs, and torso to ricochet off the plastic walls. In the inflatable wonderland, my wide-eyed toddler contorts his twenty-five pound body. He is so intoxicated by the excitement the only thing on his mind is bouncing.
I enjoy the break and tend to stand nearby keeping one eye on my son and one on my smart phone. The bounce house helps me maintain my sanity. Yet, at a recent visit to the castle-shaped house, my son summoned me through the netted window. “Da da,” he yelled. His tone made clear my presence was requested. Initially, I brushed him off with a smile and encouraged him to return to tumbling, but he did not relent.
“Da da. Da da. Da da,” he yelled. I had only one choice and that was to make my way towards the bounce house door. I stuck my head through and he grabbed my finger and leaned back with all his weight. Already in my stay-at-home dad uniform: grey sweatpants, long sleeve t-shirt, and 1990’s Nike sandals, I agreed to climb into the chaos.
At first, I felt self-conscious as the only adult in the bounce house, but I didn’t have long to consider my feelings because my son charged me with reckless abandon. He tackled me and we collapsed into a plastic crease where he infected me with bounce house joy. Despite their often difficult temperament, two-year-olds have a refreshing lack of self-consciousness.
Whether on the changing table, in the bathtub, or rolling in the bounce house, they care little about who is watching them and embrace the present moment. As a thirty-five year old, I cannot say the same. My mind stretches a million different directions and floats in a sea of anxiety, worry, and stress. My head is like a bounce house, but the thoughts deflecting off the walls are not joyful.
Inside the plastic castle, we chased each other around in a circle yelling at the top of our lungs. We lowered ourselves on all fours, while imitating our favorite animal noises. We launched into the plastic walls and rolled from side to side. As air compressors hummed, our bodies pressed into the elastic house and I was set loose by a twenty-five pound tumbler who rolled away the tightness in my mind and heart.
Parents need breaks and sometimes you got to check out during playtime to regain your mental health. I get it. However, my recent experience in the bounce house convinced me parents also need to play, not only for their children’s sake, but for their own. The moments we resist play the most are often when we need to roll, tumble, and jump. It is so easy to forget how to amuse ourselves and engage in an activity for no practical or serious purpose. Small children offer a gateway to enter the present moment and experience the joy of letting loose.
I believe we are designed to play whether we are eight months old or eighty. The need for amusement is part of human nature and children help us to recover the playful parts of ourselves we ignore and neglect, the parts we lose in adulthood but desperately need because playing is just as important as paying the bills, mowing the lawn, and eating a well rounded meal. When we deny ourselves play we become dull people.
Playing is a behavior that comes natural to children. We can allow them to take the lead. When they tug on our fingers all we need to do is follow. I’m glad I followed my son into the bounce house because I needed him to remind me how to play. We had a blast and we only got in trouble once. It was a minor offense: a runny nose. I understand their concern because the downside of bounce houses is they are plastic cesspools. After you finish jumping, I suggest you wash your hands, wipe your child with an anti-bacterial cloth, and set your clothes on fire.