Posts filed under ‘play’

Fairness, justice, and the essential nature of cheerleading

Varsity cheerleading is not a sport.  Or so says a federal judge in Connecticut, who today issued a 95-page opinion that “Quinnipiac University violated Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 by failing to provide equal opportunities for athletics participation to female students.” The Chronicle of Higher Education reports:

The ruling said that a varsity cheerleading team, which the university created this past year, may not be considered a varsity sport for purposes of complying with federal gender-equity law.

Members of the women’s volleyball team, along with their coach, had sued Quinnipiac last spring after the private university said it would cut the team—along with men’s golf and men’s outdoor track—to save money. District Judge [Stefan A.] Underhill later ordered the university to reinstate the volleyball team while the case was pending.

That a judge would deliberate about which activities are considered a sport reminds me of the Supreme Court case PGA Tour v. Martin. See the below TED talk by Harvard political philosopher Michael Sandel — around the 5:15 mark, he engages the audience in a provocative exercise about  justice by tracing the logic of Supreme Court Justices who wrestled with the question about whether walking is an essential, or simply an incidental, feature of golf.

July 21, 2010 at 2:37 pm 2 comments

Literary sport

Lapham’s Quarterly is among my favorite publications and the summer issue on Sports & Games deserves special mention. (I urge all those interested in either the history of games or ideas about human movement to invest $15 in this handsome magazine.) From Lewis Lapham’s introduction:

One not need be American to know that sport is play and play is freedom. It’s not a secret kept from children in Tahiti or Brazil. Dogs romp, whales leap, penguins dance. That play is older than the kingdoms of the Euphrates and the Nile is a truth told by the Dutch scholar, Johan Huizinga, in Homo Ludens, his study of history that discovers in the “primeval soil of play” the origin of “the great instinctive forces of civilized life,” of myth and ritual, law and order, poetry and science. “Play,” he said, “cannot be denied. You can deny, if you like, nearly all abstractions: justice, beauty, truth, goodness, mind, God. You can deny seriousness, but not play.” [...]

The glory of [sports and games] isn’t the winning or losing, the bombastic Rooseveltian beating of the others; it is Einstein’s equation made flesh, the unity of energy and mass seen in a movement of light. Huizinga expresses something of the same thought. Play as the making of civilization, which becomes possible only when “an influx of mind breaks down the absolute determinism of the cosmos,” not serious and yet entirely serious, brimming with possibility and tending to become beautiful.

LQ’s literary treatment of sports makes for a nice segue to reference kottke’s post about the novelist Nic Brown, who challenged his friend and professional tennis player Tripp Phillips in a game to win a single point.  Writes Brown:

What I can’t do, no matter how hard I try, is win a single point. Not one. “You have no weapons,” he tells me two days later, over a lunch of cheap tacos and cheese dip. He reviews the match in this specific analytical way I’ve experienced with other professional athletes. To them, match review is engineering, not personal nicety. The performance is fact, not opinion. “No matter what,” he says, “I was going to have you off balance. And no matter what you did, I was going to be perfectly balanced. I knew where you were going to hit it before you hit it. It’s the difference between me and you. But if I played Roger Federer right now, he’d do the exact same thing to me.”

Kottke observes, “That bit reminds me of David Foster Wallace’s article on tennis pro Michael Joyce (Esquire, July ’96). Specifically, how much of a skill difference there was between Joyce (the 79th best player in the world), the players he competed against in qualifiers, and the then-#1 ranked Andre Agassi.”


July 21, 2010 at 1:55 pm 1 comment

Tinkering Outside

On Tuesday, First Lady Michelle Obama officially kicked-off the White House Summer Exercise Series.  Eighty-four local children hopped, skipped, and jumped with the First Lady on the South Lawn as part of her Let’s Move campaign.

Let’s Move! has an ambitious but important goal: to solve the epidemic of childhood obesity within a generation. [This initiative] will give parents the support they need, provide healthier food in schools, help our kids to be more physically active, and make healthy, affordable food available in every part of our country.

I wonder if FLOTUS was aware of—and if so, whether she endorsed—”Take Our Children to the Park… And Leave Them There Day.” Spearheaded by Lenore Skenazy, author of Free-Range Kids, May 22 (this past Saturday) was promoted as an opportunity to help our children reclaim the childhood most of us fondly remember (though have sanitized and stripped away from them):

The crime rate in America is back to where it was in the early ’70s. Crime was going up then, and it peaked around 20 years later. By the mid ’90s it was coming down and continues to do so.  So the strange fact — very hard to digest — is that if YOU were playing outside in the ’70s or ’80s, your kids today are safer than you were! I know it doesn’t feel that way. In fact, here’s an interesting poll about how the majority of people feel crime is going up when actually its going down. But anyway, the point is:

Most of us used to play outside in the park, without our parents, without cell phones, without Purell or bottled water and we survived! Thrived! We cherish the memories! And if you believe the million studies that I’m always publishing here, kids are healthier, happier and better-adjusted if they get to spend some time each day in “free play,” without adults hovering.

I know there will be shrill voices insisting, “Predators are gonna love this holiday!” but keep a level head. Crime is down. Awareness is up. There is safety in numbers, which means getting kids outside again, together. This won’t happen until we actually start DOING IT.

So spread the word and be not afraid. Free-Range Kids never says there is no risk in the world, only that the risk is small and worth taking, as it always has been. The trade-off is kids who make up games, who solve problems, who discover nature and get moving (to coin a phrase). Kids who don’t need a screen to entertain them. Playing outside, on their own, is what kids all over the world do. We have forgotten how vital and wonderful it is.

Walk around your neighborhood. Do you see empty sidewalks? Empty yards? Empty playgrounds? It’s a waste — of childhood.

My thought on Leave Your Child at the Park Day is simply to make it more than an annual exercise — let children run outside, scrape their knees, and indulge in exuberant, sometimes reckless, free-play every single day. But why let children have all the fun? This coming weekend, or after work or school during the week, try and honor the makeshift “Take MYSELF to the Park and Leave Me There Day.” We could all use some smiles and sunshine.

Finally, this theme of engaging in outdoor and hands-on play reminds me of a great program called Tinkering School, which provides kids with a collaborative and safe environment to build things—as well as a safe place to fail, one of the most important aspects in the cultivation of creativity. In his short but motivating 10-minute TED talk, Gever Tulley, the founder of Tinkering School, explains the benefits of doing “5 Dangerous Things.”

See you outside!

May 26, 2010 at 3:54 pm 1 comment

The new three R’s: Reading, writing, and running

A recent ABC News story profiles an exercise-based learning readiness program at Naperville Central High School, near Chicago, that is credited for helping students to achieve “astounding” academic achievement — a doubling of reading scores and an “increase of math scores by a factor of 20.”

I’ve highlighted the action-based learning program at Naperville a number of time (here), but this provides an opportunity to again promote PE4Life (the developer Learning Readiness Physical Education) and John Ratey’s book Spark! (an explanation of “the revolutionary new science of exercise and the brain”).

Below is a story that aired on CBS’ “The Early Show” in 2009 about the LRPE program at Naperville — with enough exposure to research about the relationship between body and cognitive development, programs like this might begin to take root at schools throughout the country.

May 6, 2010 at 10:54 am 1 comment

Get out!

A recent analysis of 10 studies that involved more than 1,250 participants found that physical activity in the presence of nature—known as “green exercise”—has a tremendous influence on mental health. The positive effects on self-esteem and mood were magnified when people were actively engaged in a physical task (e.g., walking, gardening, cycling) near a body of water.

One of the more interesting discoveries is that it only took five minutes (!) of movement in a park, along a trail, or in a garden to achieve the greatest effect on mental health.

Jo Barton and Jules Pretty at the University of Essex, authors of the study, explain some of the implications, especially for the treatment of stress, depression, and other types of mental anguish. An excerpt:

The results show acute short-term exposures to facilitated green exercise improves both self-esteem and mood irrespective of duration, intensity, location, gender, age, and health status….

The findings also suggest that those who are currently sedentary, nonactive, and/or mentally unwell would accrue health benefits if they were able to undertake regular, short-duration physical activity in accessible (probably nearby) green space. Such doses of nature will contribute to immediate mental health benefits. As with smoking, giving up inactivity and urban-only living results in immediate and positive health outcomes, even from short duration and light activity such as walking….

The outcomes do suggest a new priority for frontline environmental and health professionals—a regime of doses of nature may be prescribed for anyone, but will have a greater effect for the inactive or stressed and mentally ill, or at presurgery (source) or for recovery (source). Employers, for example, could encourage staff in stressful workplaces to take a short walk at lunchtime in the nearest park to improve mental health, which may in turn affect productivity. A particular focus should be on children: regular outdoor play brings immediate health benefits, and may instill healthy behaviors early in life (source)…. And outdoor free-play is vital for development and cognitive skills (source).


“What is the best dose of nature and green exercise for improving mental health? A multi-study analysis.”
Jo Barton and Jules Pretty
Environmental Science & Technology
, Article ASAP
DOI: 10.1021/es903183r
Publication Date (Web): March 25, 2010
Online access:

May 6, 2010 at 9:52 am 2 comments

“I want to solve the demon”

Jure Robic is perhaps “the world’s best endurance athlete.”

Over the past two years, Robic, who is 40 years old, has won almost every race he has entered, including the last two editions of ultracycling’s biggest event, the 3,000-mile Insight Race Across America (RAAM). In 2004, Robic set a world record in the 24-hour time trial by covering 518.7 miles. Last year, he did himself one better, following up his RAAM victory with a victory six weeks later in Le Tour Direct, a 2,500-mile race on a course contrived from classic Tour de France routes. Robic finished in 7 days and 19 hours, and climbed some 140,000 feet, the equivalent of nearly five trips up Mount Everest.

To achieve such success, Robic trains 335 days each year, for five and a half hours per day, “logging some 28,000 miles, or roughly one trip around the planet.”

As explained in this NYT profile, however, it’s Robic’s insanity “that sets him apart from the rest of the world.”

The craziness is methodical and Robic and his crew know its pattern by heart. Around Day 2 of a typical weeklong race, his speech goes staccato. By Day 3, he is belligerent and sometimes paranoid. His short-term memory vanishes, and he weeps uncontrollably. The last days are marked by hallucinations: bears, wolves and aliens prowl the roadside; asphalt cracks rearrange themselves into coded messages. Occasionally, Robic leaps from his bike to square off with shadowy figures that turn out to be mailboxes. In a 2004 race, he turned to see himself pursued by a howling band of black-bearded men on horseback.

‘‘Mujahedeen, shooting at me,’’ he explains. ‘‘So I ride faster.’’

His wife, a nurse, interjects: ‘‘The first time I went to a race, I was not prepared to see what happens to his mind. We nearly split up.’’

As kottke notes, Robic’s story is “awesome and disturbing.” Kottke also points us to another fascinating episode of RadioLab, this on the limits of the human body:

Jad and Robert talk to two Ironman competitors, Julie Moss and Wendy Ingraham to find out how they do what they do. Physiologist Dr. David Jones tells us how to trick the voice in your head that tells you you’re exhausted. Then we follow two men, Patrick Autissier and Jure Robic, as they bike across the country as fast as they can in a crazy race called The Ride Across America. Producer Lulu Miller brings us their story and New York Times writer Daniel Coyle walks us through the process of physical and mental breakdown RAAM competitors face.

Also worth checking out—Discovery produces an interesting video series called “Human Body: Pushing the Limits.”

UPDATE: Here’s the clip of Julie Moss’ epic body breakdown in the 1982 Hawaii Ironman referenced on RadioLab:

April 22, 2010 at 10:45 pm 3 comments

A strong body, strong mind

Discover magazine explains “Why athletes are geniuses“:

This past January Claudio Del Percio of Sapienza University in Rome and his colleagues reported the results of a study in which they measured the brain waves of karate champions and ordinary people, at rest with their eyes closed, and compared them. The athletes, it turned out, emitted stronger alpha waves, which indicate a restful state. This finding suggests that an athlete’s brain is like a race car idling in neutral, ready to spring into action.

Del Percio’s team has also measured brain waves of athletes and nonathletes in action…. The athletes’ brains were quieter, which means they devoted less brain activity to these motor tasks than nonathletes did. The reason, Del Percio argues, is that the brains of athletes are more efficient, so they produce the desired result with the help of fewer neurons. Del Percio’s research suggests that the more efficient a brain, the better job it does in sports.

MindHacks explains the methods of the brain scanning research and concludes:

Rather than becoming ‘relaxed’ the brain seem to become more ‘finely tuned’ with practice. It’s not that the whole brain just becomes ‘quieter’ (although you could say this about some specific areas) but that it seems to reconfigure the distribution of work.

April 21, 2010 at 11:25 am 1 comment

Play is the beginning of knowledge

From a review of Melvin Konner’s The Evolution of Childhood: Relationships, Emotion, Mind in this month’s The Atlantic:

Konner is especially interested in play, which is not unique to humans and, indeed, seems to have been present, like the mother-offspring bond, from the dawn of mammals. The smartest mammals are the most playful, so these traits have apparently evolved together. Play, Konner says, “combining as it does great energy expenditure and risk with apparent pointlessness, is a central paradox of evolutionary biology.” It seems to have multiple functions—exercise, learning, sharpening skills—and the positive emotions it invokes may be an adaptation that encourages us to try new things and learn with more flexibility. In fact, it may be the primary means nature has found to develop our brains.

Update: Andrew Sullivan explains why play matters:

Once one leaves the reductionism of evolutionary biology, can we not see play as also, well, play? And play is defined by its uselessness, its freedom, its ability to resist productivity. It is a form of ultimate freedom – in my view, the freest human beings can be. Because a game has no known winner in advance, if it has any winner at all. It is about being together and engaging together without an ulterior purpose.

That’s why I see play as something close to the divine. That’s why I believe Jesus loved children. Because, in play, they had found a way to be with each other without any other over-arching purpose.

April 21, 2010 at 10:51 am 1 comment

Domesticated gym rats

From “A Wild Workout for the Real World“:

And with that one word — “practical” — Erwan Le Corre [founder of MovNat] exposes a key weakness in modern exercise: Our workouts are domesticated, while the world out there is still plenty wild…

Being fit isn’t about being able to lift a steel bar or finish an Ironman,” Le Corre says. “It’s about rediscovering our biological nature and releasing the wild human animal inside.

A video of Erwan in motion:

March 26, 2010 at 3:00 pm 1 comment


The documented first year of four babies in four different corners of the world:

Update: This NYT Magazine story on the moral life of babies is a great complementary reading to the movie:

The mental life of young humans not only is an interesting topic in its own right; it also raises — and can help answer — fundamental questions of philosophy and psychology, including how biological evolution and cultural experience conspire to shape human nature. From Sigmund Freud to Jean Piaget to Lawrence Kohlberg, psychologists have long argued that we begin life as amoral animals. One important task of society, particularly of parents, is to turn babies into civilized beings — social creatures who can experience empathy, guilt and shame; who can override selfish impulses in the name of higher principles; and who will respond with outrage to unfairness and injustice.

A growing body of evidence, though, suggests that humans do have a rudimentary moral sense from the very start of life. With the help of well-designed experiments, you can see glimmers of moral thought, moral judgment and moral feeling even in the first year of life. Some sense of good and evil seems to be bred in the bone. Which is not to say that parents are wrong to concern themselves with moral development or that their interactions with their children are a waste of time. Socialization is critically important. But this is not because babies and young children lack a sense of right and wrong; it’s because the sense of right and wrong that they naturally possess diverges in important ways from what we adults would want it to be.

March 26, 2010 at 2:34 pm Leave a comment

Learning to play: Exuberant Animal workshop in San Francisco

Frank Forencich, Chief Creative Officer of the health leadership organization Exuberant Animal, is hosting a workshop in San Francisco on Saturday, April 10 at the Diakadi Body personal training and wellness center.

The daylong event will include presentations on human evolution, functional exercise, and the power of play. (Earlier in the month, Frank will deliver a similar talk to the Stanford University School of Design, in presentation with the design firm IDEO.) The EA San Francisco Jam will also include movement sessions and games that practitioners, educators, athletes, trainers, coaches, and athletes of all fitness levels can incorporate into their lives and work.

Anyone interested in functional fitness, play-based fitness, and evolutionary movement is encouraged to attend. Click here to register.


Skye Nacel is a friend whom I met at an EA event in Seattle — he is the founder of Mocean365, an action photography and video production firm based in Vermont that also organizes a fantastic series of action workshops. Skye recently produced 10-minute video that leads viewers through the Exuberant Animal Short Form movement sequence — a perfect way to start the day or warm-up before any strenuous physical activity.


In mid-April, Frank will lead a two-day seminar with Wildfitness in London’s Regent Park:

American movement guru Frank Forencich is one of the leading experts in the growing field of evolutionary fitness and his books have been a major influence on the philosophy of Wildfitness and our holiday programme. The seminar is a fantastic opportunity for forward-thinking fitness and movement professionals to get an insight into the new trend in fitness towards ‘natural movement’ and to gain inspiration from one of the key voices and proponents of this culture shift.

The seminar is ideal for personal trainers, therapists, martial artists, dancers and physical educators, as well as non-professional fitness enthusiasts.


Finally, trail runners, endurance athletes, and barefoot enthusiasts should check out the Misty Mountain Foot Quest, in partnership with Mick, The Barefoot Sensei. This is an EA-sponsored multi-day run in Washington state from Quinault to the Elwah, up the spine of the Olympic Mountains. The Foot Quest party kicks-off on Thursday, August 12 and the two-day run includes sherpa support. Sign up with Eventbrite.


March 18, 2010 at 5:28 pm Leave a comment

Key takeaways from a fitness trainer

Mike O’Donnell, a professional health and fitness coach, shares insights from his career as a trainer. A sample:

  • Pushups are the best upper body workout designed….no machine can replace that…you don’t need any equipment and you can do them anywhere.
  • If you eat whole foods that have been around for 1000s of years, you probably don’t have to worry about counting calories.
  • If I had to pick one sport for a child to start with it would be gymnastics, the strength/speed/balance/body control they will learn can be applied to any sport down the road.
  • I hate to jog…. I love to run.

(via kottke)

March 18, 2010 at 5:04 pm Leave a comment

Sexy Gaia

Frank Forencich shares the story of his first “earth orgasm” — a humorous and thoughtful reflection on the sexual energy of mother nature.

For my part, I can vividly recall a number of earth-shattering earth-orgasms, mostly from my days as a climber in the mountains of California. Climbing, like many outdoor sports, is all about getting your body into intimate contact with the natural, tactile world. Exposure promotes vivid sensation, anticipation and engagement. Gravity provides focus and sharpens attention to the here and now. Tactile awareness deepens as fingers and toes probe for subtle variations in form and texture. Skin becomes alert and aware. Every sense comes alive, passionate, desiring ever more. Long summer days of perfect rock, perfect weather, powerful physicality and the sweet caress of a gentle breeze.

There was usually a climax of course, when we reached the safety and panorama of the summit, but this was but a single orgasmic moment surrounded by hours of caress and erotic pleasure. Even the moonlight descent, with our bodies scraped, bruised and fatigued by our efforts, was sensual magic, a feast for eyes, ears and spirit. Only when we reached the highway would the spell be broken.

Read the entire post at the Exuberant Animal blog.


March 17, 2010 at 4:18 pm Leave a comment

Picture this: Run hard and get dirty

PatitucciPhoto produces some of the most beautiful and inspiring outdoor sports photography I have ever seen. Check out this collection of trail running pictures.

Also worth browsing — their gallery of images divided into thematic categories for movement, endurance, living, and travel. Via DolomiteSports, you can also view galleries of photographs by activity, such as hiking, road biking, mountain biking, and skiing. It’s enough to make me save for an adventure vacation to the Italian Dolomites.

March 17, 2010 at 3:52 pm 1 comment

The barefoot professor

Harvard professor Daniel Lieberman has ditched his trainers and started running barefoot. His research shows that barefoot runners, who tend to land on their fore-foot, generate less impact shock than runners in sports shoes who land heel first. This makes barefoot running comfortable and could minimize running-related injuries. Read more here and find the original research here.

Related: The science of going barefoot.

Also — check out “Everything you need to know to become a barefoot runner“, a great list of resources compiled by

March 13, 2010 at 1:28 am 1 comment

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Jason R. Atwood

I'm an avid trail runner and doctoral student at U.C. Berkeley who studies motivation and the relationship between the mind and body. This blog is a forum to share research, news, and musings about these topics of interest. More

Play is the beginning of knowledge.

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