Reparenting Through Play Is My New Form of Self-Care

From hula hoops to jump ropes, it’s time to make a playdate for yourself

Black woman roller skating outside.
Photo: Tasneem Howa/Getty Images

Did your mom play with you? I mean really play, like get on the floor and pretend with dolls or jump rope with you or play hide-and-seek for hours?

It sounds super sad to ask myself that question, or my siblings, and to consider what it means when the answer is a resounding no. However, I think kids of older, old-school parents might understand. My mom was born in 1939 and was the eldest of the family. She was raised to be seen but not heard and to be utterly presentable when either case was called for. Always expected to be the big sister, the surrogate mother, well-behaved and responsible. And then she had five kids of her own, starting at the age of 20. I was born when she was 39 years old. Throughout it all, my mom worked a full-time job, and I’m pretty sure she cooked dinner on most nights or switched off with my aunt.

I was a happy child. I grew up a mama’s girl. But mama did not want her baby daughter to be sweaty, rambunctious, or rumpled. I can remember reading with her, watching TV with her, going to events with her, and learning how to do things in the kitchen from her (and for her). But my mom did not play games. My sister confirmed exactly this when I asked her.

“No, Mom didn’t play with us. She read. She taught us how to cook, bake, and clean. She taught us to play the piano. She told us our history,” my sister said.

Those are all necessary, enriching life skills that I’m happy to have. When I was little, this wasn’t something that made me sad. It just was. Now, however, as a full-grown woman, I’m noticing the void of play in my life. Now, I’m trying to find a way to give myself more play and to use play as a way to examine and restructure my own relationship to my body and movement, especially in these pandemic times.

This was not something I considered at length before the quarantine. Yet because I’m at home and have the time(?) to explore, I’ve discovered a window to an online world of play via videos originating on TikTok and Instagram Reels. Staying at home has created a global moment — a months-long highlight — that celebrates Black childhood practices across the globe. Lately, I find myself utterly mesmerized by videos of people effortlessly roller skating, hula hooping, jumping double Dutch, or participating in daily jump rope challenges that look exhilarating and fun. These are cultural practices I wish I had but was not taught to do, things I’m now trying to teach myself how to enjoy. I found myself wondering why these were not pastimes that were handed down through the generations in my family.

My mom wasn’t raised to play games, but my dad remembers playing in the street with kids of his own age when he was a boy. Back in those days, he enjoyed roller skating and cricket with his friends. But as the neighborhood became less safe, kids in our family played outside less and less. By the time I was born, we lived in a different neighborhood, and the idea of me frolicking unsupervised in the street gave my parents serious concern. As the last of five kids, it was challenging to find playmates my own age at home.

Kimya Barden, PhD, a psychotherapist at Ashe Counseling and an associate professor at Northeastern Illinois University’s Urban Community Studies program, helped me put my complicated feelings into perspective without assigning parental blame.

“Generation may inform the ways of parenting. A lot of it is rooted in generation,” Barden explains. “But it isn’t necessarily fair to put it all on parents. If it takes a village to raise a child, even if the parents aren’t playful, the parent can enlist siblings, neighborhood children, cousins, and other relatives.”

I can also admit that my own self-esteem came into play. I can remember feeling awkward and embarrassed about even trying to learn how to jump rope or skateboard as a younger person. Now, thanks to Instagram and YouTube, I see women of all ages and sizes doing the damn thing and it’s endlessly inspiring. I have the time. All I need now is space and courage. This is an opportunity to do the things I’ve always wanted to do.

Maybe this week you can join me and make a playdate for yourself.

Leaning into “fun” exercise is a form of reparenting that I didn’t anticipate. And I’m not alone. It turns out there are several groups and online challenges directed at adults that are intended to evoke the spirit and abilities of childhood play. Here’s what I’m checking out on my journey.

Roller skating

The thing I want the most to learn! There is such an upsurge in interest in roller skating right now. Teen Vogue recently featured a beautiful spread on Black women skaters in California. Sista Skaters on Instagram collects and celebrates Black and Brown femme skaters. If you haven’t yet seen HBO’s United Skates documentary, you totally should. It takes an inside look at skate culture in African American communities throughout the country, revealing the significant history, celebration, and struggle of the skate rink as a business. If you’re like me and don’t know how to skate, beloved establishments like The Rink, a historically Black skating facility in facility, also teach socially distant daytime classes for adults.

Rope jumping

One of my earliest memories of double Dutch is the jump rope contest in a 1980s Sesame Street episode. I was absolutely amazed by the skill and competitive aspect of it all. Rope jumping is so much more than exercise or fun—it’s a shared cultural experience that is beautiful and amazing to witness. Kids who are lucky enough to grow up jumping rope with friends and family learn traditions like songs, chants, and the different ways of turning the ropes and jumping. The 40+ Double Dutch Club was founded in Chicago as a way to get women together and playing again. Now there are chapters throughout the country. You can find fellow members and groups via their website or Facebook group.

Hula hooping

Modern-day hula hoops gained popularity in the late 1950s. Seen by many as a fun way to stay active, hula hooping also has a rich cultural history connected to Native American hoop dancing. Modern hooping has great variety—some use it as self-expression, while others use it as a way to work out. There are online hoop fitness groups, and some of these virtual hooping groups have been a thriving source of community during the pandemic.

Bike riding

The joy and freedom of cycling can be such a gift during these quarantined times. I think I was around seven when my dad taught me how to ride a bike. This was a big deal, because unfortunately my mom had never learned how to ride. I can still see her uneasily standing astride a bike. Maybe she even made a wobbly attempt, but that’s a flickering recollection for me. Bicycles are incredibly hard to find right now, so if you have one, use it, and enjoy it!

“Elastic”

Was this a thing for you? Growing up in Trinidad, the girls didn’t jump rope. They all played a game that was simply called “elastic,” known in the United States (for good or for bad) as Chinese jump rope. It’s a kind of hybrid of hopscotch and jump rope that requires three people to play and often used rubber bands or elastic to create the “rope.” In these times, I may not have three people available. Through the internet I discovered African hopscotch — check out this fun video via the 40+ Double Dutch Club. I love this idea, because it’s a way to get in a playful, enjoyable workout without needing anyone else’s participation.

It’s taken effort and introspection, but I’ve learned that fitness doesn’t have to look significantly different from fun. Reparenting through play is a new form of self-care and self-awareness for me. It’s a way to repair my relationship with my body and movement and simultaneously give my inner child what she needs.

As a child-free woman, I can see and feel the ways playful exercise is benefiting me in terms of getting me up and moving and lifting my spirits. My friends who are parents already know this, but for parents who want to try to play with their kids more, this is an incredible time to lean into that. According to Barden, it is essential. “Play is how children learn to interact and communicate. And for parents, play is a way to bond, to create lifelong memories, to pass down life lessons and cultural traditions,” she explains.

Maybe this week you can join me and make a playdate for yourself. It’s an intentional way to cultivate joy in these difficult times.

Beauty, hair and culture writer. One of WWD's 50 Most Influential People in the Multicultural Market. Often called the Godmother of Brown Beauty Blogging!

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