Donna Hollinshead’s alter-ego Scribbles the Clown invites play. Dressed in pastel tie-dyed overalls, a profusion of bows and ribbons affixed to her hair and backward-facing baseball hat, she sports a painted-on smile and a red dot on her nose. Clowning is all about play, and if Hollinshead and other local expert practitioners are right, adults need more of it.
“It really speaks to the heart and kid in all of us. I see it more as that heart opening and an OK to be silly,” she says.
Being Scribbles was once a full-time job for Hollinshead, but these days she combines clowning with other passions — teaching yoga, being an artist and, most recently, creating an adult coloring book called “I Am Living Loving Laughing, a Coloring Journal for All Ages.”
Over the past several years, such books have been on the rise, as well as summer camps for adults, says Brady Gill. He’s director of play for Camp Grounded, which will hold two four-day sessions later this summer at Lake Pinnacle, near Pisgah National Forest (Aug. 19-22 and 25-28).
“These days there’s a big play deficiency in the ways that a lot of grown-ups live their lives,” says Gill. Many adults feel they have to be “masters of everything so that there’s no room for mistakes, there’s no room for questions, and there’s no room for play,” he says.
“As a country, we’re more depressed than ever. Our ability to be creative and innovative is decreasing, our education system is changing, and more and more people are finding that play is not this superfluous thing, but it’s actually an essential component of growing and of happiness.”
Research supports such assertions. The Fun Conspiracy, an Asheville-based business that offers fun coaching, training and “playshops,” packs its website with books, studies, magazine articles and TED talks that highlight the scientific arguments that play is good for us.
“Getting away and playing gives objectivity and helps us to be more creative,” says Ginny Hunneke, founder of The Fun Conspiracy. “Play is that state of timelessness, a lack of obligation that lights up the entire brain,” she says, referring to research that supports her conclusion. Task-oriented activities “light up” or engage only individual areas of the brain.
When the whole brain activates, we can be “far more effective in integrating the different hemispheres [of the brain], and we can access more information and more flexible thinking,” Hunneke says.
Studies have also shown that laughter causes the release of the hormone oxytocin, known as a bonding chemical, she notes. “Mothers nursing their babies secrete oxytocin,” Hunneke says. “It creates a sense of connection and joy. I believe we all benefit from sharing laughter, sharing joy, sharing social connection in a positive way that is not burdensome.”
On June 12, the group will lead an adult camp in Marshall. The one-day event will be about “coming together …. and just being in play, just being in connection with other people, in joy,” says Hunneke.
Hollinshead will be joining the camp with her coloring journal. Other activities may include building forts, hula hooping, blowing bubbles, and putting on a toilet-paper-aluminum-foil fashion show — “things we don’t usually allow ourselves to do,” she says.
The group’s quick success is a testament to the growing interest in play. The Fun Conspiracy formed just two years ago; already they’re giving keynotes around the country, working with individuals and corporate coaching clients, and leading play-oriented workshops. In May, The Fun Conspiracy had its first international audience at a European coaching conference in London and was highlighted in Asia Spa magazine.
Black Mountain-based laughter yoga teacher Karin Steinhaus says research further indicates that people don’t even have to know what they’re laughing about to reap benefits. “The body doesn’t know if something is funny, but if you start laughing, say you see someone fall down, it’s not necessarily funny, but it tickles your funny bone. You start laughing and feeling happy,” she says.
In laughter yoga classes, Steinhaus explains, “We pantomime goofy things.” For example, participants might pretend their classmates have won the lottery and go around the room looking each person in the eye and then offering congratulations. “But you’re not using words. You’re laughing instead and giving people high fives, and you almost feel as if you won the lottery. … It brings the whole group together,” she says.
Can play really change lives? Gill says play is largely about connection. At Camp Grounded, campers give up their cellphones and other devices at the start of the session and “fill the gap left by technology with play.”
Campers can choose from an extensive list of activities, including archery, swimming, yoga, arts and crafts, a climbing wall and group games such as color wars. By the end of camp, participants are more connected to themselves, fellow participants and the natural world, Gill says.
Seemingly small things such as choosing a silly camp name can have a powerful impact on a person’s life, he adds. Gill shares a story about a woman who realized that Golden Dust, the name she chose for herself at camp, was her best self. “Now when she’s at home faced with a problem, is feeling scared or isn’t sure what to do,” he says, “she asks herself, ‘What would Golden Dust do?’” Gill adds that the alter-ego this woman created at camp helped her become a more courageous person in everyday life.
Hunneke, who goes by the title “Fun Coach and Head Conspirator,” says that play is “anything that brings a sense of joy and timelessness and relief from anything that is taxing and challenging.”
Play cultivates opportunities “for all of us to be young at heart,” says Hollinshead. “When I was in [my Scribbles the Clown] costume on my way somewhere, it gave me the freedom to say hello, to smile, to make conversation where most people might not even make eye contact. And people respond to a clown with a smile. So it’s definitely silly,” she says.
Laughter yoga followers take it a step further, saying laughter is a way to spread world peace, says Steinhaus. Quoting the founder of the joyful practice, she adds, “Madan Kataria says laughter is the closest distance between two people, and once you’ve laughed with somebody, it strengthens the social ties.”
WHAT: The Fun Conspiracy’s Sol Camp for Grown Ups
WHEN: June 12, 1-5:30 p.m.
WHERE: Walnut Mountain Lodge, Marshall, NC
WHY: Fun for adults at camp
REGISTRATION: firstname.lastname@example.org or 561-866-2280
The Fun Conspiracy
Brady Gill, Camp Grounded
Laughter Yoga, Karin Steinhaus