It’s a beautiful Saturday afternoon in March. There’s a brisk nip in the air in this urban park in West Philadelphia. What a lovely day for a good death.
On the ground limp and twitching lies a 14 year old boy. There is a knife lying on the ground near his open right hand, presumably the one he used to defend himself. He was slashed down before he got the chance to use it. The attacker, another youth about the same age, is walking away, pumping his sword into the air in victory.
On the other side of the park, there’s another group of people engaged in battle. They wield gruesome looking weapons: A sword, lance, two shields, a battle ax, and bow and arrow. Each person is enthusiastically slashing, yelling and otherwise trying to put the finishing touches on their opponent.
There are other groups similarly engaged … yelling, screaming, running, and swinging. Someone charges. Someone thrusts, someone ducks. Another fallen victim screams in agony.
And if that’s not enough, through it all, passers by just … pass by. They look on in … amusement … at the 40 or so people who seem intent on maiming each other. No one stops to help. No one calls the police. In fact, is that a police car that is just passing by? Sure enough.
But wait. The 14 year old, previously writhing on the ground gets up, apparently unharmed and walks toward his team. Other victims do the same, rising one at a time with their weapons raised. “Great death!” someone yells over to the 14 year old. He beams, ready to fight again.
If you watch for very long you'll get a better picture. Zoom out. There are kids running, laughing, playing and just having a good time. You'll see there is much more to this exercise than just feigned death. There are children from all walks of life, all backgrounds. They all help and encourage each other. Participants regularly congratulate their opponents for a particularly well played role. The field abounds with camaraderie, self esteem and creativity. These kids are being allowed … no, encouraged … to be themselves - within carefully crafted guidelines, and under the supervision of adults.
The scene playing out at Clark Park at 43rd and Baltimore in West Philadelphia is the brainchild of The Wayfinder Experience, and it’s all in good fun. This particular activity is a turn on the traditional “Capture the Flag”, with a bit of medieval role playing thrown over the top, to make it a truly unique experience.
Though intimidating, the “weapons” are all made of flexible foam, and must be deemed “play safe” by the organizers before allowed in the games. For those who do not have their own, weapons are provided by the organizers. All participants are briefed in the rules for game play: The first rule is “Safety First”; the second is “Die Well”.
The group’s stated mission is “To build community through play”. According to their web site (www.WayfinderExperience.com), their workshops “improve communication skills, show how to build a supportive team and create a productive community environment where everyone is heard and works together.” In addition to Capture the Flag, the group runs an occasional day-long program called Bootleg, weekend games, and week-long summer camps. Wayfinder Experience also offers a teaching method for educators that “utilizes theatre, non-competitive play and role-playing to create interactive lessons that integrate curriculum elements with the arts.”
Back on the battlefield, the participants do seem to be having a very good time. You can easily see the teamwork, comradery, and fun these children are exhibiting. They encourage each other, help each other up after a “good death”, and are supportive.
While this type of play may not be for everyone, I’m all for it. After having watched several of these daytime activities, I can't help think that this is a great way to get kids out from behind their computers and Play Stations, out of the house and into the open air where they can make friends that are not two dimensional.
While the program is mostly for children, you’ll see an occasional adult in the group too. So if you’re into a little friendly death and destruction while having some fun, you might want to check these folks out. They meet every weekend at Clark Park between 1:00 & 4:00.