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Demond Hill I decided that I was going to take my six one, maybe six-two butt up to a beautiful slide that I see a lot of kids going down.
Demond Hill Today is slide day…I’m walking up here right now. It’s probably been like 13 years since I’ve gone down a slide. And I think most of it comes from a fear of like you know a Black man sliding down a slide around a bunch of white kids.
Demond Hill So, I end up walking up the stairs and there were some kids were already going down the slide. So, pumping myself up, I get up on the slide and…
Demond Hill We’re going to see how this ends up going. Lord have mercy. Let me get down here. Here I go.
Dacher Keltner What did play look like for you growing up? And what does it look like now? I’m Dacher Keltner, and this is The Science of Happiness. Today, we’re looking at how the simple act of playing is good for our minds, our bodies and our social connections. I’m joined by Demond Hill, a PhD student here at UC, Berkeley, where I teach. Demond is studying how Black children and Black families can use play as a tool of empowerment and healing. And for our show, he turned the lens on himself and tried three different types of play. Later, we’ll look at research by Harrison Pinkney, author of Playing While Black. Demond, thanks so much for being with us the science of happiness.
Demond Hill Thank you all so much. I appreciate it.
Dacher Keltner You know, one of the really interesting lessons, I think, with play comes out of a book by Stuart Brown called Play. And he did a lot of work where he would just ask people to tell kind of their biography of play, you know, where it comes from, as kids. And, you know, I remember doing that with myself and it just, it was so much was with my brother and my dad silliness and rough and tumble and how, you know, as I did this narrative or inquiry, I just learned how fundamental play was for me growing up. So I have to ask you, what was it like for you as a kid?
Demond Hill My goodness. Like that was the time where if anything was going wrong and if anything was going right, that was a space that I knew, you know, I could at least express myself in whatever way was possible and do with other people that understood what I was doing. I think regardless if it was in Madison, Wisconsin, or Columbus, Mississippi, there was always somebody responding to my play in a way that I thought was necessary in the moment. So, I mean, I miss it. You know, I miss the times being able just to be.
Dacher Keltner I love how you describe it as just being understood, right? There’s something magical about play where we exit the world of serious life and we get into this space where it’s like we’re all community here. And we speak the same–so what do you do in Columbus, Mississippi? What was childhood like there, and play?
Demond Hill There was so much wildlife. So snakes and little rabbits. And I remember my grandfather, a beautiful man, he had tons of dogs in his backyard and we lived and my family lived on a farm. So, just running through the corn, running through, picking tomatoes like it was just a lot of freeness. And yeah, once we moved, it’s a different ballgame.
Dacher Keltner How so?
Demond Hill I remember a lot of the time, you know, there would be parents who would be very concerned about where we were playing. A park that wasn’t too far away, but, you know, the other side of park was a very predominantly white area. And that area was still very much so consumed by whiteness. So the things that we were doing, you always saw a police car driving through, concerned.
Dacher Keltner So as a scholar, you use ethnographic methods to study play among Black youth. But for our show you turned the lens on yourself and went out and did three different types of play on your own.
Demond Hill Mhm.
Dacher Keltner And the first thing is go down a slide. A very tall, concrete slide at a park not too far from UC, Berkeley. What was that like?
Demond Hill So I was like, OK, let’s see what it will look like if I went on a slide. And it’s probably been years. Like, legit.
Dacher Keltner How’d it go? I’ve seen that slide, it’s brutal. It’s like a cement tunnel that you shoot down like thirty miles an hour.
Demond Hill Yes. So I end up walking up the stairs and there were some kids that were already going down the slide.
So I pumped myself up. I get up on the slide and I start watching and seeing two parents, who were definitely the parents of the kids that were on the slide, look at each other, and then look at me. So I was like, OK, you know, whatever. I don’t care. I went down the slide.
Demond Hill Here I go.
Demond Hill The kids, like, were like not Sure what to think, But the parents did have something to say to me just like, “Why are you, are you OK?” And I said, “Well, I’m just going down the slide and I didn’t think there was too much of an issue with it.” And they’re like, “You know, you could have waited til our kids moved down,” and I think after he, like, signaled me to get off and was like, well, you know, like I got up, moved to the side and chatted with them for a little bit longer and just said, like. “I just wanted to go down the slide. I didn’t mean any harm, I hope, you know, folks don’t feel weird.” And I just moved on about my day. And I think that was, you know, just another eye-opener about, you know what it looks like, you know, for a grown person to, you know, participate.
Dacher Keltner For an African-American to try to play outdoors. Yeah, it’s like your research. It just astonishes me the surveillance is not just in a police car.
Demond Hill The everyday-ers.
Dacher Keltner Yeah. Sorry about that.
I guess Demond, one of the things. I’m hearing you say, and life is never simple, as you know, for African-Americans, play is about freedom and healing and ideas of liberation. So you let your guard down, but at the same time, you know, you’re being observed. And I’m just curious, how did that play out as you rode down that slide like that, that duality, if you will?
Demond Hill Well, um. You know, that’s the question I need to, you know, take to my little therapist. But, I think the first thing that really came to my mind was this, like awkwardness, And then in the same breath, I got kind of excited. Like, I was like, dang, this has been a while, you know, a while. And I wanted to like, potentially feel again or remind myself of that inner Black child that’s still there, that is still trying to make sense of the world or like what it is the world was trying to tell me and how it’s still impacting me everywhere I go.
Dacher Keltner So are you going to go down the slide again?
Demond Hill No, I’m not going back to that slide. I am not going back to that slide.
Dacher Keltner Yeah.
Demond Hill I think what could be cool is if, you know, some black folks go down and go down that slide, you know, and I think that would give somebody like me some hope to do that. Yeah. Um, because if I’m going out there and playing every day, obviously they’re going to have something to say to me, you know, and they’re going to judge it. But if there’s other people going down there playing that look just like me, um, and they’re saying what you got to say about me going on this slide, you know, I think that would then restore, you know, my hope. But as of now, there are some other places, you know, I could go down the slide and they’ll just look at me like, “Hm, what’s wrong with you?” But keep it moving, you know!
Dacher Keltner Yeah, I hear you. So what did you do next? What kind of play?
Demond Hill So I go to a park out here, I’m not too far away from the campus and I played basketball.
Dacher Keltner Yeah, how was the game?
Demond Hill Yeah know…I think the space used to be predominantly of color. I think a lot of the folks that go to the park do so to reclaim the space for themselves, something that I see a lot in in children’s play. The men were as old as I think maybe like 60, 65 and as young as probably like 12, 11, out there just playing basketball amongst each other. And like, it was an opportunity for me to step away and realize just how beautiful that environment is and how essential it was for my entire journey this year. You know, amidst a crazy pandemic amidst craziness like that was just everything for me.
OGs came up and gave me a hug, was like, remember, I’m 50 years old, you know? And I’m like, yeah, You know, and still moving in, like a great way while his wife and his grandson were outside. And I think that was, like, that is a life that I want to be able to live for myself. And I want my hopefully my grandson, my children in the future to be able to watch, you know, their parent enjoying life and playing and showing them how to play and like, what it could potentially look like.
Dacher Keltner Yeah, cool. You know, we did a study on play and all the touch that happens in play and basketball. People don’t realize that who haven’t played, but it’s one of the most physical sports and I used to joke that, you know, I played pickup basketball. I probably played three thousand games in my life everywhere. And I never saw a single fight. And like, at vegetarian restaurants, you’re going to see people fighting over a parking space. Something’s up!
Demond Hill Yeah. Yeah
Dacher Keltner So going down a slide… playing basketball ... what was the third thing you did for play?
Demond Hill I went to Lake Merritt and just sat in the space ice. It was the time, I think right now there that is a literal movement where they’re reclaiming space, definitely an environment where someone was very explicit about Black people not being there.
Dacher Keltner Right. Lake Merritt in Oakland, California, where a white woman called the cops on a group of Black people for barbecuing there. That call went viral.
Oakland police, ma’am.
Um yeah I would like to report someone is illegally using a charcoal grill…I would like it dealt with immediately so that coals don’t burn more children and we don’t have to pay more taxes.
Dacher Keltner That incident sparked a national conversation about race and bias and access to public spaces. So what was your experience like at that park?
Demond Hill Probably the most beautiful scene, you know, music, cars, people laughing, enjoying themselves, people yelling, kids running around playing. It was like it was an eye opener for me, definitely even just how I’m trying to think even deeper about what play could mean. It was just beautiful.
Dacher Keltner How is it that if you’re observing people play, how does that become play for you?
Demond Hill I was in a group of a few of my friends and I think. What comes from what I was seeing was playfulness and like the joking and the laughter, right. And even though I may not have been participating in the larger playfulness or play that was happening across the lake, my very body there, was. And there’s no way I could separate, you know, my emotions, what I was collecting, what I was absorbing from what was happening around me.
And, I think a lot of times when I’m at a barbecue with my family, we are playing all day and we may not be like rolling around in the grass, you know, but we’re like joking on each other and like, you know, playing around, moving around. We might go do something together.
And when I watch my grandmother, who definitely is not going to get up and move around Like we are, and she’s laughing because she’s sitting in the space and watching, you know, her family actually participate collectively in a practice that is allowing for them to heal, you know, participating in a practice that like she herself did for a very long time. For me, it’s like you can’t be in an environment amongst a ton of playful people, playfulness, beauty and not, you know, participate in it regardless if you say a word, regardless if you move.
Dacher Keltner Just reminds me of being, you know, my kids are grown up like, man, you know, I used to just take the kids to the park and kids are all just being a big dogpile. And it was just like, this is such a good play. What did your grandma teach you about play?
Demond Hill Oh, my goodness. I think my big grandmother, Cara Chones, she taught me that play could potentially make someone feel like they belong in the world. I would say my grandmother, Berline Chones, who is just an incredible woman, showed me that play is everything and it should be an everyday practice from the way you wake up in the morning, how she gets up and goes to work. That’s a hard-working woman, you know, like who has enough energy to still come home and play with her grandsons. I think, incredible.
So I think those two things were, you know, some of my big grandmother, and my little grandma taught me, you know.
Dacher Keltner So part of the practice was to journal about your experience with these forms of play. Would you mind sharing a bit of what you wrote?
Demond Hill Yeah sure. This was huge, and I thank y’all for the practice. Because something that I wrote down that just kept going into my brain over and over again was that. For me, Black play does the job that we tend to not do, which is transform the places in which we find ourselves into places in which we live.
I remember I wrote that, I remind myself for my own sake, and these spaces were reminding me, the experience going down the slide and being told this is not a slide for you, it’s a slide for kids, was like, hmm, play is still the gateway to joy. That is huge, you know. Yeah. And as a child, being able to as a Black child, being able to imagine yourself as someone who can literally do the world-building that is necessary, what can that do? That’s a whole array of things.
Dacher Keltner Demon Hill, man, I can’t wait to see where your PhD work takes you. Thank you for this amazing conversation.
Demond Hill Thank you. I appreciate it dearly.
Dacher Keltner Welcome back to The Science of Happiness, I’m Dacher Keltner. We’ve been talking about the importance of play. When we play we release endorphins, a neurochemical associated with ease and confidence. Unstructured play also helps kids learn how to work in groups and resolve conflict. It helps them negotiate, self-regulate, and speak-up for themselves.
Regularly, we find that playful adults report more life satisfaction and better coping skills. But the stark reality is that safe access to play and green spaces, at least in much of the United States, often comes down, regrettably, to the color of our skin and our zip codes.
I’m joined by Harrison Pinckney, an assistant professor of Parks, Recreation and Tourism at Clemson University. Harrison is the author of Playing While Black and a pioneer in his field, investigating the racial socialization of African-American youth and its effects on play.
Harrison it’s such a privilege to talk to you today on The Science of Happiness.
Harrison Pinckney Thank you so much for having me.
Dacher Keltner So your paper, Playing While Black, explores how recreation is so vital to the identity development of teens and preteens. And you use three case studies to show how Black play is stifled and even criminalized here in the U.S. Tell us about Playing While Black.
Harrison Pinckney When you look at our out-of-school free time, that’s that space where young people have some autonomy, they have some voice, they have an opportunity to make some decisions about what they want to do and how they want to express themselves. And, through play, we know often that this is that space where kids build their confidence. This is that space where kids even shape some of their identity and how they want to be seen. “I want to be seen as athletic or to be seen as musical. I want to be seen as artistic.” And so when we add that layer of race, we’re saying some of that is being stifled for certain kids in this country because now you’re not allowed to explore as much.
For Black youth in particular, there’s the potential loss of innocence, the potential loss of freedom, and the potential loss of life. And so for that particular paper we use case studies to illustrate our argument. And so there’s this innocence that’s lost for Black male youth early on in play spaces when they can no longer just roughhouse as maybe some of their white counterparts are allowed to.
Dacher Keltner Yeah. You’re using citizen data of people filming real things out in the world and then you go on to tell the scholarly story around it. And I think there’s movements in the study of happiness more generally of letting community members give rise to hypotheses and new theoretical notions, because that’s where wisdom is.
Harrison Pinckney Thirty or 40 years ago, when these incidents happened in a
local community, only the local community knew about it.
So now, we’re able to see people tell their own stories. Now, it’s not just myself and my co-authors making this case, but we actually are able to allow people to watch videos and make decisions for themselves.
And most of them are taking place in places of play. You know, being, having the police called on them because they opened up a hot dog stand or a lemonade stand. And it’s a very, very sad reality.
Dacher Keltner In one sense, your work points to really fundamental conversations we need about policing and public spaces. And I see some opportunity for hope there. Like how do you think about where we need to make progress in kind of creating these parks, and rec centers, and community centers for our youth, African-American youth and people of color more generally? What do we need to do?
Harrison Pinckney Allowing communities to speak up for themselves and not take this sort of prescriptive approach of “We’re going to go in and this is what we’re going to do to protect the play of Black youth” and instead, speaking to Black youth, speaking to their family, speaking to community members and allowing them to really provide the solutions for what they want to see happen and not just listen to their voice, but empower them. Hand over the resources for communities to make decisions around their needs and around their desires.
And then I think simultaneously, there needs to be an increased conversations and observations around the actions and behaviors of members of the white majority.
Most studies that we engage in, at least in my discipline, when we talk about race, it largely comes down to collecting data from, you know, a racial or ethnic minority group. Right. And we’ve rarely, if ever, take the time to look at what are the behaviors that are taking place on behalf of the white majority that are stifling the play of others. And what are the policies that we need to, you know, maybe adopt in order to protect those spaces?
Dacher Keltner Wow. Well, Harrison Pinckney, thank you for being on our show.
Harrison Pinckney Thank you for having me.
Dacher Keltner We recently published an essay by Demond Hill on how play can be transformative for Black children. Visit our website at greatergood.berkeley.edu to check it out.
Our next episode will be our 100th! And it’s thanks to all of you, our listeners. We’re so grateful for your emails of support, and inspiring stories and reflections you’ve shared with us.
So for our 100th episode I’m going to try a happiness practice, exploring gratitude. Here’s what I’m going to do: Each day for the next week, I’m going to write down three good things that happened that day, and why they were good. I’d love for you to join me on this journey. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org with some of the good things that you journaled about it.
I’ll report back to you on my own good things on the next episode of The Science of Happiness.
I’m Dacher Keltner, thanks for joining me. Our Senior Producer is Shuka Kalantari. Sound design by Jennie Cataldo and Ben Manilla of BMP Audio. Our Associate Producer is Haley Gray. Our Executive Producer is Jane Park. Our Editor-in-Chief is Jason Marsh. The Science of Happiness is a co-production of UC Berkeley’s Greater Good Science Center and PRX.