A Sunday afternoon event in the shadow of Baker Park’s bell tower featured hula hoops, water balloons and various drums to enthusiastically whack on. But the people playing with the toys weren’t just children, but mostly adults, a mixture of ages scattered around a loose circle of drummers under trees.
It’s the Baker Park Play Down in Frederick, a reoccurring event where people are invited to get their play on.
As the sun beat down this past weekend, music carried through the park with instruments ranging from a flute to a plastic water jug, while Badminton rackets lay near a Twister game and children climbed a tree that arched over the circle.
Play Down co-organizer Rebecca Southers, 33, said the inspiration for the event came from a long standing drum circle every Sunday in Washington, D.C. She said the intent was to build community, and well, play.
She said the Play Downs, which are held just about every other week and started in June, usually garner a crowd from Facebook and word of mouth, but also attract people passing by — the initially reticent adults and usually bolder children.
She said she tries to make it a point to greet everyone.
“Adults just lurk and wander away if we don’t invite them,” she said. “They just don’t have a context for ‘We’re just playing and you’re welcome to play too.’”
Co-organizer Sue Kemp, 45, who runs a hula hooping business, Soolah Hoops in Frederick, brings extra hoops for people to play with. “Bring your own things that interest you and share them with people,” she said. “Everybody can share an expression of themselves.”
The event is completely free.
“Nobody’s getting paid and we’re not charging anyone and we’re not selling anything,” Southers said. “The whole idea is to build community together.”
Participant Drew Howe, 41, sat on an orange Home Depot bucket underneath the trees, steadily tapping on his seat. Wife Pam, 40, played with Poi, a performance art involving swinging colorful ribbons on string, in the background.
The couple was drawn to the event by friends who are involved.
He said after participating in a drum circle a few times, it’s easy to slip into meditation. “I think there’s kind of this spiritual component to it,” he said. “It helps lower the blood pressure, puts you at ease.”
“It’s a decompression,” agreed Pam, coming to get some water. “You can just bang on a drum if you’re feeling uptight…or if you’re not!”
She said the couple likes to come, experiment, play and not be judged. “We’re horrible drummers...You’re totally squashing our drum by the way,” she laughed, tapping at her husband’s seat.
Nearby someone broke into song in the group, the steady pounding of the drums punctuating the vocals. “It’s just fun, it’s relaxing,” Pam Howe said. “It’s a chance to get outside and connect with stuff that’s not electronic.”
She said she’s all for technology, but it’s nice to unplug.
Daughter Grace Howe, 8, played with other children on the grass, her brightly colored sock sole’s blackened with dirt.
“It gets her in the grass,” Pam Howe said. “… Kids are supposed to be dirty. Everything is so sterile and disconnected. This is a good grounding exercise.”
Grace said she liked making new friends. Their neighborhood does not have many kids. “We’re meeting a lot of cool people from different backgrounds,” Pam Howe said. “It’s just a chance for people to come out and be human, not be labeled like ‘Like, oh, I’m an architect.’”
Kemp said the event is about expression, community and trying new things. She recently had her first go at tightrope walking on a line someone brought and set up between two trees low to the ground. “Everybody was able to try it,” she said. “You could break through your fear if you have one.”
Southers said they wanted to have a regular presence in the park. And no permits are needed for the gathering. Attendance has ranged from around 50 people to a few hundred.
Southers, who describes herself as “hyper social,” said she’s made a lot of new friends and it’s the building community aspect she enjoys most. People pitch in, bringing different toys. One regular participant is starting a community meal after the event, where people bring food and something is made using it all.
In the past, people have brought croquet and yoga activities to the park, and Southers is plotting a way to make an affordable 50-by-50-foot Twister mat. Other visions include belly dancers, painters and even a clothing or costume swap.
Kemp is hopeful that the gatherings continue into the fall, then maybe into the winter if an indoor space can be arranged.
The next Baker Park Play Down is scheduled for 3-6 p.m. Aug. 7 by the bell tower in Baker Park.