For the past year and a half, I’ve ran a public meetup group on Facebook called The Recess Project – Austin. There are 230 members, mostly friends of mine or people I’ve met. About 70 of our members are people I’ve never met who added themselves in.
I started this group for a few reasons:
- To see my friends regularly.
- To encourage planning and coordinating fun hangouts.
- To regularly visit my favorite place in the city, Zilker Park.
Mostly, I just wanted to see if people would actually show up on a regular basis to “play,” or if they’d dismiss the notion as childish.
I also wanted to see if there was any chance that a movement might catch on. After all, everyone says they want to meet new people and make friends. Everyone says they want to want to work less and have more fun…
But do we just SAY we want those things, or do we actually seize opportunities to make them happen?
Here are the lessons I’ve learned from hosting 25+ recess events in Austin.
1. Everyone wants a PERSONAL invitation
It doesn’t matter how fun you make your events. If people don’t receive a PERSONAL invitation — as in a private text message, private email, or a phone call — they probably aren’t going to show up.
No one likes receiving a mass invitation. Just like no one enjoys being on a group email, where they’re CC’d with a bunch of random people. We assume that because it’s impersonal, it doesn’t warrant attention.
This was my biggest hurdle for the Recess Project. Most of my events felt impersonal because I rarely extended any further communication about them other than posting a Facebook event. Sometimes, only one or two people would show up. One time, no one showed up. It also made things a bit stressful for me. “Who is coming to this?” “I have no idea.”
But whenever I sent a bunch of individual text messages asking my friends to come, those events always had a good turnout.
For me, the group started off as a place where I could just post things I’m doing in the city so that if anyone wanted to join me, great! If not, no big deal — I’m still going to do it anyways. But as the group grew larger, this shifted into a weird dynamic…
My closer friends stopped coming because it started feeling like these were impersonal public events. More people who I’d never met started showing up in the hopes of making new friends. So while it was still fun, it felt like I’d become the host of a weekly party where I barely knew anyone and had to be “on.” Some of the events felt unsettled and strange for me. I realized I didn’t like hosting; I just liked hanging out with my friends. That brings us to my second big realization…
2. Recess should be for you and your friends
If you’ve ever stayed in a hostel for more than a week, you know the bittersweet feeling of meeting a bunch of new people. It’s fun for a few days, and then you realize you’ll probably never see them again. It’s the same dynamic with hosting weekly public meet ups. If you don’t have a core group of friends coming, it’s not as much fun. You just feel tired afterwards.
Meeting people and making new friends is great. But recess should be about deepening the friendships that you already have. It should be about regularly getting together to have fun with people you care about. Double-down on the friendships that you care to develop; don’t just keep adding more people onto the pile.
That’s why I think all of these “meet new people” apps are ultimately unfulfilling. We grow increasingly fond of people when we continually hang out with them. We need lots of time to develop deeper relationships, and that means seeing the same people over and over again. And right now, there aren’t any apps that facilitate or measure quality time with the critical few friendships we most want to nurture.
3. Don’t let people feel alone for the first few minutes
Another big lesson I took away was that the first few minutes are huge for newcomers. As soon as someone shows up, you want to quickly make them feel welcome and part of the group. Thank them for coming, offer them a drink or invite them to play a game (so they can do something with their hands), and introduce them to a few people.
Newcomers want to feel like they are in a safe happy place where they can relax, they want to feel like they are around “their people,” and most of all, they want to feel like they are “in” — a valued member of the group. Sort of like Cheers: you want to be where everybody knows your name.
I noticed that people rarely showed up alone — they usually showed up with a friend, or a group, or their dog. The people who showed up alone often admitted to me that they felt anxious on the way over, or almost talked themselves out of coming. A few of them said it took awhile — sometimes weeks — to muster up the courage to come hang out with a group of random people.
The problem was that they didn’t want to feel like a loner. This was particularly challenging, and I kept screwing this up. People would show up to Zilker Park, but wouldn’t know where any of us were (even when I was posting this map):
There were several occasions where people showed up, but couldn’t find anyone. Or they couldn’t get ahold of me. I always felt bad in those instances because their first few minutes at recess were frustrating. And then they were in a bad mood, and thought “Why did I even show up?” But as soon as they started playing around, their mood quickly improved.
4. Recess is 10X more fun with kids and dogs
The most fun recesses we had — by far — included little kids and playful dogs. The kids never failed to snap the adults out of being too serious or stressed out. They gave us permission to let our guard down. Dogs had a similar effect.
I’ll never forget one of the most enjoyable recess moments was playing keep away from a puppy. It was me, my friend Tony, and his two younger daughters Abby and Elaina, kicking a soccer ball back and forth, while a dog chased after it for 15 minutes. Everyone watching us was cracking up.
Of course, dogs also had a tendency to destroy our toys:
Another time, we just played memory games and school yard chants for an hour while sitting in a circle. I don’t think I’ve ever seen my girlfriend laugh so hard.
I think adults tend to underestimate how much we need to play with kids. Not just for our own happiness, but for theirs too. Otherwise adults unwittingly become known as the fun-destroyers.
Grown ups have a tendency to infringe on kids’ play. We make it about ourselves. Just go watch any youth sport in America. Kids play on manicured fields in professional uniforms while adults dictate the rules, watch on the sideline, filming and yelling at their kid’s every move. Grown ups need to play WITH their kids, or just leave them alone — not this weird middle ground where they just spectate, criticize, and control. Same with dogs. You can’t get mad at them or stop them from playing around with other dogs. That’s what they’re made to do. Play with them, or let them do their thing.
5. “Play” is different for everyone
When I first started hosting recess, I thought everyone wanted to play catch or soccer at our beautiful city park every week. For awhile, I believed that having this sort of consistency would be prized by everyone. In reality, most people were thinking this:
When I started taking polls, asking what everyone else wanted to do, it changed everything. To my surprise, the majority of the group wanted to be doing more water events:
It should go without saying, but not everyone wants to do all the things that you want to do. Some people like to play catch, some like to sit around and chat, and some like to hula hoop. Ask your group what they want to do from time-to-time, and go do those things. You’ll have a better turn out and higher group satisfaction.
6. Eat and drink together
Some of the most enjoyable recesses involved eating and drinking together before/after the main activity. For instance, we would start off eating pizza at a brewery, and then we went bowling. Or we played laser tag, and then we grabbed drinks and played pool. Or we played Aerobie (the greatest toy of all time), and then ate at the food trucks.
When you’re eating and drinking together — especially after playing a game — everyone really has a chance to relax, let their guard down, joke around, and truly connect with each other.
7. We all need to play
The vast majority of people who came to my recess events thoroughly enjoyed it, and were appreciative of the opportunity to just have guilt-free fun.
Some of the stories people told me were priceless. Several times people told me they were having a terrible day and they were sad, but recess turned everything around. Or that they’ve been playing with their kids more. Or that they made new friends.
Everyone should do a weekly recess with their buddies. And it’s easy to start. This was the email I sent to 30 of my friends, which started the whole thing back in April 2014:
Hello, friends of Austin!
This Friday, I’m going to play at Zilker park. I’ll be right here from 5 – 7:30pm. I think you should join me. Here’s why…
A lot of us don’t play — we work all the time. We’re always online, sitting indoors, staring at screens, and drinking caffeine all day long. When we take a break, we feel guilty and anxious for being away from work. Then we say things like “I’m just so busy right now” and five minutes later we’re checking Facebook / Reddit / Tinder. The weekend routine isn’t much better — bars, alcohol, small talk with people we barely know.
(Might sound harsh, but I followed that routine for a loooong time. It’s pretty lonely and not very fun.)
Sometimes you need a break from work. You need time away from the digital world, to get outdoors and run around in the sunshine.You need recess.
So if you want to join, come to Zilker on Friday between 5 and 7:30pm. Feel free to invite your friends or family, and bring anything you want (frisbee, football, food, etc). This isn’t a networking event or singles hour where you have to impress people with small talk. It’s just a break to have your own fun, hang out with nice people, and enjoy the park.
No need to RSVP or apologize if you can’t make it. I’m not keeping tabs, and I won’t hold it against you if don’t come. The only thing I’d ask is that — if you do come — play. Don’t turn it into a photo session for Instagram, or a pseudo-break where you’re discreetly checking email. Turn your phone off, and just be there.
Hope to see you!