Transcript #32: Kai Brouwer: What Happens When Adults Stop Playing?

I recorded this conversation over the summer with Kai Brouwer who runs Funbase in Amsterdam. Funbase is a co-working 'treehouse' that doubles up as a play centre for adults. There is a big ball pit, retro and contemporary video games, board games... all the necessary tools for a community of adults to reconnect to their playful inner child.

Listen to our conversation here

Kai: I'm Kai Brouwer and I'm the co-founder of Funbase, which is a play community for big kids, also known as adults. So we offer this amazing play space in Amsterdam, 10 minutes from central station, with all kinds of play activities ranging from board games, to ball pit, video games, LEGO, anything you can do to play. The most important thing is that we are trying to get, especially young adults, to re embrace that inner child again, to reconnect with themselves and to become more playful, because I think that part of staying sane and being yourself, being creative, being happy - play is in my opinion, one of the most important aspects of being centred as a human being.

That is what we are trying to do here. We have been doing that for nearly 3 years now. We started very small as an experiment within our friend group and with colleagues and people like that, and now we have a community of upwards of 700 people who are part of our little tribe here in Amsterdam and over the rest of the Netherlands, where we organise a play event every Saturday and meet up here and have a really good time. That is what Funbase is all about.

Marcus: Could you just describe what the room we are sitting in is like?

Kai: Yeah, of course. This room we call the 'Ball Pit Room', for the good reason that we have a ball pit 4x4 metres wide, and I think about 20,000 light blue and dark blue balls in there, with all kinds of sea creatures, a big dolphin and a couple of penguins. And we are sitting at a table tennis table which is used for our more traditional meetings, but the more creative sessions happen in the ball pit. For Funbase we are either chilling in there talking in there, or it is all out war in this room.

Marcus: Well, we are definitely getting in there after this. What sort of people are part of the community?

Kai: They are mostly 25-35 year olds. It's a very diverse group. They are from all over the world because Amsterdam is a very international city. We have expats looking to find new friends here, through play, which is one of the best ways to meet new people, in my opinion, instead of in a bar. We also have a lot of people who you could call a little bit more introvert, who feel that this is a place where they can connect with people who also like the more 'geeky' things, who like to play board games all day and enjoy each others company. So we have a lot more 'geeky' who join this, but it's not just for them. If you call them, 'them'!

It's for people that have a really stressful job and are trying to transition from that. This could be a stepping stone for them to reconnect with that playfulness and have a day where you don't have to do anything. Just play, let time fly by and have a good time.

So it is a really nice mix. Lots of backgrounds and different characters but what combines us or unites us is play. In my opinion, it transcends borders, cultures... it is something that all of us have in us and want to reconnect to.

Marcus: Is play something that has always been an important part of your life?

Kai: Yeah, most definitely. And also, the moment in my life when I didn't have that in me, or at least I tried to suppress it, is the darkest part of my life in terms of my mental health and how I was feeling. I was struggling with depression and pressure from the outside especially, and just feeling that I wasn't living my own life. I was living someone else's life and doing what someone else expected of me. I didn't play anymore. I wasn't playful. I became really cynical. So play has definitely been a big part of my life, but also the instigator for what started Funbase because it became really apparent that once I didn't play anymore, that once I became so serious about life, that something had to change. Actually the moment I really realised that was when one of my best friends had a burn out. That person was on the last row of the list of potential burnout victims, so I was really at a crossroads there. I knew that if I didn't change anything in my life I would get there too.

So I started changing things in my life. I started making mini steps to getting back to who I really was. I started asking myself the question, 'When was the last time I was truly happy?' and I had to go way back. I had to go all the way back through my childhood, 13 or 14 years old, where I could just play, where there was very little pressure to perform or be someone or to achieve things.

I grew up in Norway, my mum is from there. We went there for vacation a lot when we moved back to the Netherlands. So I was instantly thrown back to that period of time where I could play outside in nature and go into the mountains and pick wild berries, see the sunset, build awesome little dams in the river with my brother and sister. To just play with no worries and be curious. And to learn stuff. I learned more then about how stuff works than in the whole of my school life. I knew that that was something that was missing. Play was something that it was really apparent that I wasn't doing any more.

So little baby steps in getting that back. It is funny to think back now that they were all playful activities, but they were disguised. I don't know if you are familiar with obstacle runs, for example?

They were starting back then, and it was something that was cool to do. Something new. But it was playful. My friends and I didn't compete to be the first, we just crawled in the mud and laughed our arses off and had the best time of our lives. And I went to theses play centres for kids with my 3 years old niece, who was my alibi to go to that sort of place. So these were small steps to get back and what I did see quite fast was what it did to me as a person.

I started becoming happier. More present. Less cynical. Less toxic around people. I just became more me. I shed those layers of expectation and ego and whatnot. At the same time I saw how other adults were struggling with connecting with that playfulness. It was really interesting to see my own path, but also people trying to reconnect with it themselves. I really remember one moment, I think a week after visiting one of those play centres for kids, I was sitting at the kitchen table at my parents with my brother and sister. We were reminiscing about that particular event with my niece and playing. I had this one image in my head of this father playing with his 3-4 year old daughter in the ball pit. He was just having the best day of his life and the kid was as well, doing these WWE jumps from the side. She was laughing her arse off, with a big ear to ear grin. I was sitting there with my wife and my niece, eating lunch and just looking at this spectacle, and this guy just all of a sudden from super playful transitions into feeling really awkward and reserved. He sat on the side of the ball pit and he didn't really know what posture to take. His face was serious again. I looked around to see if he saw someone familiar, maybe his boss, but couldn't see that. It was maybe the seed that was planted.

We were sitting around the kitchen table, my brother, sister and I, I can't remember who said it but it was like, 'Wouldn't it have been awesome if that guy hadn't felt any shame. If there was a place where he would be surrounded with like minds who didn't judge him for that. Who would in fact celebrate it'. That's the thing that started Funbase.

Marcus:  I wonder if that man will ever pass through these doors. Why do you think play is something that we neglect so much? Obviously it is something we naturally do as children. Why do you think we move away from that?

Kai: I can't speak for anyone else, I can just try and see what happened to me. To me it felt like the moment where I had more and more responsibilities and stuff that was expected of me, that kind of started the deterioration of that playfulness inside of me. So thinking back to some of those vacations to Norway, which would be 3 or 4 weeks with no homework or pressure, I had a really good school period in primary school - that was fantastic, lots of play and no pressure. But still I felt those 4 weeks in Norway were the best weeks of my life. The last week of those vacations always felt like, 'Oh shit, I have to go back to school', and 'I have to go back to the Netherlands, and do school swimming again', which I hated. So all those 'should do' things that were waiting for me back home, I really dreaded. Highschool didn't help because there was more homework, you had to sit in rows for 8 hours a day with a short break, it didn't feel right. But you grow up feeling and knowing that apparently this is they way the world works, so I have to fall in line. I started rebelling. I skipped a lot of classes, I did everything in my power to do as little of homework and school as possible, but that made me feel like a real loser.

Like I had somehow failed at life. How could I not be part of this system that is apparently good for you because you can eventually get a good career and lots of money But it didn't sit right with me. So I skipped classes, I started gaming a lot with friends, hanging out, chasing girls, everything not school, to just escape that reality.

I think that also made me a bit more cynical and angry. That I felt, 'Fuck this whole system'. That I wanted to do something that I wanted to do. I wouldn't say that my parents stimulated me in that sense. They wanted me to perform at school. It wasn't like they wanted me to get the best grades, but they really wanted me to go to school and get that diploma and stuff like that. But I felt like I wanted to draw all day. I wanted to be a concept artist. I wanted to create games or stuff like that, but it always felt like it wasn't a possibility for me. That I'd have to wait until after getting the diploma and then maybe doing something else.

I think getting back to your question, I think all the things that are expected of you, 'this is how you should be living your life', 'these are the choices you should be making', those could all help you get off track and become less of yourself.

There is one little anecdote that really sticks to me to this day. A little kid of about 4 years old in a very free and open school getting asked a question by a teacher, which I got asked numerous times when I was a kid, 'What do you want to be when you grow up?". And that kid just thinks really hard and responds, 'Well teacher, aren't I someone already?". That really was a punch in the gut because that is how I felt. 'I don't have to get that diploma or complete this class to be someone, to be a success, to be more'.

I think just sticking with what you want to do, or what feels right, what excites you, if you can somehow hold onto that and nurture it, then you hold onto that playfulness and all of the benefits that come out of that. The creativity and the flow state when you works, and the relationships that you have, and the attractions that you have to others, and to just being yourself.

Marcus: It's what I believe as well. A lot of what you said resonated with my own life. My experience was that of having all of these ideas of what I should be doing to be an adult, what an adult was, and not feeling like I was that. Actually I did a really good job of recreating in my life what my expectations of what it meant to be an adult were. But also, the flip side of that was that it was the darkest period of my life. I'd tried to cut out all the bits that were really me and create this facsimile of what an adult is... and it was horrible. So these last few years have been for me, a process of unlearning and learning to have fun and to play. That is why I'm interested in this place. I think it's a really good thing that you are doing here.

Kai: Thanks so much. It's fascinating to me and at the same time, it is very logical, that a lot of people have struggled with this and have similar stories and similar feelings. Coming back to that question about how we lose that play, I think there are numerous factors. It could be your parents. It could be your direct social circle, but I think there is a lot of work that needs to be done in education and doing it right. In getting out of the way of the kids, instead of pushing them into these boxes. I think that is the number one challenge in making a real change in having less problems with depression, burnout, and all the nasty stuff that is happening right now.

Even, over here, I don't know if this is happening in the UK, probably, but even kids in primary school are starting to get burnout symptoms. Which is absolutely crazy. I become furious just thinking about it. That is definitely one place to explore. That has definitely started, there are a lot of people working on changing this, but  I think once we get some real change happening there, we will see the benefit in 20,30,40,50 years for a whole generation. Hopefully that just is super playful, with critical thinking at its core. Just doing stuff that is right and not harming the planet. A generation that can actually tip the scales a bit.

Marcus: You are a parent aren't you.

Kai: I am. I have a 2.5 year old daughter called Hailey, and she is an absolute delight.

Marcus: So how do you think that you are, and will continue to bring,  the concept of play into how you raise her?

Kai: I try to do as little as possible to push her in any way or direction as I can. I couldn't choose my primary school, my parents could. That is one thing that I can do. There are options, but not a whole lot where I live, but I can at least try and have the option of not having any adult standing in front of her saying she 'should' or 'should not' do this or that. And just keeping an eye out for her that that doesn't become a thing for her. That she feels like she can play, that she can do this or that. I think that is the main thing I want to ensure as a parent. That I guard her playfulness for her, together with her, and just have a shit tonne of fun together. To make good memories.

It's hard to talk about. I love my parents to bits, and I know exactly where it comes from, but I grew very materialistic, because of somethings or choices that they made for me. My dad was working a lot when I was a kid. I saw him every now and them and obviously at the weekends, but he was about work and providing. I always felt that he felt the need to buy things for us to compensate for the lack of time that he spent with us. I don't think he was extreme in the way he didn't spend a lot of time with us, but he must have felt that need to do that.

And my mother, she moved here from Norway not knowing anybody except for my father's parents and some other relatives, so she spent a lot of time with us, but she also felt the need to pamper us with all these toys and things. So it started to become normal for me to point at something and for it to become mine. "I want this"... It's mine. So I stopped knowing the value of money. If I wanted something I got it. It was a very unhealthy situation that I struggled with for quite a while and still do to some point. There is still something in me that goes, 'Oh shit! That looks nice. I want that. I need that right now', but that is definitely something that I want to not impose on Hailey. I want her to value money and have a healthy relationship with it, and also not buy to many things for her, because it's not necessary. The memories are the stuff that remains and if I look back, or think back, to my own childhood it is not the toys... except for maybe the Nintendo 64!!.... it's not the toys per say that made my childhood awesome. It is the things that I did outside, it is the memories that I made, the play... the really cool memories, not that super nice Power Ranger toy that cost €100. Those two things I'm really aware of and not letting them get in her way.

Marcus: I think it is really easy to be critical of our parents, but they were coming from a different generation, and that was the dominant story. You work hard and that is how you get a happy life, but I think as a generation we saw that not work. We saw that fail. So I guess it is our responsibility to look into why that didn't work and how we can, for our children and future generations, have a healthier impact. No doubt we will still mess up and make mistakes.

Kai: Yes, of course. That is part of life.

Marcus: It always makes a Philip Larkin poem spring to mind:

"They fuck you up your mum and dad,

They may not mean to but they do"

But we can try.

Kai: I like that poem. Yes, I don't blame them. I know they did what they did with the best intentions and I am probably going to make some mistakes as well. It's very, very true.

Marcus: But her dad has a giant ball pit in his office. That seems like a good start right there. I'm very keen to get in there. Maybe just to finish off, what are the games you like to play most now? What are the times right now when you feel like you are being fully yourself and at play?

Kai: I thoroughly enjoy the more strategic board games at this point in my life, where you can have 4-5 people with me and play for hours on end to strategise. It's more like Game of Thrones but in a board game, which isn't me, but it's nice to play that role and backstab people and scheme. It's awesome. And I do really love to be outside and play. I don't know if you know the game Kubb?

Marcus: Yes, you were the one to introduce me to it last year and I got it for my mum for her birthday.

Kai: So, i think they call it 'ancient Viking chess'. It's a horrible story where it came from, but it's a really nice game that you play with, I think, 10 wooden blocks and some batons that you throw at them. There are other rules obviously. It's a very nice garden/dunes/forest game that you can play at anytime, you can bring it with you in it's bag, and you can play it for quite a time. It's a very chilled out game and you can have a lot of fun in between goes and mock each other.

Marcus: It's basically a group of friends throwing big sticks at wooden blocks

Kai: Yes, I think that is the slogan.

Marcus: It is incredibly fun.

Kai: So I'll take this with me next week when I go on holiday. I really enjoy a lot of other outdoor games, especially in the summertime. I used to enjoy playing a lot of Over Watch on the PC - so like I mentioned, when I was in High School I played a lot of video games, I can't really play it a lot right now, but it is definitely one of my favourite games, that I dip into every now and then and lose myself in that, but it is nice because I can always play it with a lot of friends here at Funbase which makes it even more awesome.

Marcus: Thanks so much Kai and thanks for showing me around.

Thanks for reading! A baby could gestate in the time it takes me to type out each of these podcast transcripts, so if you found it useful to read this then please do consider supporting my work by visiting my super duper Patreon page. 고맙습니다, Marcus :)