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Consumer Reports

Playing children's game keeps adults in touch with life? | (KRT) On a moonlit night on the Country Club Plaza in Kansas City, a slender young lady darted in the dark just south of the J.C. Nichols Fountain. Other players moved away from her like polarized magnets, running in circles and at right angles.

They were the hunted, she the huntress.

Creeping like a tiger, she spied her prey. Zooming left she thrust out her arm.

A lunge. A swipe.

A touch on the shoulder.

There's nothing unusual about children playing tag. What was unusual is that the child in this game was 23 years old, and many of her playmates hadn't been kids for decades. Tag for adults? Why not?

In May, Kate Schurman, a Kansas City law office manager, founded the Tag Institute, a grown-up group of tag enthusiasts who get together at 7 p.m. every Wednesday on the Plaza to chase each other silly.

They're not alone. Across the country children's games are enjoying a retro renaissance. From dodgeball to stickball, more adults are rediscovering their playful pasts. In Atlanta they play street hockey on in-line skates. And in Washington, D.C., the World Adult Kickball Association has more than 4,000 members with leagues throughout the United States.

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But while dozens of cities now have adult kickball or dodgeball games, few play tag like they do in Kansas City. Hundreds of people have played, including visitors from Texas, Japan and Australia. Local tag teamers now play more than a dozen variations, including movie tag, tunnel tag, octopus tag, zombie tag, suicide tag and caramel-corn tag.

What started as a game has now grown into a community. Tag players went to see "Hamlet" together in the park. They attended the opening of "Pirates of the Caribbean." They've gone to book lectures and signings. They're even planning a float trip for next year and have talked about doing charity work at Harvesters or Habitat for Humanity. No matter what they do, it is Kate Schurman who leads them - Kansas City's undisputed Pied Piper of playing tag.

Why tag?

"It's simple," Schurman said. "It doesn't require equipment, you can play anywhere, at any time, and you don't have to feel like you need any special skill. All you have to do is show up."

It's also good for you, said her mother.

"There have been times when I've really had a rough day and I've had to make myself come to tag," said Susan Schurman, 52. "And it really works. It changes my whole attitude."

Not a natural athlete, Kate Schurman (pronounced SKER-min) was never much for traditional sports. Like most people, she enjoyed playing tag as a child. But when she grew up, she stopped playing. Everyone did.

The more she thought about it, though, the more it bothered her. Tag was fun, good exercise and a wonderful way to meet people and make new friends. Why did it have to go away just because she became an adult? Then it came to her: It didn't.

Schurman decided not to be bound by convention. She didn't care how old she was. She didn't care what people might think. She was going to play tag on the Plaza.

She called her sister Elizabeth and her mother.

"You're coming," she told them. "Cause I can't play by myself."

She called friends, talked to neighbors, put up fliers in coffee houses and placed a notice in the newspaper's calendar section. She even drew arrows with sidewalk chalk pointing the way to the game and pulled strangers off the street.

Carmen Root, 56, of Waldo, Mo., who has gone to several of Schurman's tag games with her great niece, has seen that passion firsthand.

"There are a lot of people walking by on the Plaza, and they'll just pull them in and say 'Come on! Play tag with us!' she said.

Once they play, Root said, many get hooked. "It's a hoot 'cause they're falling down and hiding behind trees,'' she said. "I love it."

Adults playing kids' games? What does it mean?

It's simple, said James Twitchell, a pop culture expert from the University of Florida. Increasingly people have isolated themselves the last several decades. This is an indication that the pendulum has now started to swing back the other way.

"We're not together like we used to be," he said. "What do you blame it on, the automobile, the television, the computer? It doesn't matter. To me this is a celebration of what we've lost and are trying to get back - namely a sense of community."

In the early part of the 20th century, Twitchell said, about 60 percent of American males belonged to some sort of group. Women also were heavily involved in social circles. Today we are more likely to be alone.

For Schurman and her friends, tag fills the void.

Wednesday, 7 p.m. Thirty-eight degrees and dark. A small knot of players formed a circle in the south end of Mill Creek Park between 47th Street and the J.C. Nichols Fountain. An oblong moon hung over them as wind blew leaves from a nearby oak tree into small circles, and bells rang from a nearby tower. In summer, when they played, it was still light out. Now the only light came from scattered street lights, Plaza buildings and the headlights of passing cars.

No matter. They smiled and greeted each other with hugs and handshakes.

"What do we play?'' several players asked. Suggestions filled the air. Skip tag. Freeze tag. Caramel-corn tag. Cougars and horses.

They'd get to all of them eventually. The chilly November weather kept the group smaller than usual. Summer games have featured up to 30 players. But what they lacked in numbers they made up for in passion. Quick as you could say "who's it?" they dashed into the night, running across sidewalks and around trees, mere blurs in overcoats and gloves.

Over the next hour as they ran, skipped, sidled, squatted, jived, juked and jumped they attracted attention from pedestrians and passing motorists, some of whom pointed and smiled.

"Your first reaction is they're kind of crazy," said Betty Tykwinski, a visitor from North Dakota Valley City, N.D. "But then you think, 'It's a good thing for adults to play and have fun.'"

And as anyone listening to the laughter coming from the game could attest, they were having fun.

"For Halloween we played zombie tag," said Kate Schurman. "I think people were kind of freaked out. Fifteen people walking around the park with zombie arms going 'Uhhhhhhh!' "

No matter what game they play, the group has a small-town feeling. Old-fashioned. Friendly. Genuine.

"It's so easy to come down here,'' said John Miller, 23, of Prairie Village, Kan. "It's free, and I don't end up sitting with a bunch of drunk people, which I could be doing. The exercise is nice. It's just a fun way to be around people I enjoy."

While the game was started by adults, it's open to everyone. Newcomers, men, women, kids, seniors. It just doesn't matter. Fast or slow, you have Kate Schurman's promise. Show up and you'll play and be made to feel welcome.

Fair warning, though. It helps to be secure in who you are. Certain games require you to skip and hold hands with others.

Committed tag teamers wouldn't give up their Wednesday nights for anything. But they know it comes at a price.

"When people hear you play in a tag group they're like 'Tag?' " said Adam Carey, a 24-year-old writer from Kansas City. "I say, 'Yeah, you know. Tag, you're it?' And they say 'Why? Isn't that kind of goofy?' And I say, 'You know, it's actually a wonderful thing. I get some exercise, I meet new people, cute girls. It's a good time.'"

Elizabeth Schurman, who helped found the game with her sisters Kate and Valerie, gives the ribbing right back.

"Some of my friends aren't cool enough to play tag," she said. "But I know plenty of people who are."

One of those is Barbara Schwartz, a 48-year-old stay-at-home mom who brought her daughters, Sydney and Meleeya, 12 and 10. She came for a simple reason.

"It's very hard to do something with your children at this age," she said. "But they've been very inviting. I haven't felt like I'm too old to play, and I don't think they feel like they are too young to play."

Kate Schurman says it just make sense to play tag.

"We have this physical education system in school. But if you're not a great basketball player or football player, you think that you can't do anything," she said. "I think that's horrible. Why don't they teach tag in school? Anyone can play tag."

Besides, players say, it's a blast.

"There's this one game called caramel-corn tag where when you tag somebody they stick to you and they start holding hands and the line gets longer and longer," said Carmen Root. "Pretty soon each end of the line is going in a different direction and you don't know which is the front and which is the back. They're trying to tag people and wrapping themselves around trees. It's worth a trip even if all you do is watch. I tell you, I was laughing so hard I was about to cry."

When she was growing up in Prairie Village, Kate Schurman's main exposure to a warm supportive community came from television. As she watched shows such as "The Cosby Show" and "Family Ties" she longed for a similar feeling in her neighborhood.

While she knew her parents loved her, there were also many problems. Instead of laugh tracks, arguments filled the house. And unlike on "The Cosby Show," no one ever dropped by just to talk. Her parents divorced, and before she was 10 she and her sisters were shuttling back and forth between two homes.

Real life sure wasn't like it was on television.

But when she got out on her own, she still longed for the sense of community she saw there. Only this time she wanted it to be real.

Real things are important to Kate Schurman. Being truthful, with yourself and with others. In high school she wrote a paper about the book "Speaker for the Dead" by Orson Scott Card. The main character didn't stretch the truth or sugarcoat anything. Instead he gave stark, powerful eulogies that told the truth.

"Basically my paper ended up being about how we should be honest in our lives, and not be afraid to be seen at our worst and seen at our best," she said. "Without the imperfections we couldn't relate to anything. It's what makes us human. And it's what makes us beautiful."

For her, tag is the same way. It's not a very sexy game. And it's certainly not cool as an adult to announce to the world that you love to play it. But she'd rather be honest with herself and play tag than be someone she's not and hang out in a health club.

Her honesty has paid off. She's made dozens of new friends and talked to hundreds of diverse people she otherwise might never have met. One player is a student at the University of Kansas Medical Center. Recently the future doctor regaled the group with the story of how, for the first time, she helped deliver a baby. Another time, the group listened as 13-year-old Alex Dycus, a player from Texas who visits Kansas City relatives in the summer, told them fascinating stories from her trip to Guatemala.

After the games, the group often goes to Winstead's for onion rings, ice cream sundaes and post-tag conversation. They talk about movies, relationships and their lives in a friendly, no-pressure setting.

You just don't get this kind of healthy human contact in a bar, or on television or the Internet, Schurman said.

Barbara Schwartz said the game has had many unexpected benefits. It has allowed her children to respect and bond with adults while broadening all of their horizons.

Unprompted, her 10-year-old daughter, Meleeya, agreed.

"I've learned to appreciate other people who are older than me," she said. "They might not be the same age or the same religion, but it doesn't matter. I've learned to appreciate different cultures."

For Schurman, the tag game has become the community she never had. And she's dedicated to seeing it grow. She dreams of being the Joanie Appleseed of a nationwide tag explosion.

One of Schurman's tag friends, Dennis Conrow, a 27-year-old editor and designer from Grandview, Mo., tried to export the game to Denver. It didn't work, but at least he tried, Schurman said. Her sister Valerie is now running a game in Lawrence, Kan.

As winter approaches, Schurman is looking for a cold-weather site where the game can continue when snow, ice and arctic temperatures make it impractical to play outside. An empty gym, church basement or recreation hall near the Plaza would do nicely, she said.

Provided, of course, you don't mind a few skipping, hand-holding, tag-playing, onion ring-eating zombies.

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© 2003, The Kansas City Star Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services