It’s Friday night and your friend comes over armed with a bottle of wine, some coloring books, Play-Doh and a board game. At first glance, it may seem like 1986 has appeared at your door asking for its memories back, but look closer and you’ll notice the Play-Doh is infused with essential oils while Hungry Hungry Hippos has been replaced by Cards Against Humanity. And the coloring books? Let’s just say Dinosaurs with Jobs, Unicorns Are Jerks and the Coloring Book for Lawyers (‘This is my suit: color it gray or I will lose my job”) are some of the more palatable options.
Unusual? Perhaps. But it’s merely a snippet of adult play in 2016; a world in which annual sales of coloring books for grown-ups are topping the US$600 million mark in Asia-Pacific alone, and companies such as Crayola and Staedtler are experiencing worldwide pencil and crayon shortages for the first time ever.
Add to this the launch of adult play centers around the world such as ball pits, finger-painting studios and, in the case of one preschool in Brooklyn, New York, show-and-tell sessions for kidults (which, let’s be honest, could easily just be called Instagram), and we arrive at the question: What is going on?
One person who’s been following the phenomenon closely is Kathy Hirsh-Pasek, a professor of psychology at Philadelphia’s Temple University and author of Einstein Never Used Flash Cards, who says we are simply doing what we were born to do.
‘In Western cultures in particular, which traditionally value busyness and productivity, there’s a real stigma to ‘wasting time’ on things that aren’t seen to have any real value or purpose. But the truth is that play isn’t a luxury but an integral part of our genetic makeup,’ she says. ‘We know that dogs and cats play, monkeys and goats play, and even humans come into the world playing before we eventually teach [ourselves] not to, so there must be an evolutionary reason for why this is so.’
At the heart of what’s driving so many of us to let our ‘grown-up’ masks slip is a wealth of studies to back up Hirsh-Pasek’s claims. Research conducted by the University of Nebraska and VU University Amsterdam, for example, found that office meetings filled with humor resulted in better communication between co-workers, while another study by the University of Illinois discovered taking fun breaks from work not only resulted in stronger problem-solving skills but also greater productivity.
Taking some time out to watch cats playing piano on YouTube shouldn’t be discounted either—research shows those who enjoy a little snigger both improved their memory and decreased their stress levels. And roughhousing with your partner, friends and siblings? A perfectly healthy thing to do, according to Canada’s University of Lethbridge, which found that doing so stimulates growth factors in the part of the brain that regulates emotions and executive function—allowing you to better read social cues and make sound decisions.
‘These findings show that if we abandon play, we abandon an important part of ourselves,’ says Hirsh-Pasek. ‘But if we’re rediscovering play—as we are, there really is no limit to what we can imagine, or create for ourselves.’
THE ART OF PLAYTIME
Not quite ready to sign up for your local basketball team or macramé club? There’s no need to go that far, says Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute for Play and author of Play, who adds that the secret to reaping the benefits of play is to understand what it is in the first place.
‘It’s not about the activity but about doing something for its own sake,’ he says. ‘Play must be voluntary, enjoyable and enjoyed without any obligation or expectation of a desired outcome.’
It can be solitary such as knitting, reading or even daydreaming—what’s important is that you take a timeout, giving your brain ample opportunity to reset from your troubles and the stresses of day-to-day life.
If you’re stuck for ideas, first and foremost Hirsh-Pasek recommends jazzing up the more mundane areas of your life, such as dancing while you clean or sketching fellow passengers during your commute to work. ‘What’s important is avoiding the screen and engaging with the world around you in a different way,’ she says.
Take regular daydream breaks—whether in the bath or while you’re on the coffee run, and try to schedule regular time off for the hobbies you love yet never find the time to do.
Hirsh-Pasek also recommends involving loved ones in your playtime and actively playing with your children at eye level. Don’t have kids? Every mother adores a friend who will entertain her kids so that she can have a coffee or shower in peace.
Finally, while solitary playtime pursuits are essential, don’t forget to include friends in your circle of fun. Organize regular game or trivia nights, with vino and chocolate cake to boot. Just don’t forget your copy of Dinosaurs with Jobs, or things could get serious very quickly.
Do you have a favorite game you still play? Share with us using #momentumtravel.