In the 1970s, the clever people trying to sell Mars bars came up with one of the most memorable advertising slogans of all time: A Mars a day helps you work, rest and play. The campaign was so successful that those words can still drag millions of 50-somethings right back to our black and white childhoods.
As it turns out, there was an inherent truth buried in the Mars message that had nothing to do with eating more chocolate and all to do with the fact that even as adults we need to work, to rest and to play. Indeed, playing is such an essential activity that we find ways of introducing it by stealth into our everyday activities long after we’ve put away our toys.
Whether we’re kicking a ball with the grandchildren, throwing a ball for the dog, or having a ball getting ready for a fancy-dress party, it’s all play by any other name. Adults, including celebrities, are again enjoying activities that we grew out of in their early teens.
Brad Pitt, David Beckham and Will.i.am all play Lego, Beckham because it helps to calm him down. David Cameron claims to like nothing better than a game of Angry Birds (age range 6+) and 22 per cent of adults still play with toy cars, according to a recent survey by Honda of 2,044 people.
And Johanna Basford’s Secret Garden: An Inky Treasure Hunt and Colouring Book put adult colouring books in the headlines when it became Amazon’s bestseller.
These activities are not simply for fun; playing is as essential to our wellbeing as sleeping and dreaming, says psychiatrist Dr Stuart Brown, founder of the National Institute of Play in California.
“The opposite of play is not work, but depression,” he says. “Try to imagine a culture or a life without play. Image a life with no humour, no flirtation, no movies, no games, no fantasy.” To which I’d say no thanks.
Brown says humans are the most neotenous of species, which means we retain immature qualities into adulthood. We’re actually designed to play throughout our whole lifetime; that’s why we doodle, why we play sports, why we have hobbies well into our dotage.
In fact, there has been such a surge in demand for uninhibited, non-competitive activities such as making papier maché monsters, colouring in and even rollicking around in a soft ball centre, that playgrounds for adults are opening up throughout Europe, the US and Asia.
As ever, the US is leading the way: Camp Grounded, a summer camp where adults can enjoy potato printing, mask making and stilt walking is expanding rapidly. Three of the four Camp No Counselors camps, where guests go scavenger hunting, relay racing and tie dying before hitting their bunk beds, have sold out for the year.
“I’ve watched in awe as guest have disconnected from their day-to-day lives to connect with each other and become carefree kids,” says CNC’s founder Adam Tichauer. “At camp, highly accomplished individuals shed their work identifies and become their truest selves.”
Back in the UK, we are perhaps still too reserved to sign up for summer camp, but we have flocked to the next best thing: a playground cum installation (Decision by Carsten Höller) on the South Bank, with giant slides, flying machines and magic spectacles that turn your world upside down, and to a host of adult-only events at soft play parks and arty crafty cafés.
As Dr Brown says, “Nothing lights up the brain like play,” so go ahead and raid the grandchildren’s toy box. It’s what the doctor ordered.
1 Jump Street, Colchester
Jump Street is all about jumping high… and, you’ll be glad to hear, landing soft and safe. You can start with basic trampolining, join team games (on trampolines) and progress to wall jumps that are definitely not for the faint-hearted or the unfit.
2 Drink, Shop, Do, London
Fancy making pom poms? Or Lego robots? No? Then how about taking home your own Hulk Logan (made of clay)? Or a papier maché monster? Most of Drink Shop Do’s craft events are straight out of the infants’ art class and sell out fast.
3 Colouring-in books
Colouring books for adults are at numbers one and two on Amazon’s bestseller list. Johanna Basford’s Secret Garden has now sold more than two million copies since its release in 2013. Lesley O’Mara, managing director of Michael O’Mara, which also produces adult colouring in books, says they’ve “never seen a phenomenon like it in 30 years of publishing”.
4 Adults Fans of Lego
AFOL is a bone fide club with communities throughout the world. Brickish Association, AFOL’s British forum, publishes an excellent magazine for members and runs several events throughout the year, including regular meet-ups and brick shows. Earlier this year, artist Nathan Sawaya’s amazing Lego sculptures, made from 1.5m pieces, had visitors and critics in raptures.