If you live in Seattle, you may now participate in something called Adult Recess, which aims to recreate the joys of an American school break time, with kickball, hopscotch, and peanut butter and jelly sandwiches – but minus the bullying. “I thought back to the last time when I really had fun, and it was these games when I was a kid,” the event organiser told the Wall Street Journal. This is the latest iteration of “kidulting”, a word that should be outlawed but which does pinpoint something real. San Francisco has an adult recess, too, and you can play with Play-Doh at one library in Ohio. There are also several examples of what Americans call “sleepaway camps” aimed at grownups, including at least one in Britain. Oh, and there’s an adult ball pit in Shoreditch, east London, because of course there is.
The amusing thing about adult recess is that it proves whatever theory you already believe about what’s wrong with the world. If you think today’s young adults are infantile softies, incapable of confronting real life with maturity, this proves it. On the other hand, if you think late capitalism has squeezed all the joy from existence, the hunger for this sort of thing proves it. (Around 1,000 people attended one recent Seattle event.) And if you think the problem is how business always manages to co-opt and brand what should be a natural part of life – well, maybe adult recess is a case in point.
Personally, I’m disinclined to see this as a herald of civilisational collapse, if only because there are so many better candidates for that role. But I do think that the nostalgic pursuit of childhood activities by adults is frequently based on a kind of mistake. You think that what you enjoyed about being nine was playing swingball, tag, and grandma’s footsteps; but what you really enjoyed was not having a mortgage or rent to pay, no mouths to feed, no marital tensions to negotiate. The other stuff was just how you filled the resulting acres of free time; it was how you expressed your freedom, but it wasn’t the cause of it. (We make a similar error when we bemoan the sociopolitical times in which we live: part of the reason people think life was simpler and thus better 20 or 30 or 50 years ago is because they were kids, so for them it really was. I suspect this was an underappreciated factor in motivating support for Brexit.)
I begrudge nobody a few hours’ escapism. But don’t imagine that by playing hopscotch you’ll somehow recreate the conditions of your life back when you used to play hopscotch. Nor should we confuse childish behaviour with childlike behaviour.
We undoubtedly need more play in our lives. But if you define play in the broadest terms – as activity pursued for the joy of it, not for instrumental reasons – it’s clear that almost anything can count. In theory, even work can sometimes count. But hiking and cooking and hanging out with friends, and swimming and gardening and singing in choirs can all definitely count.
Kidulting is OK, I suppose. But redefining adulthood would be better.
In Why Grow Up?: Subversive Thoughts For An Infantile Age, the philosopher Susan Neiman argues that truly growing up isn’t a matter of resigning yourself to the stresses and woes of adulthood, but a radical act of self-determination