Some Millennials And Older Generations Are 'Kidulting.' Maybe You Should, Too.

The mental health benefits of play and nostalgia are vastly underrated.
Tapping into nostalgia ― especially if you share it with others ― can be a powerful mental health booster.
Illustration:Jianan Liu/HuffPost Photo:Getty Images
Tapping into nostalgia ― especially if you share it with others ― can be a powerful mental health booster.

At the height of the pandemic, I kidulted plenty.

To kidult ― I know it sounds obnoxious, but bear with me ― is to recreate childhood memories by partaking in activities generally considered for children.

In my case, I clocked in more hours of “Animal Crossing” than I care to admit (mostly because my island still looks crap). I went down a rabbit hole of Polly Pocket content on Instagram, I dabbled in watercoloring (or rather, I bought a watercoloring set and used it once). I started playing “The Sims,” basically in villain mode (The goal: Steal Mortimer Goth and the Goth family mansion from Bella Goth. The result: A depressed Mortimer Goth moping around my home, too broken over his divorce to care about my homewrecking self.)

While I never took the plunge and bought a Sims expansion pack or Polly Pockets on eBay for old time’s sake, there are plenty of millennials (and members of older generations, too) who have spent quite a bit on their kidulting activity of choice.

As Bloomberg recently reported, kidult shoppers have helped U.S. toy sales surge 37% over two years to $28.6 billion in 2021, according to data tracker NPD Group. Toy executives and insiders first attributed the spike to exhausted parents buying their kids toys to keep them distracted during lockdown, but a survey last year from the U.S. industry’s Toy Association found that 58% of adult respondents bought toys and games for themselves.

Some examples of popular nostalgia-pegged kidulting?

  • McDonald selling out of their limited-edition adult Happy Meals that came with a collectible toy
  • TikTok influencers dressing up in Y2K fashions and pretending they’re going out in the early ’00s
  • Adult kickball leagues
  • The huge popularity of Pokémon Go a few years ago
  • Disney adults
  • Anyone who’s overly invested in the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU)

Before you start tearing into child-free millennials with disposable incomes, older generations have kidulted, too. Jaabo, who runs the YouTube channel Train Tsar Fun, always loved Legos. Now at 54, he finally has the means to make his wildest little-brick dreams come true.

“I have over 6,000 sets now. The most I’ve spent for a single set is $850 for the LEGO Grand Carousel,” Jaabo, who lives in northwest Georgia, told HuffPost.

“I get to do the things I could only imagine doing as a kid,” he said. “Building process is relaxing and satisfying, but the memories are better.”

Debbie Zelasny, a Gen Xer who goes by @TheJerseyMomma on social media, doesn’t restrict her toy collection to just one thing: She collects everything from Funko POP! figurines and blind bags to cute ’80s and ’90s relics (anything from Sanrio, LEGO, Lisa Frank, Calico Critters) and stickers. Pretty much anything that screams “that’s my childhood,” she’ll buy it.

“My sister will text me photos of 1970s Battlestar Galactica figures from garage sales or estate sales and I’ll reply, ’YES, get me those!” she told HuffPost.

Does she feel guilt over her purchases? Sometimes, but then her happiness overrides it. “I think it is important to keep that sense of magic and excitement over fun things that you just love for no reason other than pure happiness,” she said.

For many grown-ups, play got them out of the pandemic.

“Kidulting has been the source of a whole new community for me online recently. It helps me to feel less isolated in our current landscape of uncertainty and distress,” said Cole Chickering, a YouTuber who collects vintage ’90s and 2000s print media like Nickelodeon Magazine and flips through it, page by page, with his followers. (It’s incredibly charming!)

“My viewers and I have so many nostalgic childhood experiences, and it feels good to share those stories and feel that connection,” Chickering told HuffPost. “Physical paper magazines and catalogs are frozen in time, so they serve as an excellent portal back to a simpler life.”

Tapping into nostalgia the way Chickering does ― especially if you share it with others ― can be a powerful mental health booster.

Though nostalgia was once cast in a negative light ― in 1688, Johannes Hoffer, the Swiss doctor who coined the feeling, called it a “neurological disease of essentially demonic cause” ― today’s researchers are looking at the bright side. According to a study published in April 2021 in the journal Emotion, nostalgia is a highly social emotion that can bolster our feelings of connectedness with others.

Even getting nostalgic on your own has feel-good benefits; a study published in the same journal in 2016 found that nostalgic people tend to have a healthier sense of self-continuity ― meaning a sense of connection between one’s past and one’s present. (Which is not to say that getting wistful about that past can’t be a little depressing; nostalgia is bittersweet, of course.)

“Overall, I think nostalgia is just comforting,” said Nicole Booz, the founder of GenTwenty.com and author of “The Kidult Handbook.”

“Adults who reminisce [in] the nostalgia of childhood are looking back to a time in their lives where they felt secure, when there was an entire lifetime of possibilities in front of them.”

“Play can foster creative benefits of imagination, fantasy, and the temporary suspension of the limits of reality.”

- Krystine Batcho, professor of psychology at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York

Factor nostalgia in with play and you’re bound to feel better about anything.

“When we engage in pure playfulness, the kind of activities that whisks away time and worry, that’s done solely for sheer enjoyment and fun, the frontal cortex of our brains literally burst into fireworks,” said Meredith Sinclair, a “Today” show contributor and author of “Well Played, The Ultimate Guide to Awakening Your Family’s Playful Spirit.”

Serotonin levels go off “giving us a feeling of well being and contentment while creating a fertile soil for creativity, art, invention, and cognitive flexibility,” Sinclair wrote in an email. “We always come away feeling better for taking the time to play.”

Krystine Batcho, a professor of psychology at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York and the author of the “Longing for Nostalgia” blog on Psychology Today, thinks more adults should seek out play when they’re feeling stressed or anxious.

“At first, play might serve as an escape from the burdens of responsibilities, disappointments, or worries but given a chance, play can also revive feelings of awe as ordinary things are seen through curious eyes from a new perspective,” she wrote in an email. “Play can foster creative benefits of imagination, fantasy, and the temporary suspension of the limits of reality.”

More adults should seek out play when they’re feeling stressed or anxious, experts say.
Cavan Images via Getty Images
More adults should seek out play when they’re feeling stressed or anxious, experts say.

Pretending there are no limits or boundaries can be liberating and broaden our sense of what’s possible, Batcho added.

“Putting our mental ‘editor’ on pause for a bit can allow innovative ideas to surface and unexpected options or solutions to problems can come to mind,” she said.

Now that we’ve got you all in on play ― or halfway in if you’re being curmudgeonly and grown-up about it ― play scholars share a few ways to tap into your inner kid below.

Allow yourself to get bored.

Jeff Harry, an international speaker who uses positive psychology and play to help teams and organizations build better workspaces, considers boredom the pivotal starter ingredient for play.

Get good and bored, he said, like as bored as you were during the crazy-making height of lockdown.

“That’s one of the best ways to cultivate your inner child and to hear what your inner child has to say,” he said. “And when your inner child starts telling you all these crazy ideas ― like why don’t why don’t you start a podcast, why don’t you start baking sough-dough bread, why don’t you start a TikTok account ― listen.”

By the way, Harry loves TikTok and looks at it as a digital third space for productivity-free fun: “It’s like a playground for a lot of people who didn’t have the opportunity or space to play before.”

Involve your friends and family.

The experts agreed: Play is considerably better with friends. Round up the people in your life who share mutual hobbies and make playtime a collaborative effort, Batcho said.

“Inviting others to play can enhance the pleasant feelings of youth,” she said.

If you have kids, you have an obvious leg up with play, Batcho said. But regardless of what age groups you’re working with, games are an obvious choice for play.

“You can do an adult scavenger hunt, make homemade Dunkaroos, make playdough or pottery together, or do something like play frisbee golf,” Booz said. “These are activities that are reminiscent of childhood and bring out the best in all of us.”

Or it could be something more unconventional and slightly more adult: During the shelter-at-home stage of the pandemic, I had a friend who hosted boozy Zoom read-throughs of bad movie scripts.

“Inviting others to play can enhance the pleasant feelings of youth,” said Krystine Batcho, a professor of psychology at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York.
valentinrussanov via Getty Images
“Inviting others to play can enhance the pleasant feelings of youth,” said Krystine Batcho, a professor of psychology at Le Moyne College in Syracuse, New York.

Ask your friends when they’ve seen you most playful and happy.

Not really sure what your “play” of choice is? Call three or more of your closest friends and ask them to indulge you in this “play experiment” that Harry created. Ask them these two questions:

1. What value do I bring to your life?
2. When have you seen me most joyful, alive and playful?

With the value question, you’re asking them what you bring to their lives and what you may be good at. The second, specifically on play, will help you explore who you are in your peak state and what activities you’re doing when you’re in a joyful state, Harry said.

“See what patterns emerge, as they may help you discover a new way for you to play based on capturing the essence of what you used to do in the past,” he said.

Grant yourself permission to play.

If you’re a play agnostic, try to acknowledge that you’re doing something really good for yourself when you play.

“You have to push aside your ego, self-consciousness, and adult responsibilities, let go and embark on a fun-finding mission,” Sinclair said.

Kidulting is not about being childish or immature or time-wasting, Booz said: “It’s about re-embracing the positive parts of childhood as adults so that we can practice healthy escapism and tap into things we truly, deeply love.”

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