Photo: Chris Cha

From ball pits to coloring books, grownups are escaping adulthood with child’s play—and that's okay

After a morning spent hanging from the monkey bars and crushing the opposing team at dodgeball, you need a little relaxation. A moment to fill the illustrations in your coloring book, while your mind wanders to next weekend’s summer camp stay, where you’ll kayak and do arts and crafts with friends. Sounds good, right, for your average grade schooler? Or perhaps a corporate lawyer looking to claw a little playground fun back into life?

Adult coloring books—with cheeky names like Calm the F*ck Downpromise mindfulness with colored pencils; gyms and fitness centers offer “recess-inspired” classes; and Camp No Counselors delivers sleep-away retreats for the 21+ set—complete with bonfires, capture the flag and an open bar beginning at breakfast. After launching in 2013 with a single location, this summer Camp No Counselors will grow to more than 25 weekends across 16 different sites.

Why are grownups clamoring to act like kids again?

Since launching in 2013, Camp No Counselors has expanded to 16 locations across the U.S. and Canada. Amy Pinard

Adulting can be hard. The Center for American Progress states Americans are more overworked than any other nation, and the never-ending cycle of smartphone pings and email updates keeps us constantly tethered to the office. Couple that workplace angst with the current political climate, where the nightly news has us reeling from one international crisis or constitutional scandal to the next, and it’s easy to see why we might all need a hug from our moms—or some quality time with a coloring book.

There’s mass appeal in the idea of returning to the innocence of childhood. No responsibilities, no grocery runs, no irate clients, no political turmoil. Just a game of dodgeball or a dry backstroke around the ball pit.

That’s the appeal of Ballie Ballerson, a combination cocktail bar and ball pit that opened last November in East London. Owner Wenny Armstrong describes it as “the ultimate blend of adult hedonism with cheeky nostalgia.”

On opening the bar, Armstrong realized that although the venue had two floors, only one of them had a liquor license. “My mind started wandering about what I could put in my basement to ensure my bar was busy every night,” she says. Her answer? 250,000 plastic balls, a waist-deep ball pit for adults. The concept was so well received that ticketed entries sold out for three months. When they extended booking for another three, they sold out again. But instead of basking in this success, Armstrong started tinkering with her creation. After a few experiments, she subbed out the usual carnival-colored balls for transparent ones and installed an LED dancefloor beneath the pit. “It was magical,” she says. “The colored balls were fun, but now we had a stunning, arty and mesmerizing, pulsating glowing ball pit.”

London's adults-only ball pit bar, Ballie Ballerson, has proven so popular it's expanding. Ballie Ballerson

Armstrong loves seeing how deliriously happy a session in the basement makes her customers. “I see people’s faces as they come out of the ball pit, and they are laughing, hugging and smiling.”

This summer Ballie Ballerson will spread the joy by filling an open double-decker bus with balls to help celebrate the London Pride festival. They also have plans for expansion, with pop-up ball pit bars slated for Sydney, Tokyo, Cape Town and New York.

Dr. Crystal I. Lee, a licensed psychologist and owner of LA Concierge Psychologist, believes these childlike escapes can be fantastic self-care opportunities.

“Adulthood can be really stressful. Activities from childhood transport these stressed out adults to a time in their life when things were simpler. If they have happy childhood memories, it’s a great way to de-stress and let go of adult responsibilities, if only for an hour,” she says.

Reliving happy memories through the lens of play is nostalgia in action, and experiencing nostalgia has proven benefits. According to research from the University of Southampton, reminiscing or enjoying activities from our past in moderation can counteract feelings of loneliness, boredom and anxiety, and boost tolerance and closeness. Nostalgia can even make you feel warmer on a cold day.

Claire Royer, 24, is training to be a lawyer and is acutely aware of the decrease in her fun quota. “Adulting is much harder and [more] monotonous than I thought it would be as a kid,” she says.

Along with a group of friends, she attends weekly “recess” class at Ottawa Sport & Social Club, where they play team games, complete obstacle courses and compete in relay races. The no cellphone rule is especially important to Royer.

“I am always on my phone, so not looking at it for an hour or two is such a release. Along with the games and the exercise, it’s always fun. It makes me realize there is more to life than just work.”

All of the childlike activities enjoying a resurgence with adults are low- or no-tech pastimes, a chance for grownups to retreat from their wired world and just play.

At Ballie Ballerson, the ball pit has been known to swallow watches, right shoes and cellphones. And while a lost phone creates its own kind of stress, an hour or two without it might be the best escape of all.