“When I became a man, I put away childish things,” Paul told the Corinthians. Two thousand years on, many grownups are getting them out again. The adult taste for toys has thrown a lifeline to manufacturers faced with shrinking sales. When the London Toy Fair opens next week, the industry will have “kidults” in its sight as well as parents. According to the market research firm NPD, purchases for over-12s account for 23% of all toy sales in Europe, and spending for this age group was 11% higher in the year to September than in the same period in 2016-17.
Play can bring parents closer to their children – even if, as the Lego Movie showed, differing expectations can cause tensions. But the primary audience for many of Lego’s new products is adults, regardless of whether they have children. The advantages for Europe’s biggest toy producer are obvious: the model of Old Trafford released this week and aimed at over-16s costs £250 – hardly pocket-money pricing. The Forma range of mechanical models is for “adults looking for a fun, engaging way to reconnect with their creative side”. A US version of Channel 4’s Lego Masters – a sort of Great British Brick Off – will soon air. In November, the company bought BrickLink, the world’s largest online community of adult fans, to strengthen its ties with older users.
This is about more than nostalgia, though the Star Wars Millennium Falcon model (7,500 pieces; £650) certainly suggests that is a factor. The recently published Build Yourself Happy: The Joy of Lego Play promises that getting hands-on can improve your cognitive skills and allow you to practise mindfulness. For many, it is a reaction to the stresses of modern adult life, a relief from the constant mediation of experience through a screen, and a rare opportunity to be in undisputed charge of things. The persistent, quiet focus required is a welcome respite from the endless stimulus-response of social media.
Lego offers the possibility of purposeless, pressure-free creativity, whereas even hobbies such as baking and painting can be shadowed by the worry that the results will fail to please other people. No one could say that the most elaborate sets are undemanding; but to most people they will feel less taxing than, say, an Olga Tokarczuk novel. As with the vogue for adult colouring books (Secret Garden, which kickstarted the trend, sold millions of copies worldwide), or board games, they allow people to focus yet relax, instead of rushing to meet yet another target.
Many of us could do with more rest and recreation in our lives. Yet there is something dismal and even contradictory about the idea of play as a tool to make us more fit for the relentless demands of the adult world, and about the growing hunger for such an escape. Play is, as David Hockney once observed, serious. It is a basic human need, whether it involves pieces of plastic or simply the attitude people bring to their lives. But toys are no substitute for a world that offers children and adults the opportunities for creativity and control in their daily lives.
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