Don’t Be Ashamed: Adults Playing With Toys is Nothing New

Grown-ups wasting time on elaborate playthings has a long, proud tradition.
Don’t Be Ashamed: Adults Playing With Toys is Nothing New

Whether it’s with elaborate coloring books, complicated board games, or $600 He-Man playsets stealthily peddled by Satan himself, we’re seeing more and more so-called “children’s products” being marketed towards adults. And we’d be remiss if we didn’t mention Play-Doh’s “Grown Ups Scents” line which oddly smells like famous aspects of adulthood such as coffee, spas and smoked meat -- presumably because crippling student loan debt doesn’t really have a smell.

Then there’s Playmobil, AKA LEGO for lazy people. Not only is the German toy brand selling a $500 replica of the Starship Enterprise, in 2019 they launched Playmobil Pro, pitching their tiny plastic playthings to modern business professionals. How? Apparently these toys are specifically designed for roleplaying activities that can “find new business solutions.” And who better to trust with leading workplace training exercises than the company who seemingly once released a toy slave ship.

But perhaps no major toy brand is better at selling itself to adults than LEGO. The children’s building toys/mortal enemy of bare feet have increasingly been targeted at the grown-up sector, not just with elaborate sets that cost as much as a mortgage payment in the ‘80s, but with products that tie-in to distinctly adult subject matter. 

While previous adult sets have been centered around themes that are still arguably family-friendly, such as Star Wars and Ghostbusters, LEGO just released a product that in no way could be misconstrued as a children’s plaything: Jerry Seinfeld’s apartment from Seinfeld, complete with minifigures of George, Kramer, and Elaine, plus a separate comedy club stage for stand-up -- and we really can’t recommend highly enough keeping the Kramer figure as far as possible from the comedy club stage.  

Clearly an adult sitcom from 25 years ago is of zero interest to children, this set is for adults to either build and display, or play with, perhaps concocting elaborate alternate Seinfeld episodes in which, say, Jerry starts dating Itchy the homicidal cartoon mouse.

JM McNab

It was all over when Jerry caught hantavirus.

Or where Bossk, Dengar, and IG-88 all compete in a masturbation contest.

JM McNab

Spoiler: Bossk's out first.

It’s not just that some LEGO products are tailored towards adults, it’s that a whole lot of LEGO’s customers seem to be actual adults, which is something the company is now actively courting. The company recently launched a new catalog specifically for adults under the banner “adults welcome.”

LEGO embracing the slogan of Hedonism II in order to satiate their more mature clientele may not seem all that surprising now, but, in retrospect, their attitude has shifted dramatically in recent years. In the early 2000s, adult LEGO fans were reportedly seen as “a source of irritation” by the company. And in 2013, LEGO made headlines after turning away a senior citizen and his adult daughter who had travelled 3 hours just to visit the Canadian Legoland Discovery Centre outside of Toronto. Despite the fact that this guest was a fan of the company who had spent his free time building LEGO sets while recuperating from heart surgery and a battle with cancer, the Legoland staff didn’t let him through the front door. Why? Because policy dictated that adults could not enter without a child in order to “protect the families and children that visit.” 

Seemingly in response to this incident, Legoland started holding some “Adult Only Nights” -- which likely sounded way more debaucherous than they intended. But still, confusion persisted and there were yet more news stories of childless tourists being denied entry and left "embarrassed and humiliated" by the whole thing. So LEGO using the phrase “adults welcome” is a pretty big change considering that not that long ago it was more like: “adults are only welcome if they’re bringing along small children, otherwise stay the hell away, creeps.”

And while many adults were already pretty into building LEGO, this trend has seemingly only increased during the pandemic. After all, methodically assembling miniscule plastic bricks can be soothing, and even meditative, which is why more and more “stressed-out adults” who are “looking for a relaxing, calming experience” are turning to LEGO. Again, LEGO is actively leaning into this new role; earlier this year they released “LEGO White Noise,” a playlist “composed of a series of audio tracks created using nothing but the iconic sounds that the LEGO brick makes … designed to help listeners find a moment of zen in their day, making it the perfect audio accompaniment for falling asleep, unwinding, or relaxing through LEGO building.” Because why de-stress to the sounds of wind or gentle rain when you can listen to an eight-year-old assemble the Millennium Falcon?

It’s not just LEGO, in the last year and a half, it appears as though a lot of adults were buying up their favorite childhood toys as a kind of emotional coping mechanism; everything from Tonka trucks to Hot Wheels to Barbies. Which makes total sense. Sure, back in the 1600s, some considered nostalgia a “cerebral disease of essentially demonic cause” and it was considered a “neurological affliction” throughout the 18th century -- but today, many experts view nostalgia as therapeutic; a kind of “buffer against existential threats.” According to research, nostalgia has “been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety” and even make “people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders.”

Of course, a lot of people probably see adults buying up toys as yet another example of how folks today are far more infantalized than previous generations. We’ve all seen the same old arguments claiming that Millennials are “living an extended childhood” and they should just just “grow up already!” Even putting aside the fact that it’s the economy that is preventing younger people from reaching many of the recognized benchmarks of adulthood, this is stupid. And in terms of playing with toys specifically, it’s quantifiably untrue that anything abnormal is happening. Older generations, too, obsessed over their childhood toys -- they were just different toys. You know how older generations often had model train set-ups in their basement, be it a grandparent, or an aunt or uncle, or Reverend Lovejoy from The Simpsons?

That was the same exact thing; no it wasn’t LEGO or overpriced action figures, but it was still  grown-ass adults spending way too much money just to play with the toys they had as kids, or wanted to play with, but couldn’t afford.  In 1975, the New York Times published a whole article about this crazy new “men’s toys” fad which included, not just trains, but hobby horses, children's furniture and “Tootsie Toy vehicles” --  whatever the hell those are. According to one psychologist at the time: “There are some forms of escape we need, and collecting or making toys is one of them. It's attached to a socially accepted activity.”

The New York Times

Before that, in 1946 French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss talked about the “endearingly infantile traits of American culture” which included an over-investment in hobbies and a “childish adulation of baseball.” And that was in 1946, just following World War II! Can you even imagine what he would think of the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles adult coloring book? 

Even before that there were dollhouses, which also, incidentally, have seen a rise in popularity among grown-ups during the pandemic. Originally, dollhouses were exclusively made for adults. In Northern Europe in the 17th century, dollhouses were “closely associated with wealth” -- and is there really much of a difference between some hoity-toity old house and today’s LEGO sets? Of course, those early dollhouses were purely for display purposes, not for playing with. But modern research has shown that playing with toys is actually good for adults and can help reduce stress. One study even found that being “playful” makes you more attractive -- so really, musky Play-Doh and a tiny replica of Jerry Seinfeld’s bachelor pad may actually turn out to be the ultimate aphrodisiac.

You (yes, you) should follow JM on Twitter! And check out the podcast Rewatchability.

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