Why colouring books, camp and hula hoops aren't just for kids anymore

Adult colouring books top bestseller lists. Hula hoop classes draw eager participants in their 70s. Activities that used to be the exclusive purview of children have found new fans in people who have long since left childhood behind.

Could be a stress reliever or maybe a way to detach from the digital world

Colouring books were once for children to while away the hours, but now adults are horning in on the activity and others that used to be seen only as childhood pastimes. (CBC)

Colouring books, hula hoops and summer camp — not to mention preschool — used to all fall firmly within the purview of children.

Not any more.

Adult colouring books top some bestseller lists. Hula hoop classes draw eager participants in their 70s. Summer camps for adults sell out months in advance.

In hipster Brooklyn, an adult preschool class even offered folks who had left childhood behind long ago — and seemed to now have considerable disposable income — the opportunity to fingerpaint and play musical chairs.

But as obvious as the trend seems to have become, understanding why this is happening is harder.

"The puzzling issue is why adults engage in activities that are modelled after kids' activities," says Stanka Fitneva, a developmental psychologist at Queen's University in Kingston, Ont.

Is it a desire to relax and relieve stress? A drive to detach from a constantly wired world where Facebook and email seem to demand addictive and constant attention? Maybe it is some kind of self-indulgence? Or simply way to have fun?

What are your friends doing?

Psychologists tend to look at an individual's motivation and benefits, such as a break from the everyday routine, when they try to understand why people search for ways to find joy in life and manage stress. 

"But this does not really explain the rise of this particular kind of activity," Fitneva says, noting that yoga, zumba or bungee jumping — more adult activities — can have the same effect.

One possibility is that this apparent adult interest in colouring and summer camp is related to a change in social norms about what is appropriate grown-up behaviour.

Steve McDonald's rendition of Toronto, from his adult colouring book Fantastic Cities, gives a highly detailed rendering of the city. (Steve McDonald)

"The interesting question is how the change in these norms came about," says Fitneva.

"I think most adults would still see adult colouring and summer camps as eccentric and would not choose to do it themselves."

At the same time, grown adults don't generally do anything their friends would not approve of.

"So one way to start unravelling the possibilities about what brought the change in approval is to look at how these activities have spread," says Fitneva.

For colouring books, that spread has taken titles such as Enchanted Forest to the top of certain bestseller lists and put displays of the sometimes exceedingly detailed books right by main entrances to bookstores.

"Everyone is buying," says Bahram Olfati, senior vice-president for print at Indigo Books & Music. 

'Quite a phenomenon'

What's more, Olfati says, "it's not one singular demographic or one singular segmentation that is leaning heavily toward this. It's everyone.

"That's why there's a Game of Thrones one coming out. You've got one essentially for everybody who is interested in this. It's quite a phenonmenon."

Indigo noticed the trend starting to take off late last year. Since then, the number of titles has grown considerably. Six months ago, there were 21. Now there are 52.

But try to determine exactly why this is happening and Olfati is less sure.

"I honestly can't tell you. It's relaxing and there's also a sense of accomplishment at the end of it, and people are really enjoying it. I can't tell you how it started it, but I can tell you that people are truly, truly enjoying it, and we're trying to give them as many options to take part in it as possible."

Colouring book author Steve McDonald sees a number of reasons for the interest in adult colouring.

"First of all, it's an incredibly accessible way for people to be creative easily, without much thought. It doesn't take hours and hours of lessons, you don't have to pay for life drawing classes, it's not six months of guitar," says McDonald.

"People talk about how it's therapeutic and how it's stress reducing.

"I don't think that's specifically colouring books. I think that's just any creative pursuit, and I think it's an easy one to hop on board, for young people, old people … any demographic really."

Happy with hoops

Young and old are also picking up hula hoops, and signing up for the hoop dance classes Pamela Lamont is leading in B.C.'s Lower Mainland.

Hoop dance may start out as a fitness effort, but instructor Pamela Lamont says it becomes something more than that, and leaves participants with a great feeling of happiness. (Pamela Lamont)

She thinks many participants — and she's had people from 16 to 73 — see the hoop first as a fitness tool. But then something happens as they spend time with it.

"It sparks something where it's very childlike and you're really happy," she says.

"Even for me as a teacher, if I have a long day because I'm sitting at a computer all day … once I get there and I start hula hooping, all your worries go away, you're dancing around.

"It feels good to have the hoop connect with your body so it's a little bit meditative, I've heard people say."

Danielle Goldfinger has heard a lot of adults talking about wanting to come to the summer camp she founded three years ago and offers one weekend a year in Ontario's Haliburton region.

"There's definitely been a massive shift in the conversation, and definitely people are talking about summer camps for grown-ups much more … than ever before."

Two Islands Weekend gives adults a chance to enjoy summer camp activities and detach from the wired world. (Danielle Goldfinger)

Goldfinger's Two Islands Weekend camp gives adults the chance to spend the weekend doing everything from canoeing and playing at the waterfront to archery and climbing around on a ropes course. (There are also a few more adult-inspired activities, including an edibles foraging hike and a wine tasting.)

She's not sure the interest shown in the camp, which was sold out weeks in advance this year, is a reflection of wanting to revisit childhood experiences.

"I think the growing popularity of summer camp is more about the fact that our lives are spent more and more in a digital space, and so I think people are really craving experiences beyond our phones and our computers."

Camp, she posits, is a way to recapture a sense of joy, adventure and connectedness outside the digital world.

Fitneva also sees many of these more youthful activities, such as camp, as offering relief from the chronic stress that our brains and bodies are not designed to withstand on such a relentless basis.

"It may be a tool for rejuvenating," she says, "and for just replenishing some energy that is lost in our everyday lives."