Tuesday 6 December 2016

Child's play: Why your youthful hobbies will still make you smile

Simple pastimes boost wellbeing, experts say. We meet the adults who hula-hoop, skate, and play with Lego

Gabrielle Monaghan

Published 20/01/2016 | 02:30

Forever young: Tara Gleeson (45) hula-hoops in her back garden. Photo: Frank McGrath
Forever young: Tara Gleeson (45) hula-hoops in her back garden. Photo: Frank McGrath
Roller Jam enthusiast Una Hussey (31), practises three nights a week. Photo: Liam Burke/Press 22

A couple of times a week, Jen Ronan curls up on the couch with a stash of markers by her side and becomes absorbed with her colouring book. This would be unremarkable were she a five-year-old child. But Jen is 37.

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The Limerick blogger is a fan of colouring books for grown-ups. By returning to her childhood hobby, albeit by colouring in more intricate designs in pages of books with titles such as The Hipster Colouring Book and the Completely Calming Colouring Book 2, Jen feels she's keeping the symptoms of her anxiety disorder at bay.

Spending her evenings this way quietens Jen's busy mind, gives her fidgety fingers something to focus on, and evokes a happier time, when she had no adult worries and her late mother was still alive.

"In the last year or so, I've felt better and more aware," she says. "Coming back to colouring in was really nice. It's like a form of occupational therapy for me."

Like Jen, who also occasionally harks back to her 1980s childhood by roller-skating and collecting fancy paper, a growing number of Irish adults are unlocking their inner big kid by picking up hobbies they pursued with abandon as a child - all in a quest to switch off from the pressures of modern life and its digital distractions.

This phenomenon is particularly pervasive among those aged in their 30s and 40s, a generation that grew up expecting to lead a life as financially comfortable as their middle class parents, only to have the recession and the property market thwart their plans to buy a home of their own by lumping them with negative equity on a too-small apartment, or by spending most of their income on surging rents.

The generous pension plans, health insurance and job security enjoyed by their parents also seem out of reach. Small wonder they are getting nostalgic for an age when they didn't have to deal with 9pm emails from the boss, marriage breakdowns, parking tickets, endless loads of laundry or two-hour daily commutes to work.

And if you started the year vowing you'd take up a new pastime, you could do worse than return to something you enjoyed as a child.

Dr Eddie Murphy, a clinical psychologist, says going back to a childhood pastime, from ballet classes to gymnastics to horse-riding lessons, feels pleasurable to adults because it acts like a "trap door" from the present to an often more carefree past.

"These activities can transport them to a simpler time," said Murphy, who is also the resident psychologist on RTE series Operation Transformation.

"As you get older, your likelihood of trying out new hobbies reduces because people quite often get hung up about whether they will make a fool of themselves. But my message would be that your life lies outside your comfort zone."

A lack of time and a plethora of family and work responsibilities often conspire to deter us from taking up the interests we ardently pursued as a child, leaving us with little energy or enthusiasm for anything more challenging than watching a box-set of House of Cards.

Then there are the societal constraints: we feel obliged to discard the whimsical pursuits of our childhood and to take up more grown-up, socially acceptable hobbies, like photography, wine appreciation, competitive sport or yoga. Russell Brand, for instance, recently pilloried the fad for adults using colouring books and dismissed the trend as an infantilising symptom of a Peter Pan culture.

Murphy disagrees: "If someone's hobby doesn't have an impact on their social or emotional relationships, they should go for it. It only becomes problematic if it becomes so pervasive that they are doing it to the detriment of other parts of their lives."

Likewise, Tara Gleeson, a 45-year-old part-time DJ from Dublin who has taken up hula-hooping, has little time for detractors of childlike hobbies.

"People really need to lighten up," says Tara, who once tried to paint her kitchen with glitter. "It's important to have fun at every age, and it doesn't matter if that means roller-skating or board games or Meccano. You're never too old."

Tara was determined to become adept at hula-hooping as an adult because she failed to master it as a child growing in the 1970s.

"Every kid on the road had a hula hoop," she says. "I had a green one but I was a bit tubby and I think that's why I could never do it."

Tara was inspired to resume the pastime after seeing a woman performing hula-hoop tricks at a burlesque show group in Dublin. She bought a hula hoop of her own and set about finding classes. She recently came across an ad for the Dublin Circus Project in the window of her local shop and signed up for a six-week course in hula-hooping. Tara practices in the living room of her house in Cabra a few times a week.

"I was so excited to find that class," Tara says. "The poor girl who was teaching us had no idea that I had 35 years of emotional baggage from not being able to hula hoop properly! It was a real personal achievement when I learned how to do it."

Una Hussey, a 31-year-old from Limerick, gets a sense of the "unabashed happiness" she remembers from childhood when she goes skating three times a week.

"You know those moments when, say, you listen to a song and it makes you happy because it reminds you of listening to it when travelling around Europe one summer? Well going back to something you loved as a child is the same," she says. "It's like reliving a happy memory."

Between the ages of nine and 11, Una embraced the 1990s trend of rollerblading with gusto, spending most of her spare time whizzing down a hill near her house - and falling over and scraping her knees. But by her teenage years, Una had lost interest in her childhood hobby.

"Hanging out with your friends and doing nothing was cooler than doing something," she says. "By the time I was an older teenager, I had stopped playing basketball and was more interested in drawing because I wanted to study design in college.

"In my 20s, I preferred walking and travelling for enjoyment and my other hobbies became more intellectual than physical."

That all changed after Una returned home to Limerick after working in London and met a friend who plays roller derby, a sport played by two teams of five members skating around a track. Una, who works as a recruitment consultant, rekindled her childhood hobby in 2014 by trying out skating at the RollerJam rink.

"The friend who had been in Limerick Roller Derby for a few years told me 'you can really skate'," she says. "I said, 'I know I can - I've just never skated on these type of skates before'."

Last March, Una tried out for Limerick Roller Derby's "fresh meat", as the new recruits are called.

After practising with other fresh meat two hours a week and taking separate skate fit classes to improve her fitness. Una progressed to advanced training and was soon hooked. She now skates three nights a week.

"Once you love it, three nights a week is not a sacrifice - I'm having great craic," she says.

The same rings true for David Fennell, an accountant in his 40s who lives in Naas with his wife and two children; David spent 10 months in 2015 building a model of the Dublin Convention Centre out of 50,000 pieces of Lego.

"It's quite therapeutic sorting through the bricks," says David, who brought the model over to London in early December to show it at Brick 2015, an exhibition dedicated to the world's most popular toy.

Six of the other seven adults who are members of Brick.ie, the Irish Lego association, also exhibited in London. Such dedicated fans are called AFOLs, which stands for Adult Fans of Lego.

David kept the Lego police station and hovercraft his grandfather gave him in 1976. But his interest in the colourful plastic blocks waned when he became a teenager.

"In Lego, we call those years the Dark Ages," he says. "You become a teenager, go to college and then have a career so you move away from Lego because you don't have the money or the space."

David resurrected his Lego set after his first child came along. "I would bribe him with Lego and then I started building with it myself, which would be pretty common for Lego fans," he says.

However, David's pastime requires a lot of space. So much so, that his Lego collection takes up an entire room.

"The room was originally a sunroom but I managed to get in there before my wife did," he says. "I don't think the room has ever seen any sun - I keep the blinds down because sun and Lego don't go well together."

Jen, meanwhile, is moving on to more and more detailed colouring books. Only this time, she has one big advantage over her five-year-old self: better fine motor skills.

"I'm fanatical about not colouring outside the lines," she says.

Irish Independent

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