Red and yellow rubber balls whiz back and forth across the gymnasium at Blaine Elementary School in Lakeview, smacking against the polished cinder-block walls and stinging exposed arms and legs.
No, this is not an afternoon gym class full of third-graders. These are grown men and women chucking balls at one another—and paying for the privilege as part of the Chicago Sport and Social Club’s adult dodge ball league.
Steve Healy, 28, of Noble Square has been playing for the past five years.
“It was almost a joke at first,” he said, “but now actually a lot of my friends have come from playing dodge ball.”
Teammate Mike Vertucci, 32, of Evanston, said nostalgia initially drew him to the league, but it’s become more than that.
“I’ve been playing for so long now that I don’t think about it like that,” he said. “I definitely play more now than I did in grade school, but that’s because I’m no good at real sports.”
Count them both among the growing ranks of young professionals in Chicago and across the country who are eager to relive their childhood through organizations, events and other activities that tap into the fond memories they have of the ’80s and ’90s.
Organizers at Chicago Sport and Social Club have registered six times as many dodge ball teams this year as they did in 2009, but they’re not the only ones offering up a slice of childhood to the hungry masses. Grown-up proms, like the ones hosted by Chicago nonprofit 826Chi, regularly sell out and feature wacky themes such as “Prom Hanks” or “Keep Promme and Carry On.” There are even adult summer camps, such as the ones hosted by Singles Travel Service in Connecticut, which offer Millennials another swing at mastering balloon toss and arts and crafts.
It’s easy to dismiss all this as one generation’s desperate attempt to hold on to the last shreds of childhood, but experts say the tendency toward all things throwback is actually part of a broader trend of global economic uncertainty that has young professionals jonesing for a time when their lives were much simpler.
“People in their late 20s and early 30s are experiencing many life transitions,” said Clay Routledge, psychology professor at North Dakota State University. Routledge has spent the last seven years studying the function of nostalgia in the brain, and he says people are most prone to nostalgia during periods of high stress and uncertainty.
“Our research shows that these sort of uncertainties trigger nostalgia because nostalgia restores a sense of security and a sense of comfort,” Routledge said.
Chicago Sport and Social Club president Jason Erkes has witnessed this phenomenon firsthand. Childhood sports have proven so popular in recent years that Erkes is considering expanding the options he offers.
“There’s a huge interest in what we call flashback sports,” he said. “We’ve contemplated adding Wiffle ball and bombardment onto the list, but right now kickball and dodge ball are really popular with young professionals as a way to kind of go out and relive that childhood memory.”
Mark Braunstein has known about the power of fond memories for a while. To him, it just makes sense. That’s why he created a summer camp for adults 11 years ago.
“It’s everything you did as a kid just now doing it as an adult,” Braunstein said. “It’s sort of an obvious connection to cast it as a time capsule.”
The camp in southern Connecticut hosts singles in their 20s and 30s during various weeks throughout the summer. Campers sleep in cabins outfitted with bunks, eat in a dining hall, play volleyball and make arts and crafts. Braunstein has seen a steady increase in campers during the past decade, and the camp has spawned imitators in the Midwest.
“Essentially it’s exactly what you would imagine it to be if you’d been to camp as a child,” Braunstein said.
The 'Nick' effect
Marketing research professionals are no strangers to the allure of nostalgia. Re-envisioning retro cartoons such as “Transformers” as blockbuster movies preys on the wallets of young professionals who are prone to nostalgia. Nickelodeon jumped on the bandwagon last summer, when it launched the “90s Are All That” programming block featuring shows from the ’90s like “Kenan and Kel,” “Clarissa Explains It All” and “Doug."
“It was really in response to the audience,” Teen Nick General Manager Keith Dawkins said. “I think we here at Nickelodeon started to recognize that this group of 20-somethings were kind of galvanizing the digital space by talking about the Nickelodeon that they grew up with.”
Since the block took over from midnight to 2 a.m. in June, ratings have skyrocketed. The viewership in that time slot has doubled in the past year, and the total daily average of Nickelodeon viewers ages 18-34 jumped ¿75 percent, according to data provided by the network.
“Nickelodeon was one place completely committed to the idea of where kids rule, Dawkins said. “That was a really powerful idea for kids at that time.”