Soft play. It sounds so inviting doesn’t it? So alluring. That sounds good, where can I find all of this soft play, you find yourself asking. What a great idea, you think to yourself. Softness. Playing. Happy children. Happy parents. Softly softly, lovely, gentle playing. What could be better than that?
Erm, actually quite a lot of things.
Having spent a considerable amount of time in soft play centres during the school holidays, and coming to you live from a soft play centre right now, I thought I’d put together a handy guide for those of you fortunate enough to never have been in one.
The first thing that hits you is the smell. Most soft plays will have a cafe with a jaunty name, like ‘jungle cafe’ or ‘coffee stop’. This is a cheerful facade and what lays behind is mostly processed sugar, terrible coffee, E numbers and a host of beige / neon dinner options like potato smilies, sausages and beans, because no kid ever wants anything other than a potato smiley, obviously. Potato smilies need to be cooked fresh from the freezer, so the first thing you’ll smell on entry is processed potato, frying meat and the tang of microwaved beans. If you sniff very carefully, and I advise doing so only with caution, you’ll also catch the faint whiff of broken hopes and dreams of all the parents sat at the little plastic tables. Unless you’re sat near the toilets, in which case all you’ll smell is piss, with the occasional fart or shitty nappy floating by.
Now for all the salty, sugary, evil goodness, these cafes will charge an exorbitant amount, which you’re forced to pay. There will be little (enormous) ‘polite’ signs scattered around the place informing you that if you dare eat food not purchased from the bankrupt cafe, you’ll be asked to leave, thus wasting the astronomical amount you’ve also paid to get in the place in the first place. So take about £300, because that’s how much you’ll need to get in and keep everyone fed and watered for approximately half an hour.
Cacophony is the only word to describe the noise level in one of the many ‘recreational’ establishments dotted all around the country right now. Adults desperate for a conversation that’s not about fireman Sam, who needs a poo, or who’s a smelly bum head, will be clubbed together in small groups supping on hideously bad coffee or scalding tea tinged with that uht milk taste, trying to get more than a sentence out before being interrupted. Kids will be running amock, screeching like wendigos, and someone’s kid, somewhere in the corner, will be wailing because they’ve just vommed all over the equipment. Add to that the sound of 90’s pop (we’ve got a bit of the spice girls and five going on in the background here) plus the go-karts, arcade games and tannoy announcements (please can all parents remind their children NOT TO CLIMB UP THE SLIDE) and you’ve got yourself a hideous clash of sounds worse than being stuck in a room with a group of beliebers who have just been told Bieber’s got a new girlfriend.
When you first go in, it’s freezing. Air con on full blast, presumably because in about 64 seconds your Beasts will have legged it and be rosy cheeked and sweating from the breathtaking thrill of throwing themselves down some padded stairs or squeezing through giant rollers into a dirty ball pit absolutely infested with bacteria. So the grown ups all sit around in their grown up cardigans, dark circles under their eyes and exhaustion etched on their pale little faces, shivering away. Apart, of course, from that woman who will be in a ridiculously short skirt and tank top, a pair of heels and a full face of makeup, while the rest of us scrubbers make do with our Tesco jeans and faded hoodies, which will inevitably be smeared with something or other.
Then all of a sudden, with little or no warning, once the place is packed to the rafters and you’ve started to contemplate whether death might be a preferable alternative to never having to do this again, the temperature will rocket exponentially until it’s so hot you’re sure you’ve started the menopause early.
You go to a soft play center with the idea that your little darlings are going to run off to play, maybe make a friend or two while they’re doing it, and everyone will have a lovely time. If your kids do this, then lucky fucking you because my kids must get together beforehand, fist bump and whisper “thug life forever” at each other before barelling in there like wrecking balls. We’ve had barging, shoving, pinching, arm twisting, biting, and even an attempted gouging. Not all on the same day, but they’ve all happened. Now you might be saying ‘clearly you’re not an effective enough parent’ and you’re probably right, but they’re not called Beast 1 & 2 for nothing, and it’s near on impossible to get up in those structures quick enough to stop a swift poke in the eye, especially if you’ve had one too many (packets of) biscuits like me and are not thin as a rake. I don’t want to be that headline on the front of The Sun which reads ‘OBESE WOMAN GETS STUCK IN CHILDREN’S SLIDE AT SOFT PLAY AND HAS TO BE CUT FREE’. It’s also not just my children (hopefully) that get a bit ‘Handsy’ so when you put them in a room all together, fill them with sugar and fruit shoots and let them loose, someone’s getting a swift kick for hogging the giant Lego. Think of it like anarchy in a tiny army wearing Thomas the Tank pants and adjustable waist trousers, if you will. The word savage doesn’t even come close.
You’ll also, if you’ve taken multiple children, stand up approximately every 2 minutes and say: “wait, hang on, where did the other one go?” Narrow eyes and try to identify your beast out of a whole herd of beasts. See the top of a head, which you’re certain belongs to your beast, and sit down again.
The other parents and guardians
“Er excuse me, EXCUSE ME? Is that your child over there?”
Avoid eye contact, put phone down, glance over, say “gosh no, I think his parents are over there” and point vaguely in any direction that’s away from you. Then spend the rest of your stay having to pretend your kid isn’t your kid. Awkward.
Inevitably, all the time spent playing with them or sat watching them like a hawk from the hard, uncomfortable plastic chairs, will be rendered completely pointless by the moment you decide they’re playing quite nicely so you’ll look down at your phone for a few minutes and make good use of the free wifi. This will always be the moment one of your beasts does something, and the keeper of little Rufus (who to be fair, was being absolutely ghastly and probably deserved to be rugby tackled down the slide) decides that you’re the shittest person in the world for not propping your eyes open with little sticks and staring at your beasts the entire time.
“Just stand up against that little measuring stick for me…that’s right… Oh look how big you both are! That’ll be a million pounds please. Oh and just remember you have to only eat food purchased here, so as you’re going to be here all day to make the most of the million pounds entry tariff, you’ll probably want another million if you don’t plan on starving.” *sweet smile*
By the time you’ve left, you’ll be considering making a phone call to the bank so you can talk about remortgaging your home just to afford another trip to soft play.
Despite all of these things, you’ll keep going back. Mostly just for the opportunity to sit down for five minutes and know your beasts are completely contained so although you might have to deal with some moderate violence, offensive smells, clashing sounds and the odd spot of bankruptcy, it beats sitting at home trying to stop them beating the crap out of each other (and your house.)
We also go back because The Beasts adore soft play and I do like to give myself a pat on the back for being an awesome fucking parent. So although you shouldn’t be fooled by the false advertising that is ‘soft play’ – more like ‘hunger games in a warehouse’, once you’ve started, you won’t be able to stop. So I guess the next time you do go, the only thing to do is wish you luck. And a lottery windfall to pay for it. May the odds be ever in your favour. Godspeed.
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