You may not have even heard the term “soft play” before you have kids of your own. You’ve probably unwittingly driven past these buildings for years, unaware of the world within. They inhabit the darkest industrial estates of the UK, each one resplendent in its brightly coloured exterior, hilarious name (usually including the words fun/monkey/wacky/mayhem/crazy, or all of the above). They are filled with play equipment, ball pools, slides, climbing frames, basically lots of stuff on which your child should be unable to break their face.
You know those people who are bred purely for use on kids TV? The tremendously happy, all-singing, all-dancing presenters in garish clothing? Well, it’s a lesser known fact that the people who fail at interview for that role end up working in soft play centres. On entering Fun Factory last Sunday morning, the lady greeting us announced that working there made her “broody”. I raised my eyebrows in a way that said “are you out of your frickin’ mind?”.
Handing over your cash at the reception desk, you are entering into an unspoken agreement. I (the parent) give you (the soft play centre) several of my pounds. In return I expect an exhausted child who has been educated in the fine art of sharing, manners, physical coordination and climbing, to name a few. A child that will hop into the car and regale me with stories of adventure or nursery rhymes on the trip home. In reality, you’ll leave (after 40 minutes of negotiation/dragging) with a toddler wearing one shoe, a snotty face, fat lip and someone else’s sippy cup. They’ll stamp your loyalty card and cheerfully tell you that “next time, you’ll have earned a free coffee”. YAY. It’s only cost me £25 and my dignity.
When you first venture to soft play, you’ll notice several types of parent. The helicopter parents, who follow their babies on all the equipment, as they are far too small and precious to leave alone just yet. The parents who used to watch Fun House on ITV as kids and are living out their Pat Sharp/twin fantasies. The parents who would rather be at work and have their face in their Blackberry, glancing up briefly to check that their child isn’t in the medical room. The parents who’re just thrilled to see a hot cup of tea and frankly couldn’t give a hoot what their child does for the duration of that drink. The parents who are there for a gossip with their mates and are unaware that little Johnny is beating another child over the head with a giant rainbow-coloured cotton bud.
There tends to be some camaraderie amongst the parents, exchanging pleasantries while waiting for the correct child to hurtle down the slide towards them. If the worst happens and your child is knocked over by another, don’t make my rookie mistake of declaring loudly “don’t worry my little one, he’s a bad boy and he’s been very naughty”. Not when the mother can hear you and she’s much bigger than you.
It’s also best not to pay too much attention to the names of the children. Do NOT laugh under any circumstances. These soft play centres attract people from all walks of life. And some of them have names which appear to be the Countdown conundrum before it’s been solved.
Don’t fear the germs. They are everywhere and that’s life. If a child does happen to sneeze right in your toddler’s face, just smile sweetly and say “bless you”. Don’t worry about the week of no sleep that is approaching, the fever, the empty Calpol bottles, the vomiting.
Enjoy the musical ambience. I mean, who doesn’t love the 50-track, CBeebies back catalogue at eye-watering volume? It blends beautifully with the sound of under-5s screaming.
So, I hear you ask, how do you know when to leave? Your child will lead the way. They’ll get that vacant stare, like someone removed their batteries. The snacks will be finished, the comfort blanket lost at the bottom of the ball pool. You’ll grab your things, the other parents will understand that you haven’t time to say your goodbyes. You must get that child into the car urgently. Linger just 60 seconds too long and you’ve had it, the vacant stare will turn into a scene. This inevitably leads to the child lying face down on the floor, sobbing, surrounded by other parents who are part-sympathetic/part-laughing-inside.
The greatest part of a soft-play centre is the exit. You’ll surface back into natural daylight, glad that it’s over and hoping that your child will nap well afterwards. You’ll vow never to visit again.
But you’ll be back. If only for the free coffee.