My parents’ generation like to tell us that the current crop of parents have never had it so easy. There are gadgets galore, with video monitors, formula preparation machines, and tablets for easy entertainment. We have an abundance of cheap baby clothing with all the larger supermarkets stocking the basics at the very least. Plus, the Internet gives us access to reams of information about teething, milestones, and healthy eating. It sure sounds like we have it easy. But then, our parents never had to endure the hell that is a soft play centre.
By me, there are half a dozen soft play centres all within easy driving distance. Some are housed in giant warehouses, others are small additions to greasy spoon style cafés. And, all of them are the literal definition of hell on earth. Most of the time I try to avoid them, but alas, with playdates, parties, and the desire for ten-minutes to sit down and drink a cup of tea whilst it’s still hot, a visit to the soft play centre is often unavoidable.
1. They Are One Giant Germ Party
Don’t get me wrong, I’m not a germaphobe. I’m happy to let my kids get dirty and appreciate the benefits that doing so has to their immune system. But, soft play centres take filth to a whole other level. There was that time I found vomit in the ball pool. The time I found a rotting banana in between two of the pads in the climbing structure. And, then there was the time my daughter and her friends all developed threadworm, exactly two weeks after they visited the same soft play centre together, which is a little more than suspicious. Don’t even get me started on the state of the toilets.
2. I Can’t Just Sit Down With A Cup Of Tea; I Have To Go In The Play Area
I’ve heard that older children will happily go off on their own and play in soft play centres whilst the parents relax, but I haven’t quite reached that stage yet. My five-year-old still likes to have company, so I often get dragged in. My two-year-old has a tendency to overestimate her climbing ability, so I have to stick with her for the inevitable moment when she gets stuck. As a woman approaching her 40s with a questionable pelvic floor, whose idea of a vigorous workout involves doing a bit of hoovering, this isn’t an easy task. I’m dreading the day when I have to call for help after getting stuck between two padded rollers.
3. There’s Always That One Child
You know the type. The child who barrages through the other children, pushing and shoving them all out of the way. It’s the child who knocks down the impressive wall you and your child have spent ten-minutes building with foam bricks or the child who snatches something out of your toddler’s hand just because your toddler was playing with it. Sometimes, it’s a case that they simply have no self-awareness. Other times, it’s because the child is a bully, like the one who took a disliking to the fact that my then four-year-old son entered the same space as him, and shoved my son with such force that he went flying several feet out of the entrance way onto a hard floor, injuring his shoulder. Most of the time, the child’s parents are nowhere to be seen.
4. 50% Of The Time It’s My Child
My son is pretty big for his age and can be quite clueless about how much stronger he is than his peers, which can inevitably lead to tears. I’d be lying, however, if I claimed that it was all accidental. We all have bad days, including our own children. This results in empty threats of leaving (empty, because, of course, you want to finish that lukewarm cup of tea you paid over the odds for) and grovelling apologies to the other parents, who are now convinced that you and your offspring are total thugs who have no place in society.
5. The Choice Of Snacks Rival Willy Wonka’s Factory
It’s a middle-class parent’s nightmare. There’s no quinoa. No avocado. And, certainly no sweet potato mash. If you are stopping for lunch, then your child’s choices are limited to breaded food with a side of chips. If they want a snack, then there are chocolate bars, bags of sweets, cakes, biscuits, and brightly coloured slushy drinks. If you are really lucky, then your centre of choice may serve up some token grapes, but they won’t be cut up. You then have three choices. Either risk your child choking, spend ten minutes carefully and lovingly slicing each grape with a blunt butter knife whilst your child’s hunger cries become increasingly desperate and everyone stares at you, or give in and buy the huge marshmallow kebab they’ve been eyeing up. Of course, at the end, your child will be so hyper on sugar and food colouring that any intention of using the centre as way to wear them out will have gone out of the window.
6. None Of The Toys Have Charged Batteries
My nearest soft play centre has a separate room brimming with toddler toys. You know the type, the ones with all the colourful buttons that make obnoxious noises. However, none of them work because the batteries all ran out on the first day and have never been replaced. Cue the inevitable conversation: “No, sorry, Mummy can’t make it work, I don’t have any batteries. No, I can’t go to the shop and get some. Yes, I know this one is broken, as well. And this one. And this one too. I know, it’s very sad. I’m sorry, I really can’t make it work. Maybe you could play with another toy? Yes, I know you really want this one, but I can’t do anything about it now.
Please go away and let me drink my tea.”
7. However, All The £1 Toy Rides & Machines Are Always Functioning Perfectly
You have already paid several pounds per child to get in, plus spent a fortune on sugary snacks and lukewarm tea, and now your child wants a £1 coin for the Peppa Pig car ride… and the mini go karts… and the grab machine… and the games console… Try telling your child that you have run out of pennies and they will cleverly claim that they saw some in your purse when you came in. A simple “no” results in a tantrum, and the whole point of coming to the place was to give you a chance to drink tea in peace.
8. It’s Easy To Lose A Child In Some Of The Larger Centres
There are some soft play centres that are akin to a giant rabbit warren, with side rooms fitted with psychedelic lights and sounds, dark corners that can only be reached by braving a drool infested tunnel, and bottomless ball pits. For helicopter parents, it must be an anxiety fuelled dystopian nightmare. Even for those of us who are a bit more lax with their child’s security, there can be those panic driven moments when you realise there is no sign of your child anywhere.
9. There Are Always Older Children In The Toddler Areas
Almost all soft play centres have a special area sectioned off for babies and toddlers. They have smaller climbing structures, baby play mats, and are meant to provide a safe way for your young child to play away from the older, more boisterous kids. It doesn’t matter how many signs are up, or even if the centre uses coloured bibs to identify ages. There will always be at least one older child in the toddler area, rampaging through, knocking over children left and right. And, if you dare to suggest to the child that they should be elsewhere, you will inevitably invoke the wrath of the other parent.
10. They Are Impossible To Leave Without Resorting To Bribery
Firstly, you have to actually locate your child. This may involve once more wading through a vomit and drool filled ball pool to uncover the little darling where he or she is hiding and hoping you won’t see them. Then, you have to locate all their belongings. The jumper they abandoned at the very top of the structure. The sock that has got stuck half way down the tunnel slide. Once you have retrieved your child and all of their belongings, you have two choices: Either attempt a fireman’s lift whilst they scream and shout about not wanting to leave, or offer a small bribe in the form of yet more sugar. It’s a difficult choice to make.