As a new mother, soft play quickly became part of my social calander. I would meet up with a friend and her baby and lounge amongst our new cushioned horizons, both stifling yawns and discussing our changing nipples. The topic of conversation was always around the kids and we were always naively stationary. I yearn for those days of sitting amongst soft dolphins and coloured balls. Blissfully ignorant of what lay ahead. Even when my son started to walk, I had an easy time in soft play land. Cautious by nature, or due to his crazy mother, he has never been one to vault or run head first at any obstacles. He hid behind my leg, looked for my support to guide him up to this new found vertical land of soft play.
This changed when I was expecting my daughter. Looking like a weeble from around twenty weeks, I truly struggled to walk without toppling over. My arse, hips, and legs ignored the fact I was pregnant. Staying non-existent, small and skinny. The result being that I bobbed around, bouncing off walls, and required general assistance to stand up right. I refused to let this stop me going to soft play. I dragged myself up the plastic steps and teetered across nets in the sky. My son now 2 would assist me up, turning back often to ask if I was OK. I spent the majority of these visits in tears. Whispering to my son that nothing would change when the new baby arrived. “You will always be my baby”, I often wailed into a spongy floor. My daughter came along and sure enough, we still made the journey. With my daughter on one hip and my son by the hand, we would begin the long hike up. My son now able to clamber up, leading the way. I took frequent breaks to realign my hips, and reassure my daughter. On these occasions, I would push my face through the string bars and stare at the scene below. “Look at all those adults!” I used to marvel. Sitting enjoying a latte, sharing nachos, someone was even reading a book, A BOOK! When could I sit down there and gab? What age would my children be? The true answer, I knew, was never. Whenever the tannoy announced “would the parent or guardian…” I was already down on bended knee peering at my children, making sure they were in fact, MY CHILDREN. “You are here!” I would cry, into their confused little faces.
The whole affair is a terrifying emotional roller coaster, and I can truly say I hate every minute of it, with it typically costing me about fifty quid a visit. My kids of course love it, so off we go every other week. My husband finds the whole situation ludicrous. Having spent a childhood running along golden sands and chilling with sea creatures, he looks up at the soft play metropolis in disbelief. We have had a few attempts of sitting on a sofa with a latte and small talk. Letting our children enjoy some “independent play”. This usually lasts around three minutes before we abandon our pretend nonchalance and sprint to find our children, splitting up and shrieking out to one and other when we locate an offspring.
The thing that baffles me most in this marshmallow hell is the behaviour of the other adults within the soft play structure. The kids run wild, farting freely, offering snotters as currency, and scream out with delight at everything, and nothing at all. When there are adults within the population the dynamic changes. Kids are reminded to, “Let the wee boy go first”. I have seen grown adults nudge other children out of the way to let their child go first on the plastic death slide. I have also witnessed adults veer their children away from children of a different ethnic origin. Society seeps in and it makes me weary. I often like to gaze from my penthouse in the soft play and think imagine if us adults had a soft play. Could we all run around, let go of our inhibitions and play. Or would we all walk around like hamsters at a trance party. Rotating endlessly in our soft environment. Excusing ourselves when we cut across a passer-by. Holding a cushioned door open for the person behind us. Smiling demurely to an elder. Like an apartment block sliced down the middle and opened to reveal the well-behaved inhabitants inside.
An Eric MacMillan opened the first primitive soft play in 1976 at Sea World in San Diego. With Chuck e Cheese quickly cashing in on the idea, MacMillan is known as the “founder of soft play”. Interestingly his idea for this new play area was based on a developing theory that ball pits were an ideal therapy for physically disabled children. Where is this fantastic kernel of thought in today’s soft play? It cannot be a question of finance. If all we inhabitants are parting with fifty quid, there must be a big pot of gold at the end of someone’s rainbow.
Eric was also passionate about emphasising how children do not differentiate between play and learning. At the time of soft plays conception, MacMillan was quoted as saying,
“If adults played more, there would be far less fear and more understanding, because play is an open and honest exchange.”
Well that sold it to me.
The next time I am at soft play, I will invite all the children to sit in the café area, and demand all the adults go play. I would let you know how it goes, but you see, I have just started a really good book….