The Stages of Soft Play

OK, not swim related, I did swim this morning though so I hope I’m excused. Anyway, as well as doing a bit of swimming I’m also a Mum. I love my two boys to pieces but when they spend too much time together they’re prone to send me over the edge. It starts as a poke, sometimes just a look, but the boys can rapidly escalate into a full blown shouting, punching, rolling around the floor ball of fury. They shout, I shout, it all gets a bit loud and unwieldy. Anyway, this morning, to escape the confines of the house and the new pile of lego that’s just arrived after the youngest’s birthday, we escaped to a soft play centre.

For anyone not in the know a kid’s soft play centre resembles a building site crossed with a playground that’s been vomited on by a clown. Layer upon layer of scaffolding poles form a frame with numerous floors, slides, rollers, ball pools, bridges, tunnels, punch bags and any other obstacle you can think of. It’s all safely packaged in heavily padded, brightly coloured, wipe clean goodness.

If the colours weren’t enough of a sensory overload the noise of excited, sweaty, hooting, squealing, sobbing children is enough to send any normal person over the edge.

They come in all shapes and sizes. Some are small enough that you can see your kids all the time others so vast you can lose your kids for hours on end.

Despite all that they can be a sanctuary for parents. An opportunity to let the small people run off some steam on a rainy day or meet up with their friends without trashing your house for a change. For grown-ups it’s often a chance to catch up with friends, drink (often questionable) coffee and occasionally finish a full conversation with another adult before the small-lings interrupt.

I met my sister in law at one today. She has an 18 month old and it occurred to me whilst I was there that I might have reached peak soft play with my boys. At 5 and 7 they happily go off together, tearing around, slowly turning into the sweatiest sweat balls since the invention of sweatiness. I can kick back, drink coffee, check my phone, read a book or even start a blog post while they’re out of my hair. They pop back occasionally for a drink of weak cheap squash and a few rounds of toast. Winner!

Not so my sister in law. Soft play with a toddler is a different story. Which brings me on to my 6 stages of soft play. I’m sure there are others to add but these are the ones that resonate with me.

Stage 1: New mum, small baby

Baby can’t walk, might be able to crawl. New group of mum friends suggests they all try soft play. Pay to get in, drink bad coffee, baby can’t play with much, baby gets in way of mental, running around toddlers and pre-schoolers. For a first time parent not used to toddlers it’s horrifically loud and unruly. Leave as soon as is polite to do so. Don’t return until child can actually play with stuff.

Stage 2: Toddler

Baby has now progressed to walking/climbing/falling over, regularly lands on head but doesn’t seem to cause it a great deal of harm. Toddler wants to climb/join in but is unable to reach relevant steps to get up into the belly of the beast. Parent must accompany toddler to assist in climbing, scrambling, slide action. Toddler may also need moderate protection from larger toddlers/pre-schoolers.

This is the point that most parents realise this place was not designed with adults in mind. A myriad of small crawl spaces, tunnels, rope walkways, rollers not designed for a 6ft Tall One to squeeze through hit you in the face like a clown’s custard pie. Injury potential abounds. Coffee is ordered but very rarely fully drained whilst still hot. Accompanying grown up friends may be in same situation, half conversations are had over the top of rollers or in the queue for the slide.

This is where you learn that by entering the cage you’re fair game. Other people’s kids can marmalize you, climb over you, expect help when they get stuck and generally treat you like the play cage lacky. That feeling of desperation when you find someone else’s child in tears. Desperately looking down to see if you can work out who the parent is, whether you can get their attention or whether you need to attempt to remove said child from the cage and find it’s responsible adult. This continues throughout the stages of soft play.

Stage 3: Toddler plus new baby in tow.

This adds a whole new dimension. The toddler may be slightly older but still needs assistance. There are often many reasons for this but here are a few: legs are still too short to hoof themselves up the steps; they’re scared of the slide; they’re scared of the older kids careening around; my baby brother (who’s asleep and can’t yet see beyond his own nose never mind run around a padded prison) definitely wants to join me; they just don’t want you to drink coffee/eat cake/talk to other adults.

Adding a baby to the mix just hikes the exercise and injury potential further. Whether the baby is in your arms or securely strapped to you it does not improve your ability to squeeze through the earlier described child sized obstacle course. A small puke from small baby can also often be added into the mix. Either all over the, thankfully, wipe clean padding or down your front.

Stage 4: Pre-schooler and toddler.

This is the point at which life slowly, gradually starts to show a glimmer of improvement. The pre-schooler is now capable enough to handle himself. He can reach all the steps, brave the slide alone, generally rule over his padded migraine inducing domain. The toddler may now be brave enough to follow the older sibling. Occasionally the older sibling may even assist the younger when they get stuck. Time in the cage for the adult subsides, hot coffee gets finished, cake might get eaten without having to share. There’s still some involvement and a tuned in ear’s needed in case the toddler starts to wail. But life is improving.

Stage 5: Single pre-schooler.

With the oldest packed off to school now comes the return of single child parenting for 6 whole glorious hours. Straight off to soft play after drop off, waiting in the car until they open at 9:30. The now pre-schooler has been well taught. By and large they can fend for themselves, they might find a friend to bezz around with. Food and drink are consumed without leaving the kind of mess that resembles a medieval battleground. Adults can have full and fruitful conversations, occasionally they might even talk about things other than the kids.

Stage 6: School age.

Both kids are self-sufficient. With a little bit of guidance (don’t hit anyone, even your brother) they can be left to their own devices. Only needing intervention if they start behaving like dicks or need refreshment. Hot coffee can be drunk in one fell swoop, full grown up conversations can be had (well if you can hear each other speak), time to kick back and enjoy the fruits of your labour through the previous 5 stages.

That’s it, a rough breakdown of the lifespan of soft play. I know my time’s nearly up. The boys will soon reach an age where soft play won’t hold their attention. Hopefully more adventurous stuff’s on the cards, even if it’s not, bowling or trips to the cinema will happily suffice in its place. So thanks soft play for hours of entertainment. Some good, some bad but we’ve done it………….I think I might need a recuperative swim.

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