It’s official: soft play sessions are now an integral part of life in Britain – as important to us as television, body moisturising lotion and prepared mashed potato.
How do we know this? Because the ONS has brought out its annual “basket of goods”, the at-a-glance things-we-spend-our-money-on measure of the UK's inflation rate... and all three of these delights are in it.
I was particularly interested by the inclusion of soft play sessions, since I spend roughly half my spare time being forced down small plastic slides by my children, pulled into ball pools and scrambling through giant blocks of plastic-covered foam in the name of... I don’t know, entertainment? Spiritual enlightenment?
Given that I’m 5ft 10ins and the equipment is designed for children under 10, it’s hard to look elegant as an adult at a soft play session. Luckily, this is far less important than making sure there’s no blood on the slide, removing another child’s discarded sticking plaster from your toddler’s fist, and ensuring no galumphing nine-year-old intrudes into the under-twos section and jumps on your baby’s head.
When I mention soft play to the uninitiated (for which, read: non-parents, or those whose offspring are still at the age where sitting them in their car seat in the pub is a valid method of stimulating them), their response is usually: “What actually is it?”
Arguably, our children should not be incarcerated in artificially lit rooms inside shopping centres. They should be running through meadows, picking flowers
On learning it is basically a primary coloured toddler prison made of soft stuff – and that, no, you can’t just leave your kids in it while you get a coffee (I’ve tried) – the next reply tends to be: “Isn’t that awful?”
Well, in many ways, yes it is. Arguably, our children should not be incarcerated in artificially lit rooms inside shopping or leisure centres; they should be running through meadows, picking flowers and listening to birds sing. They should be exposed to the kind of risks a pile of big soft cushions can’t offer. Alternatively, they should be in museums or galleries, learning about dinosaurs and Matisse.
But the reality of parenting is that sometimes you’re just too exhausted for dinosaurs and Matisse. Sometimes you just don’t live all that near to any meadows, and even if you do, sometimes it’s raining. Given that doing nothing is never an option (again, I’ve tried), soft play is often the default answer to "how do we tire them out between now and dinner?"
And while an excess of soft play can be soul-destroying for parents, our meadow-deprived children love it more than life itself.
Soft play is often the default answer to 'How do we tire them out between now and dinner?'
We’re told they should learn through play, and amid the giant plastic shapes they genuinely do: they learn that if they lie at the bottom of the slide, someone will promptly land on their head; that if mummy disappears to very quickly buy a coffee, she definitely – almost definitely – will come back; that other children have just as much right to be on the bouncy castle, even if they’re making it “too bouncy”; and that it’s never OK to eat anything you find on the floor in there.
Your kids are unlikely to learn much about modern art during a soft play session, but they’re going to climb, jump, tunnel, hide, laugh, crawl, explore and interact with others - all of which beats watching Peppa Pig. To my mind, anything that gets you and them out the house is a good thing.
There’ll always be time for meadows and dinosaurs another day. Sometimes you just need to make it through the one you’re in.