Soft play is not for the faint-hearted. It may seem like a harmless play gym with ball pools, oversized clambering ladders and a place for your child to develop his gross motor skills. Don’t be fooled. It is an exercise in the survival of the fittest. You might think you’re taking your child for a fun couple of hours to run off some steam, while you drink an over-priced hot cup of coffee that you didn’t have to make yourself, but in reality, you’re giving your child the opportunity to learn valuable life skills in how to interact, negotiate and even manipulate other children.
There are several types of children at soft play. How to deal with each one depends on their characteristics. These can be summed up as follows:
1. The Barnacle
The Barnacle is the child who is stuck to his/her mother’s side. The child is scared of soft play. The Barnacle does not enjoy climbing, slides, ball pools or other children being in close proximity. These children only tend to be seen at soft play when it’s raining. This is usually when his mother is at the end of her tether and is desperately hoping the child will foster some kind of independence.
2. The Feral Child
The Feral Child is every carer’s worst nightmare. This child will not wait, queue nor give consideration to children smaller or weaker. The feral child will hurt most other children in his/her vicinity, mostly unintentionally. There may be pushing, shoving and general rough play. Teach your child to give way to the Feral Child. The Feral Child is enthusiastic about soft play and his/her parent will be relieved that the child is using up some excess energy on the soft play equipment rather than climbing the walls at home.
3. The Vanisher
This kind of child is almost impossible to supervise. You think you know exactly where he/she is, but in reality The Vanisher is nowhere to be seen. The parent is to be found flailing around on the equipment searching in vain for their child, only to find them waving at them from the farthest point possible. This type of child is nimble and quick and can navigate the equipment like an alley cat.
4. The Unicorn
This child is the Holy Grail of the soft play. The Unicorn merrily runs off to play while leaving his parent to drink hot coffee in peace. He returns at regular (but not too regular) intervals to check in. He doesn’t concern himself with other children. He circumnavigates the feral child with ease and barely even registers the Barnacle. When it’s time to go, he happily exits the equipment and retrieves his shoes with minimum fuss. Every parent is envious of this child. He is named The Unicorn because no-one is certain he exists.
Just as there are main types of children to look out for, there are also three kinds of carer:
1. The Worrier
The Worrier usually attends soft play with their first born. The Worrier is not happy about the situation but is equally concerned that they are not giving their child ample opportunity to socialise with other children so soft play is the better of two evils. The most common catchphrases from The Worrier include: “be careful!”, “I think that’s a bit high for you!” and “stop!” The Worrier believes that all other children are a hazard to theirs and would really prefer it if the soft play could be booked privately on an hourly basis. The Worrier carries a pack on antibacterial wipes everywhere they go and disinfects every piece of equipment before use.
2. The Screen Gazer
The Screen Gazer is easily recognisable as a hunched-over figure in nearest the cafe. He/she will have a nose buried in a phone or tablet and will grudgingly look up at the sound of screams/crying. Unless the Screen Gazer is parenting The Unicorn, this is a tricky parent at the soft play. Don’t be too quick to write someone off as a Screen Gazer; he/she might be having a tough day and just needs ten minutes of peace before getting back involved. On the other hand, there are carers who use soft play as a babysitter and this is more difficult if they are responsible for a Feral Child. By refusing to act as a witness to their child, they take no responsibility for their child’s wrongdoings.
3. The Supervisor
The Supervisor usually has a good knowledge of their own child. If their offspring has a tendency to be boisterous, then The Supervisor will watch closely and intervene if necessary (perhaps a well-timed reminder that there are smaller children around or to tell their child off for not following soft play etiquette). This is the kind of parent who is easy to communicate with if your child has an altercation with theirs. Firm but fair. They know what happened because they were watching!
If you are still keen and willing to enter the dog-eat-dog world of soft play, go forth and best of luck!