I remember clearly my first foray in to soft play. It was a half term. I should just leave it there. For all the parents who have experienced first-hand, half-term in a soft play, there are no words. Other than those of my NCT buddy Rachel who exclaimed “Good God, it’s Dante’s Inferno.”
I had a cursory knowledge of Dante. There was that which I’d learned from Brad Pitt – the seven deadly sins he investigates in Se7en (why were all my educators not more like Brad Pitt?). Then, thanks to the formulaic writing of Dan Brown, we had Tom Hanks giving us the full nine circles of eternal damnation in ‘Inferno.’ These were enough to give me the picture – Dante basically narrates the journey through hell. It seems our famous Florentine poet, had foreseen the future of child-based play when he crafted his masterpiece poem “The Divine Comedies” in the fourteenth century. I’ve not experienced hell – but nearly seven–hundred years later – I have experienced ‘Wild N Wacky’. From this my parallels are drawn… let me take you through Dante’s nine circles…
Circle One – Limbo
In parenting terms, this is known as the reception area. From the outside, you may be reassured by the cheeky monkeys and cheerful zebras that adorn the windows, not quite allowing you to see in. Don’t be fooled. When you push open those doors, your senses will be assaulted. There’s the barrage of smells: sweaty, over-excited pre-schoolers, fried chips and thankfully coffee. Then there’s the wall of sound: screams (of excitement and trauma), laughs, shouts and roars. Can I recommend, even before you are buzzed in to the second circle, that you do not touch anything. Sticky residue of unknown origin will inevitably layer most surfaces. You will witness the exhausted, drawn and deathly faces of poor souls who’ve been here for what feels a lifetime (ten minutes is like ten hours in soft play). It’s not too late to repent and leave with some life force before you pay and accept all responsibility for the feral creature your little person will become.
Circle Two – Lust
I’m not talking about that fit dad/mum that’s over by the window – although adult eye-candy is a rare but welcome distraction. Matt Stags describes this phase of the journey as filled with ‘anyone controlled by their hormones’. I’d say this is a fairly accurate description of the chemical reaction that occurs when a toddler steps through the gates of limbo to the awaiting warehouse of crazed-fun. You will witness: their eyes will glaze over, they will fight you maniacally as you try to remove their coat, hat and shoes and then like a beast unleashed, they will bolt for the ball-pool. It’s like a love-affair as they are drawn in by the siren call of the tube-slide. Do not try to reason with them. At this point they will be lost to you.
Circle Three – Gluttony
For the first half an hour (that’s half a day in Inferno time), you will catch a passing glimpse of your off-spring as they hurtle across a rope bridge or fire a foam ball from a cannon in your direction. However they will make a willing reappearance as they take the next step along the path of soft-play hell. Yes, my friends, it’s snack time. You can bet your bottom dollar, you will be surrounded by signs that inform you that you will fry in eternal damnation if you bring your own snacks – therefore you will be required to spend your life’s savings at the snack bar to replenish little one’s energy stores. Do they want the apple or pure fruit pouch – hell no (no pun intended). Here it’s alllll about the sugar. If you can get out of here alive without purchasing an ice-cream, slice of sprinkles cake and some form of bongo-juice then quite frankly, you deserve a ticket outta here.
Circle Four – Greed
Fuelled on sugar and empty calories, this is where they turn demonic. Cries of ‘mine, mine” echo around the wacky warehouse walls. Stags talks of the unfortunate souls in this circle spending an “eternity fighting over money and valuables.” Nothing is more valuable to a hyper-toddler than a foam ball. They will snarl and salivate as they try to feed the suction tubes in the ball pit with every darned ball they can get their hands on. Good luck to you if you are brave enough to stand in the way or press the big red button that empties out the ball net before it’s filled. All that hard work you put in to sharing and caring… forget it. In this circle – ‘mine‘ is key!
Circle Five – Wrath
Dante’s angry souls were doomed ‘to spend an eternity waging war on the River Styx’. Wild ‘n’ Wacky inhabitants are condemned to spend a good five minutes (that’s five hours in Inferno time) battling it out on the rope bridge or in tube tunnel. There’s not room for two to pass. So it will come down to who can shout the loudest or who is the biggest, therefore flattening the other with no remorse. Don’t expect your normally placid, smiley child to back down. If someone dare block their way – they will face their full wrath
Circle Six – Heresy
I am not suggesting here that your child will go against any religious doctrine. However, there will be moments where children will behave ‘at odds with what is generally accepted’ – and there will be those parents who couldn’t give two hoots as they sup their hot cappuccino and scroll through Instagram. The biggest crime in non-conformity is those not-so little people in the toddler area. It clearly says, under-threes yet you look old enough to vote. Should you really be dive-bombing on the jungle slide with babies and toddler flying left, right and centre in your wake? Heresy!
Circle Seven – Violence
Here I will cite an example. Wrigglet, aged two entered the ball pool. Hell was quite quiet that day but he was soon to be joined by two other inmates. They objected sharing the space with my little man and before I could untie my laces and dive in, they were trying to bury him with balls. They were three and four I found out when their mum sauntered over and casually asked “are they being a bit rough – they lay in to each other but I’ve told them you can’t beat up others.” Yes, yes they were being rough as they launched balls in to Harry’s face at close range for no apparent reason. Welcome to circle seven – the bane of the soft-play workers’ life as they fill out another incident/first-aid form.
Circle Eight – Fraud
Come on – admit it. On entry to the warehouse of hell, they give you a band. A coloured band. This allots you a time-scale. How many of the parents who enter the home of the damned actually strap this band on to the wrist of their toddler? We all go there with one clear agenda – to exhaust them to the point where they sleep through the night or at least give you a good couple of hours over lunchtime. I think every caregiver would be guilty as hell of outstaying their welcome when the announcement is made that “all those wearing green bands, your time has expired,” and promptly ignored. There’s no way you would’ve endured this hell unless they are positively dead on their feet and fit to drop. The fraudsters of circle eight remain until eyes are rolling and bodies are heavy with the fatigue of the over-funned.
Circle Nine – Treachery
We reach the end of our journey. It is time for parents to commit the ultimate sin. Yes – disloyal souls that we are, we swipe our child away from all that is wild ‘n’ wacky. The look of utter betrayal on the faces of your spawn as you grab them and try to wedge on their shoes, as you grab all your accoutrements and scramble for the doors, is testament to your treachery. As this is hell, expect a few challenges on the way to freedom – there’ll be the hat that you forgot that you need to race back for, the child crawling on the floor that you trip over, whilst your progeny writhes under your arm and then there’s the infernal release button behind the counter for the gate, that no-one seems to be manning just when you need them. Think of yourself as one of the lucky few if you get to those doors and fresh air unscathed.
So it seem our Dante Alighieri was not only a poet but an accurate predictor of the future of all parents. Despite the challenges, we still go back for more. I must be a sucker for punishment as I’ve just signed up for an annual pass (that’s a millennium on Inferno time). Pray for me!
Do you have any tales from the den of iniquity that is soft-play. I’d love to hear them. Any recommendations of particularly good experiences, particularly in Essex and North London. Please share!