We braved soft play today. Our regular Friday morning playgroup was cancelled so I thought I’d bundle the Small One into the car seat and go to a soft play centre. I’d been twice before to this same place with friends and thought, how bad could it be? It was small compared with other soft play centres; it’d be fine wouldn’t it?
From the outset, everything was screaming, save yourself, turn back now, but I paid no heed. I paid no heed to the fact that the Small One protested while I put her in the car seat; I paid no heed to the fact that I couldn’t find my purse – belligerently I looked for it anyway; I paid no heed to the acres of cars snaking down the ring road, hissing at me, urging me to turn around and head home, head anywhere, anywhere but there. I paid no heed to all the signs; determined to do something aimed at the small person, I soldiered on.
Even when we got there, the car park was full. This should have set alarm bells off in my head, and I guess it may have done, but I was ignoring negativity and was determined to do this. I parked in a spot marked for the disabled (yes, I know, it was the wrong thing to do, but I was desperate to give the Small One an experience aimed at her. I’m sorry), grabbed the child and my bag and headed for the entrance. Pushing open the inviting white door, I noticed something odd: it was surprisingly full of other people’s children. I didn’t remember it being that full the last time I went. But I was there, and I was committed, there was no turning back.
My non-walker was admitted at a reduced rate and after ordering toast and tea, we settled at a spotty table, high chair and water bottle at the ready. Since the Small One isn’t walking, I had to put her in the baby area. The problem was all the toys were aimed at children younger than her and she kept pointing to the maze of softness at the other side of the room. For those unfamiliar with the concept of soft play, it is basically a warehouse on an industrial estate where a brightly-coloured soft structure with nets, a ball pool and soft slides are installed, after being blessed by Satan, and where people take their children to unleash hell in a controlled environment,while they sit on their smartphones, ignoring their offspring, drinking tea and eating toast. There is nothing ‘soft’ about soft play; it’s a hardcore battleground and to survive it you have to be a warrior, a soldier, a fighter. Soft play, it’s not for babies. Soft play: Hell in a Room.
Eventually, I conceded and let her come out of the tiny enclosure but only because the walking toddlers were not respecting the sanctity of the baby area and kept climbing in, or in one child’s case, throwing himself in head-first. The danger was far too great, and the small one bum-shuffles far too slowly to get out of the way of diving toddlers. I know I will be accused of all manner of things: you’re too careful with her, you’re a helicopter parent, always buzzing around her, you can’t protect her from everything. I know I can’t. But if you stopped your Small Hyperactive Infant Terror throwing himself into the baby area like some kind of vertically-challenged action hero, I wouldn’t have to remove my child would I?
The Small One was removed, placed in the high chair to eat her toast while I drank my tea; she was bored anyway. Breathe. We looked around; we both like to watch people; we’re not nosy, we’re just curious. To the right of us, a small boy, on the floor, snot dripping into his mouth, stuffed toast into his cavernous foodhole, sometimes dipping the crust into the wetness oozing out of his nostrils. Above him, the table was full of women, presumably women who knew him; women who had probably come together. I don’t blame them, it’s tough looking after kids on your own, and the only way to survive is to socialise. Except they weren’t socialising, not with each other anyway. All four of these women were sat together, transfixed by the phones glued to their hands. Occasionally one would take a sip of tea, a bite of toast, glancing at another, making quick eye contact, smiling, but then quickly looking at her hands again, as if the key to the universe and all its treasures were contained in the small black box and to look away would mean losing some riches, giving up some treasure.
Behind me, a Dad, with his tablet computer, tried to work while his toddler ran around and kept coming back to demand to have her socks taken off. He was clearly outnumbered this morning and I felt a bit sorry for him. He smiled at me when his little girl came over for the third time trying to remove the socks that were so offensive to her. I understood his aversion to letting her play barefoot in Hell’s Pit: it was probably crawling with germs, lice, rabies and anything else that children bring with them in their snot and saliva. “No darling, leaving your socks on, you have to leave them on in here, it’s in the rules. And they match your dress, they’re both stripy.” Both dress and socks inspected, the toddler conceded and wandered off staring at her feet. He sighed and looked at me, “You can tell I didn’t get her dressed this morning.” He sat back, breathed in deeply and exhaled. I gave him what I thought was a supportive smile which hopefully said, I know, it’s hard, I find it hard too. Except because it’s me, it probably said, I like to stare at people and probably want to make a living out of it. Give me your soul.
By now the Small One was impatient to get out of the high chair and determined to shuffle to the pit of Satan’s minions – the soft play area. She had spied the ball pool and wanted a taste of some of the action. I didn’t want to be the parent who wrapped her child in cotton wool and refused to let her take risks so I let her go and off she went, on her bum, hair bouncing up and down with every shuffle. I did keep one eye on her while I watched what was happening behind the nets: one Small Hyperactive Infant Terror, arms full of balls from the seventh circle of hell where he had left his soul, hurled them at another child’s head. The bullied child cowered while the onslaught of plastic balls rained down on her, delivering their judgment.
Over at the slide, more Small Hyperactive Infant Terrors gathered, waiting to partake in the joys of hurtling themselves down an incline at a relatively high speed. Whilst waiting, a few of the Small Hyperactive Infant Terrors entertained themselves by pushing a smaller child into the nets to see if he would bounce back. He did. So they pushed him again. They kept pushing until he wailed, opening his lungs and piercing through the laughter and squeals of delight, prompting his mother to enter the fiery pit of hell and rescue him.
I had to tear myself away from my disapproval as my Small One was trying to climb a tiny set of soft steps to reach a incline. She looked determined and ready to pull herself onto the second step and I silently cheered her on from my vantage point, not wanting to interfere, letting her get over this hurdle on her own. But she was thwarted: another Small Hyperactive Infant Terror had decided the stairs were not for her, and she must be held back, with his foot. At first he put his foot on the Small One’s shoulder, pushing her belly-first down the steps; then he decided he wasn’t content to just get her off the second step, she had to leave the steps entirely, he had to push her head, with his foot; his foot that had probably been trained by Satan himself.
That was it. I couldn’t just sit by sipping tea and allow that as the Small One wasn’t defending herself, she was being beaten and trodden on; she was Palestine, he was Israel. Her face looked pained as Israel drove his foot into her head. I rose, but I knew I was too far away to stop him so I opened my mouth and out came this sound. It was a sound I hadn’t used in a few years: my teacher sound. It consisted of a raised voice and an “Errrrrrm,” drawn out to the length it was needed. He met my gaze, knowing that I was displeased, but before I could get over and stop him, he drove his Satan foot into my Small One’s shoulder, deliberately, slowly, not breaking eye-contact with me the whole time. This 18-month old Small Hyperactive Infant Terror knew what he was doing; he had done it before, he was a veteran of the Great War. I got to my child, picked her up and fixed him with a glare so angry and potent, I think he may have wet his already-poo-filled nappy. I didn’t want to tell him off verbally; I didn’t want to be that mother: you know the one everyone tuts at because she can’t tolerate other peoples’ children misbehaving? The one who tells children off in public. I didn’t want to be the teacher in the room, but I was. He ran to his mother, not crying, but demanding a cuddle; my glare had terrified him. Good. Supervise your Small Hyperactive Infant Terrors, people, is what I said in my head, afraid that if I opened my mouth I’d unleash a tirade of judgement about how parenting wasn’t just pushing them out of your vagina and letting them free-range while you read a magazine, oblivious to their crimes.
I let the Small One carry on bum-shuffling into the pit of Satan; she wanted to experience some of it, and I wanted to let her. I couldn’t keep her safe from every danger and she had to know what was out there: this world was a battleground and she had to know how to survive in the stupidly-psychedelic jungle of pain. She made it down one netted corridor before she was stood on again, but this time she waited until all the Small Hyperactive Infant Terrors had moved before she shuffled her way back out, painfully slowly, careful not to touch anyone on her way out. She was learning. I was so proud.
Mission Soft Play accomplished, we had to leave. It was the longest hour of my life, but I did it. We did it. My soldier and I, we had conquered not-so-soft play and survived to tell the tale. We could add it to the list of experiences we had to have,but never want to have again soon. Like vaccinations, a smear test or haemarroids, soft play had to be experienced so we could move on, so we could say: we were there. We were warriors; we were soldiers.