The pure hell of children's soft play centres | Steve Canavan

I went to a third birthday party at the weekend.Let me be clear here: I don’t hang around with three-year-olds. That would be weird, and might ring alarm bells with the authorities.

Thursday, 9th January 2020, 5:41 pm
Updated Friday, 17th January 2020, 2:45 pm
Steve Canavan threw a ball in a toddler's face - and made a swift exit

I went because the birthday girl is one of my daughter’s friends, at a soft play centre.

I don’t know how many of you have been to one but, for those who haven’t, they are like dying and ending up in hell.

They are essentially large buildings filled with toys and slides and ball pools and netting and inflatable things where 100 hyper children shriek at the top of their lungs and throw themselves around in suicidal fashion for hours.

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These places are to adult enjoyment what myxomatosis is to rabbits.

In fact I often think we could crack crime if, as punishments for serious offences, criminals were sentenced to three years in soft play rather than prison.

I daresay no one would ever commit an illegal act ever again.

For kids, of course, they are the most wonderful, joyful places, but for anyone above the age of eight, it’s purgatory.

Being the miserable type, give me a choice between playing with my child on the soft play or standing on the sidelines making awkward conversation with other parents, I’d take the former any day of the week.

And so it was that I found myself on Sunday standing at the bottom of a slide surrounded by 12 children chanting ‘Steve, Steve, Steve!’

What I didn’t realise, you see, is that any adult who ventures onto the soft play, immediately, whether they want to or not, becomes a guardian for all the other children.

So while all the other adults bought themselves cappuccinos and lattes and sitting with their feet up relaxing, I found myself taking on the role of an unpaid children’s entertainer.

This is kind of awkward because as you’re crawling about on all fours in a ball pool with a dozen three year olds you do wonder if the other parents are looking at you questioning your intentions.

It can also go wrong so very easily, as I discovered when I chased three toddlers through a tunnel while making loud noises and shouting ‘I’m a monster – WATCH OUT’.

One of the children, possibly of a nervous disposition, took me literally and began screaming hysterically in fear. She emerged from the tunnel shaking and with tears streaming down her face.

I emerged behind to find her parents staring at their daughter in a concerned fashion, then transferring their gaze to me and presumably wondering what the hell had happened in the tunnel.

Still, most of the others were undaunted and I continued to be the centre of attention.

The game which seemed to go down best involved me getting all the kids to stand at the bottom of the slides and throw balls we’d nicked from the ball pool at the children coming down.

It was going well until – trying to demonstrate how to throw a ball properly – I hurled mine in the direction of a quite delicate-looking child on the slide. I’d meant to deliberately miss him but my aim clearly isn’t as good as I thought, for it hit the kid smack in the face. He immediately began crying and a trickle of blood emerged from his nose.

Like any responsible adult, the first thing I did was turn around and check if any parents were watching. They didn’t seem to be.

‘Oh no,’ I cried in mock anger. ‘Who threw that ball?’ I demanded, ignoring the 12 toddlers shouting in unison ‘you did’.

It was at this point I decided it was best to retire from my role as children’s entertainer before anyone suffered a broken bone or, possibly, death.

There’s another third birthday coming up soon; note to self, making awkward conversation with other parents while drinking a latte might be the better option.