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A Soft Play Centre is an indoor play area which usually consists of padded climbing frames, slides, ball pools and tunnels built for toddlers and children to run around in and enjoy. These are especially popular when the weather is too cold and wet to take children to beaches, castles, parks, miniature railways and zoos. They are also popular venues for children's birthday parties.
What to Expect
Soft play centres usually charge an entry fee for each child that uses the facilities and some also charge for accompanying adults. Babies are normally allowed to enter the facilities free of charge. Centres will usually ask for shoes to be removed and possibly handed in to members of staff (as they would be in a bowling alley). This prevents equipment being dirtied with mud etc and lessens risk of injury. Children are expected to wear socks, to prevent the spread of verrucas and other foot infections.
Things Found at a Typical Soft Play Centre:
- Ball pools
- Child cars, tricycles, pedal-tractors and go-karts
- Bouncy castles
- Building blocks
- Other toys including wobbly clowns and rocking horses
- Wendy houses1
- Football/basketball area
- Ball-tipping baskets and pneumatic chutes
- Ball-firing air cannon
- Climbing wall
- Giant musical keyboards2
- Younger children area, limited to those under a specified age3
- Baby area; this may contain a sensory zone, including coloured lights, bubbles, lava-lamps and soft toys
- Excited children
In addition to the free facilities there are often vending and arcade machines, such as air hockey and table football. Be aware that many soft play centres have a no-photography policy. Some offer membership or operate loyalty schemes. Most have themed party rooms which can be hired out for birthdays.
As soft play centres are large, interior areas, they're frequently found in converted buildings on industrial estates. These have the disadvantage of being difficult to get to without a car and that parking may quite possibly be problematic in peak periods.
For more information about your local soft play centre, check their website. It may be advisable to call ahead first, before arriving to find that they are hosting parties and are very crowded.
In addition to centres dedicated solely to soft play, similar facilities, though usually on a smaller scale, can be found in other family-friendly areas. These include pubs, fast food outlets, leisure centres and museums.
All soft play centres request that children are kept under supervision at all times, but how closely should you supervise them? Excited children do run riot and, focused on their goal of, say, getting to the big fun slide as quickly as possible, rush and push past other children on the way. This means that young children and toddlers especially are vulnerable to being pushed over and trodden on. It is a good idea to keep a close eye on very young children at all times, especially on stairways.
Many centres allow adults to enter the play structure with the children, but whether you do so may well depend on three factors:
Your child's age – the younger the child, generally the closer degree of supervision they should be given, especially to protect them from larger children.
Your child's temperament – some children, especially during the 'terrible twos', sadly react violently when shoved and jostled.
The amount of time you get to spend with your children.
Some parents spend all day with their children, and long to enjoy the opportunity to sit down somewhere with a cup of tea where they can meet friends and catch up with the gossip. In most other locations, they have to spend their time supervising their children and do not get to talk to their friends as much as they would like. A soft play centre is a safe environment in which children can roam free while their parents enjoy an hour or two of adult conversation and companionship.
For other parents who may not spend as much time with their kids, a soft play centre is somewhere they can run and laugh and enjoy interacting with their children. Many children may find some parts of the play structure, such as the highest level, quite daunting and find having their parents with them reassuring; the big bumpy slide is not scary if they can sit on Daddy's knee. Their parents also get the opportunity to enjoy being the big kid that they know they still are at heart, and prove they still have what it takes to climb over scramble ropes, crawl through tunnels and squeeze through small gaps.
Many children wish to spend time with their parents or other parent figure. It is not unusual for an adult who is spending time playing with their children to find themselves followed by other children they do not know, who wish to spend time with a grown-up.
Soft play centres generally do not allow you to bring in your own food. Most places provide food and drink, ranging from unhealthy snacks and soft drinks in vending machines to a full menu of meals made on the premises. You'll likely find tea, coffee and cakes for adults too. An increasing number sell only healthy, organic or Fairtrade food. Tables are often found next to the catering facilities, while more comfortable sofas where food is not allowed are closer to the children's play areas. Here parents can chat and catch up with friends who're there with their own children.
Do not expect a child, or an adult, to be able to run around a soft play centre for a couple of hours without needing a big drink!