Sunday, 19 February 2012

The tenth circle of hell

This is the tenth circle of hell.  It is. Through the crowd of the damned I can see a figure pushing a large ball up a steep slope, only to watch it roll back down again.  A little distance away someone is writhing on the ground in apparent agony, watched by a gleeful little face.  Shrieks and screams echo all around me and small creatures run about, issuing little stabs of torment to the cringing men and women who have been unfortunate enough to end up here.

As I contemplate what on earth I did to warrant being condemned to this place, the ball-pusher is swooped upon by a vengeful

“What have I told you about taking the balls on the slide?”  his mother hisses, snatching
the red swiss ball away and hurling it to one side where it promptly flattens a tottering toddler whose mother has been distracted by the realisation that her pre-schooler has managed to wrestle a toy car from a younger child, triggering the kind of writhing, screaming fury that only a two year-old can possibly carry off.

Soft play. Half term.  Hell on earth. 

Seriously. I swear I saw Satan peering in through the window a minute ago, before
clearly deciding that there are some torments just too nasty even for him.

I glance around and find an empty pair of shoes and an abandoned coat behind me.  Thomas
has clearly got bored of waiting for me to snap out of the state of shock brought on by the wall of noise that greeted us on our arrival a few minutes ago.  I peer around, but realise that I
can’t remember what he was wearing under his coat.  He is currently going through a layering
phase and every item of clothing I put on him is greeted with a demand for “something else on top”.  He definitely has a yellow Tour de France t-shirt on, but I can’t remember whether that was
under the Thomas the Tank-Engine long-sleeve or on top, and whether I won the argument about the stripy jumper or not. Bugger.  I am a Bad Mother.  Not only have I lost my child, I won’t even
be able to give an accurate description to the police. 

As if to underline my Bad Mother status, a grown woman skips past me.  Full-on,
knees-up Michael McIntyre style skipping. I watch, transfixed as she throws herself into the play frame and performs a perfect body-roll through a low crawl-space.    Now there is dedication to the playful art of parenthood.  Or else she has gone entirely, stark-raving mad through prolonged exposure to primary colours and Disney soundtracks.

As I turn back to the problem of the missing child, it suddenly occurs to me that there is a locked gate between Thomas and the outside world so he can’t actually go anywhere, and I am relatively
confident that he won’t inflict actual bodily harm on other children.  Might as well crack on with the tea and cake then.

It takes approximately 0.5 of a second from me sitting down with a chocolate brownie to Thomas somehow detecting that I have “cakey”, launching himself down the large slide and scaling the low wall that separates the café from the carnage.  The yellow t-shirt is under the stripy jumper and I make a mental note.  Red and brown stripes, red and brown stripes……

I resentfully break off the smallest possible piece of brownie and make subtle shooing gestures while muttering “go play”,
and furtively looking around to check that no-one else has noticed my blatant attempt to avoid interacting with my child. 
Unfortunately the presence of the cake seems to exert some strange gravitational pull, like a gooey, chocolate sun.  Thomas circles it, and me, like a determined little satellite, performing a swift lap of the café before sidling back up to me with a sidelong look and coyly whispering “cakey?”  I am sure he thinks that if I can’t quite hear him asking the question I am far less likely to answer “no”.  This is a favourite tactic of his. My shooing
becomes less and less subtle and I eventually admit defeat and give him the brownie which he stuffs into his mouth gleefully.  As he wanders off I stare gloomily at the sad little pile of crumbs and wonder if I have bought myself enough peace and quiet to make up for the loss of the unnecessary calories.

If you ignore the fact that the central location of the café makes it impossible to hide from your offspring, Playspace
in Bristol is one of the best laid-out soft-play centres I have come across.  The café area is large and surrounded  by a low wall, providing a buffer of sorts between the rampaging hoards and the hot drinks.  The main play areas form an L-shape around two sides of the café, with unusually large under-4s area to one side, and the main play frame at the far end.  At the other end there are some sofas and low tables around a baby play-pen, and some coin-operated rides.  On the final side there is the entrance to an activity room where staff run a daily session for pre-school children, usually painting or craft. You can sit in the café and have a good view of the majority of the play equipment.  This means that you have
plenty of time to hide/pretend you don’t know them/reluctantly intervene when your child and his two cousins take occupation of the playhouse and arm themselves with toys ready to fend off all-comers.  Warning – this does not go down well with other parents.  It was like the toddler version of Gunfight at the OK Corral.

I am becoming an expert on soft play centres.  I am seriously considering applying to do a phD in the quantum mechanics of soft play.  I will conduct extensive study into the relative merits of various establishments, ranking them on the basis of how much child-free tea and cake consumption time they provide.  I am fairly sure I can identify the exact formula of Layout x Size + Number of Slides which equals Maximum Me-Time.  Perhaps there will be a grant to pay for the large quantities of cake which I will have to consume in the process of this vital research.  I already have some
provisional results to share:

Playspace Bristol   Me-time = moderate to high.  Could be improved by making the café wall higher allowing better prospects of small children occasionally forgetting where they left their parents. 

Noah’s Ark, Brislington Me-time =  high end of moderate.  There is a slightly too-enticing circular
route encompassing the main slide and a rotating tunnel which takes small children past their parents’ table a little too often.  This means that you have to keep thinking of suitable responses to “Mummy, I sliiiiiide” every 3 minutes or so.  However, it is small enough to allow for effective supervision without ever actually leaving your table. 

Bath Leisure Centre – Me-time = low.  There is no café.  What were they THINKING?!

Gambados, Chelsea – Me-time = low.  The layout means that you actually have to
get up to see what your child is up to. 
(NB  This centre may require more study as I have also noted an interesting phenomenon –
no-one’s child is ever to blame for anything. It is always someone else’s fault.   Even when a 1 year-old has been trampled underfoot by a 10 year-old who jumped the wall into the under-2s area while shouting “die, small children, die”, the 10 year-old’s parent will still glare balefully at the flattened baby while reassuring their rampaging offspring that “not everyone is as nice as
you, darling.  We have to make allowances for children who just don’t understand.” )

I believe this study could be ground-breaking.  I will become the Stephen Hawking of Quantum
Play Theory.  I will probably win the Nobel Prize for discovering the formula that creates more uninterrupted me-time than the total of the time actually spent in the soft play centre.  In fact, forget the Nobel Prize, I will probably be sainted. 

But in the meantime, I will be grateful for what peace I can extract, while Thomas charges about like a lunatic, occasionally popping up beside the table with an ever-hopeful “cakey?”, and Ben snoozes in the sling, his head burrowed as far into the layers of fabric as he can possibly go – he has probably gone into shock. 

I might join him.

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