Are soft play centres good for our children?

I recently set off on a truly epic journey. Yorkshire to mid-Wales to be precise. As I said, epic! It was my first long drive alone with both children. I did my research before setting off, and found a soft play centre just off the main road about half way down to Wales. I thought this would be the perfect place to stop. Better than a service station on the motorway and a great opportunity for my son to stretch his legs.

It turns out that I chose rather poorly. We drove up to the rather dilapidated looking building to discover that the inside wasn't a lot better. The sign on the door threatening that we would be kicked out if we ate anything not purchased on site didn't bode well either.

Inside it was dated and the slide wasn't slippery, so older children were just running straight down it. Anyway, I'm not just going to say how bad the play centre was. I just wondered what kind of thought processes our young children are learning by going to soft play. I don't think I have ever been to any soft play centre without discovering a lost or stuck child whilst I bound about with my son. On Monday, we encountered a young girl screaming because she was stuck and her brother desperately pulling her to free her. My son looked at me and said 'that girl's crying Mummy, she is sad'. I couldn't see her mother anywhere. Turns out that both her Mum and Dad were there, sitting down with their backs to the play area and hadn't seen their child, or heard their cries.

It got me thinking about the impression this has on children. What are we teaching them by taking them to soft play? 'Yes darling, Mummy loves you, but you go and play whilst I sit here reading a magazine ignoring you completely'. 'Oh you got stuck did you, well you go back in and play again', 'I'm sorry, I didn't hear you crying'. Does it impact on them seeing other children crying and not being rescued by parents?

I have regularly 'rescued' children in soft play centres, as has my husband, although he feels uncomfortable about this. He shouldn't be put in a position where a small child is begging him to help and then he worries about how the child's mother will react to being told that a man helped them. I have also seen children gang up and pick on my son because he was smaller than them.

The food that was served in the place we stopped was also rather shocking. The menu consisted of chicken nuggets, fish fingers, pizza and turkey bites, all accompanied with chips. 'And peas?' my son asked, 'no, beans'. and all served in a polystyrene packet. It was his first taste of chips, which he loved. My lips were stinging from the salt afterwards though, so I would imagine his were too. I also saw possibly the most shocking thing I have ever seen (I don't get out a lot), which was a baby under five months being fed chips and then given a dairy milk bar to suck on. Shocked doesn't cover it, but that's a different story altogether.

Where we live, there are two soft play centres within about eight miles. Dragon's Den is brand new and, as such, absolutely fantastic. It is well thought out and it is easy to see your children at all times. It is hard to get stuck anywhere. Fun Planet is the other centre close to us which is also very good (and they have good cakes) although it is slightly harder to see your children at all times.

I read a blog recently which covers the topic very successfully.

I love soft play centres. It tires my son out without me having to do much. On a rainy day it is brilliant. I have to say though, he is rarely unattended. Even when I was 38 weeks pregnant I was clambering over rope nets and whizzing down 40ft slides. I think what I'm trying to say is that soft play can be brilliant, but parents need to be more vigilant and keep an eye on their children more often. I also need to do my a little more in depth research about the meals they serve before I set off.

Maybe I only take my children because I enjoy it a little bit too much!