As the door opens, the pre-formed line of eagerly waiting parents and cubs surge forward…
The overwhelmed till attendant hastily wraps fluorescent (seemingly indestructible) paper bands round outstretched arms. Screams of joy begin to erupt from beyond the entrance. It’s started.
I’m not there to beat the crowds, I’m here because I’ve been up since 5, and in honesty, I’m slightly put out that the place doesn’t open until 9 – how inconsiderate. If it wasn’t raining and if I hadn’t had, “Softplay! Softplay!” shouted in my ear on repeat since the literal crack of dawn, I might have been more inclined to avoid this place…but it is raining and I have had those dreaded words barraging me…so here we are.
It’s a weekday and the level of testosterone in the colourful and hugely uncomfortable seating area-come-canteen is seriously low. I’m the only dad and the clusters of mums preparing their children for their shoeless release look around at the sight. I’m not bothered, and neither are they really, but it feels like it’s noted that I’m a dad and not a mum.
You get a number of different receptions as a dad. They range…sympathy, empathy, are you here alone? all in all it’s quite entertaining. I don’t often notice it for long as I tend to make the most of the opportunity to challenge both my agility and flexibility (whilst losing a fair chunk of my dignity.)
I can’t lie, the realisation that most soft play centres aren’t designed with 6ft 3, 16 stone fathers in mind is something that has disappointed and challenged me as a parent. My innate (and highly stereotypical) male urge to climb, duck and dive between various obstacles has been somewhat suppressed by the practicalities of the layout of most centres, so as my agile toddler dodges between the soft rollers, I question whether the bacon and egg butty was a good idea every morning this week.
The other dads look as excited as me, it’s like we’re young again. Maybe it’s to novelty of being out with our children? Maybe it’s just that the allure of soft obstacles bring something out in men, who knows? There is something exciting about being in the minority too…and not knowing what the actual rules of soft play are. It always feels like everyone else at soft play knows the rules – the slides to avoid, the way to get to the secret tunnels, which parts are less deadly for toddlers – the inside info. Being ignorant of all of this makes it all the more fun.
There’s a weird dad code at soft play too. I guess maybe mums have one too, but obviously I don’t know it – duh. Any time I see another dad in the ‘jungle’ or being repeatedly shot in the head with one of those annoying air powered ball guns, there’s the look. The “alright pal” look, the “you too?” look, the “what am I doing right now-oh wait-it doesn’t matter because you’re doing it too” look. It’s hard to explain, but soft play is a place that makes all dads equal.
At the end, when I’m utterly exhausted, and my trousers are at the point of ripping and I’m having to consider a second mortgage after buying a Fruit Shoot and a Diet Coke, I realise that soft play isn’t actually that bad…