Just before my daughter turned 1, I came home from work one evening to find her clambering all over the littered sofa cushions as if it were her own personal soft play area. As well as being one of those “she’s not a baby anymore” moments, it also made me realise that she now needs more exercise if there’s to be any hope of getting her to sleep at anything approaching a reasonable hour.
So, the following weekend, my wife and I decided to take M to an actual soft play area. This was to be my first time experiencing this (my wife was a veteran of four visits), so I was initially a little apprehensive at the thought of somehow making a huge faux pas.
“Don’t worry, there are rules written on the wall”, my wife said, which was part witty remark and part instruction.
But, I figured that I was just being silly. After all, I was pretty sure that I could restrain myself from performing a running jump into the ball pit or re-enacting ‘The Hunger Games’ in the climbing area.
Despite the fact that we had to book a session first, we arrived to find that there were only a handful of other parents and children there. It started well enough, we found a table that would function as our base and proceeded into the ball pit. M was a bit apprehensive about this, but my wife and I joined her as reassurance, all the while trying not to think about all the dirt and encrusted bogeys that might be hidden at the bottom. We then went guided M up the mini steps next to the ball pit and down the adjoining slide. She absolutely loved this, but started to get a bit stroppy that she couldn’t climb back up the slide itself.
There’ll be more on that later.
We then noticed that, behind the ball pit and steps, there was a play area that was currently empty. In this particular section, there was a notice stating that it was ‘recommended’ that children under the age of 5 did not go in. This was presumably because it was a bit darker, there were a couple of large, exercise-style bouncy balls within and the steps were slightly bigger. However, being the determined little individual that she is, M wanted to go in and my wife seemed happy with this: “It’s fine, you’ll be with her”, she said.
So, in we went. I held M’s hand as she looked around and I helped her up one of the steps. It was at that moment we were seen by a fellow parent, with a son about the same age as M, on the other side of the netting. The little boy stared in the direction of M and I. His mum glanced over as well. “No, Callum, you can’t go in there as you’re not old enough”, she said, giving me an extremely disapproving look in the process.
With that one sentence, I had been firmly put in my place and told, in no uncertain terms, that she did not approve of my parenting. My soft play experience was only 15 minutes old.
I whisked M away to the car area (the soft play cars, that is, I didn’t take her outside and just leave her by the front wheel of a Nissan). We played there for a little while, whilst I tried to shake the feeling that my soft play ‘parenting card’ had been well and truly marked, probably with red biro.
A short while later, my wife came over and we decided to head back to the slide. One of us would escort M up the steps and place her on the slide, whilst the other would wait to catch her at the bottom. It was good fun and the smile on M’s little face as she came sliding down was lovely. However, as I mentioned before, there was a slight snag as M wanted to climb right back up the slide, clearly oblivious to the older children who were about to hurtle down towards her. So, every time I went to escort her away, she was not best pleased and made her feelings known. Sitting in the area next to the slide was the same mum as before, along with two others. As M cried, they looked over, fixing their collective gaze on my unhappy daughter and I. Feeling rather uncomfortable, I handed M over to my wife and took a bit of a breather.
Now, I can be overly sensitive sometimes and more emotionally robust people might have just ignored the other mums and got on with things, which is why I passed the baton quickly over to my wife. She’s a teacher and used to interacting with parents, therefore I figured she wouldn’t take any perceived slight as personally as me. So, she took M to play with some soft cubes and soft animals before heading back to the slide. But again, each time, M took exception to being removed from the slide once she’d reached the bottom (her mum had come down with her). A few minutes later, my wife brought M over and sat next to me, with a slightly embarrassed look on her face. “They are really judgmental, aren’t they?” she said, subtly gesturing over to the trio of seated mums, who appeared to be glancing disdainfully in our direction.
So, we just sat there for a while, looking rather awkward, like a couple of naughty schoolchildren who’d arrived late for class and neglected to do their homework.
For the remainder of our allotted time, we accompanied M around the soft play area almost apologetically. We left before the other mums had the chance to bring out the pitchforks and burning torches, although I assume that these are probably on an extensive list of items ‘not recommended’ for soft play.
Over-sensitivity and exaggerations for comic effect aside, I appreciate that my fatherly experience is limited (this blog isn’t called ‘The Experienced Dad’s Diary’), but I do know that this parenting business is hard enough without fellow parents making you feel like you are doing it all wrong. After all, each child is different and, as we all know, there is sadly no ‘one-size-fits-all’ manual.
Still, it wasn’t necessarily a bad experience. Slide removals aside, M seemed to enjoy herself and, as my wife put it when we were sat down: “There’s a blog post in this, isn’t there?”
How right she was. As our daughter gets older, it probably won’t be the last of its type either. In terms of soft play though, I might just stick to re-arranging the sofa cushions for the time being.