Soft Play Hell

It’s Friday of half term. There’s a storm outside so what else would I be doing than sitting in a soft play while the girls get rid of some energy. In the past I’d have avoided these places like the plague but this afternoon feels different.

Perhaps the difference this time is that I can sit down with a coffee (and a chocolate muffin…shhh don’t tell my personal trainer!) and my laptop and essentially let the kids get on with it which is a far cry from soft play visits of old.

It’s not that anything has changed particularly. Soft plays are still rammed, pretty grubby and oh so loud, but now the kids are older, I don’t need to venture inside. I can sit on the sidelines as a spectator rather than dragging myself up the plastic squishy steps and getting wedged in between the enormous foam rollers clearly not designed for someone of my stature.

This time I don’t feel the need to constantly scour the cages to see where the girls are and check they aren’t stuck or lost. They are much more robust, both physically and emotionally so I don’t panic at every screech (and there are a lot) and every cry or shout of “Mummy!” doesn’t send shivers down my spine.

But there is another layer to the soft play hell for me. I remember taking Beautiful Blue Eyes to soft plays when she was a toddler and feeling frustrated that she wouldn’t just go in and play, instead insisting that I accompany her on every step. I just wanted to sit down and have a chat with my friend or drink a warm coffee.

On the flip side, once she did work up the courage to go in alone, I always knew that if someone was crying, it wasn’t because of Beautiful Blue Eyes. In fact, it was most likely to be her crying because she had been hurt.

I remember a friend commenting that she was such an ‘easy’ toddler. I recall thinking to myself, “Well you don’t see her at home. She’s not that easy!” but now I know what they meant. She was a ‘good girl’ especially around other children. She didn’t have it in her to be rough or unkind even though toddlers are generally impulsive and self centred — that’s not a judgement, it’s a fact.

I was probably a bit judgey of those toddlers (and their parents); The ones who snatched her toys or shoved her down the slide. I now realise that it was simply her personality to be gentle and no reflection on my parenting or her innate goodness.

Then there came Little Brown Eyes. It’s safe to say, she has taught me a lot. Although an incredibly chilled out baby who was adaptable and easy going, as a toddler, her strong will really started to show. If she wanted something, she took it. If someone was in her way, she shoved them. Not out of badness, but out of her belief that she was the most important person in the World. And if you can’t think that when you’re a toddler, then when can you?

But it made visits to places like this pretty stressful. I felt like I had to watch her like a hawk in case she felt someone had slighted her. I felt constantly on edge, just waiting for something to go wrong. And there was never a chance to sit down with a coffee or chat to a friend, not if I wanted to finish a sentence anyway!

So I started to avoid soft plays and for a while I avoided a lot of social situations. I felt like I was setting Little Brown Eyes up for failure and myself up for having a horrible time. I guess I felt a sense of judgement not only from others but also myself. Why didn’t she enjoy this? It’s meant to be fun! Why can’t she just get along with other people?

Gradually, I realised that I was asking a lot of her and rather than considering what she needed, I was focusing on what I thought we should do.

I remember I hated soft plays as a child. They weren’t as common as they are now but the odd one I remember filled me with dread. I found them loud (no change there), too hot and filled with kids I didn’t know (and didn’t want to know). There were far too many unknowns for my liking and I vividly remember the familiar stomach cramps of anxiety when faced with an indoor play area.

I hid it well I think whereas Little Brown Eyes isn’t good at hiding anything. If she’s happy, we know about it. If she’s cross, we really know about it. And that is no bad thing.

Whilst it may be inconvenient for me at times (and at other times, it’s downright embarrassing), I want Little Brown Eyes to be honest about how she is feeling. (I mean, I’d love her to be able to regulate a little better but we’ll get there I’m sure.) Because the ability to connect with how you feel is a life skill and one that many of us have unlearnt as children.

Hiding how you feel in order to keep the peace or be seen as ‘good’ is known as people pleasing and ultimately leads to anxiety in adulthood; Desperately trying to second guess how other people feel, what they want from you or who they need you to be is exhausting and leaves little space for yourself. This in turn can lead us to feel fake and changeable, like a chameleon quietly adjusting ourselves to become the person expected in any given situation.

Emotions are messy and loud and inconvenient but anxiety is much worse. So I will encourage Little Brown Eyes to be her honest and emotional self even in a soft play and I’ll help her deal with the consequences. And maybe soft play doesn’t need to be hell any more.



The musings of a teacher turned SENCo, Mum and Counsellor.

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