A collective sigh of relief goes up across the world this week, as, after several weeks of captivity, parents are finally being set free. Yes, school holidays have once again come to an end, and children everywhere are gathering up their pencil cases and musty lunch bags and being packed off back to their classrooms.
Of course lots of parent do relish these special weeks spent at home, re-bonding over the craft box and cooking up a cupcake storm. Other parents however, particularly those who aren’t naturally programmed to moulding papier-mâché and making their own play dough, sometimes find these long periods of time a little bit tricky to fill.
Once the novelty of an alarm clock free morning and a sandwich-making free evening has worn off, and you’ve spent several days watching your creative child stick tissue paper and glitter directly onto the dining table and build a cubby in every single room, it’s likely you might start thinking of other places to spend the day.
‘Other places’ that aren’t at home, to be more precise. Places that won’t involve you having to vacuum up afterwards, and require the odd bit of plastering and repainting when the playing goes wrong.
If and when the weather doesn’t cooperate and rain pours down day after day, soft play centres – the sort with swinging ladders, tunnels, slides and multi-coloured balls – are a tempting refuge. It’s true that spending a day at such a place is likely to knock at least a year off your lifespan and leave you with a nasty chest infection, but at least you are safe in the knowledge that, short of the odd friction burn and heat exhaustion, your children can knock themselves out without actually coming to any real harm.
The downside of these play centres is of course the entry fee. It’s generally on par with a central London mortgage repayment. And to add insult to overpriced injury, the parent is also charged just for the privilege of sitting, watching and breathing in the rancid air.
After you’ve set foot through the door and all shoes have been removed and stored in a pile under the counter, you will of course remember that the obligatory socks are still sitting at home in your child’s drawer. So your wallet is forced to come back out again and a new neon-coloured nylon pair (Easyjet style, Harrods prices) are passed over the counter to your child’s outstretched little paw. They of course will claim to love these new socks more than life itself. You will consider them hideous, and likely deposit them in the bin on the way out.
Finally the door (or gateway to hell, depending how you look at it) is opened, and your newly socked child is set free, static sparks flying in all direction as they run across the matching nylon carpeted floor. Reluctantly you follow suit and enter the room. Your ears are met with the thunderous sound of a hundred children all screaming, yelping and hollering in delight.
Just audible beneath this din, is a distinctive white noise. The low-level humming of a gaggle of mothers, all rocking backwards and forwards on their plastic seating in a desperate, shared pain.
Moving forward into hell, you spot the only beacon of hope in the entire place – a café at the end of the room. As you draw closer, the ‘café’ takes the form of a scratched up old counter and a chiller cabinet stocked full of last weeks’ salmonella and botulism experiments. Located somewhere beyond the coffee maker and the enormous display of food colouring and MSG is the kitchen, with it’s impressive line up of deep fat fryers spitting out grease all over the floor.
Unsure about which of the food would kill you and which would just make you sick, you settle on a hot chocolate and a purple coloured muffin. How wrong can you go with hot chocolate? It’s made inside the machine and spat out into the mug below. The muffin, which admittedly does look slightly solid around the edges, at least claims to contain a type of fruit.
The unwashed looking child behind the cash register takes the remainder of your money and hands you a numbered baton. You’d much rather just stand and wait for your order, but apparently loitering around the counter is not allowed. You must go to your table and wait to vibrate.
Not particularly keen to strike up a conversation with anyone in sight, you are forced to walk the length of the room in search of a table free of rubbish and off-putting inhabitants. You hurry past mothers dressed head-to-toe in stone washed denim and others dressed head-to-toe in fleece. You rush past those on day release from the local young offenders institute, and scuttle past those who obviously favour hemp on a stick to soap on a rope.
Eventually, several trips past scattered prams and regurgitating babies later, and you are finally settled into your plastic seat. You’re sitting just about near enough to the rope cage to see your child fly past, but not so close you can smell the feet. You finally have your ‘refreshments’ and enough dog-eared celebrity magazines to help pass the time, while you wait for your child’s colour-coded wristband to expire.
An hour passes and your child shows no signs of tiredness or even the slightest willingness to leave. The litre bottle of water you’ve just washed down the muffin with leaves you with little choice. You must leave the safety of your seat and brave the bathrooms.
The smell hits before you’ve even pushed open the door. The floor is swimming with something and none of the cubicles have locks, let alone anything resembling a loo roll. Hopping from dry patch to dry patch, you mentally calculate if you’re still covered by the tetanus jab you had for your holidays last year. Emerging from your cubicle you find a small crying child stood opposite your door. His trousers are around his ankles and his Thomas pants are full of something they shouldn’t be.
You briefly cast your eyes back to the liquid matter on the floor.
Now you’re faced with something of a social dilemma. Do you make a hasty escape and hope the soggy child’s mother is about to appear, or do you take possession of the said soggy child and go off in hunt of the careless owner? It’s not that you’re necessarily an uncaring cow with a heart of stone, but clearing up your own child’s accidents is one thing – sorting out the mess of a child with a shaved head and a cubic zirconia in one ear is quite another.
Luckily for you, the mother of ‘mini thug’ swoops in on him and drags him back out into the room, his Thomas pants still dripping across the floor.
Emerging back into the fresh air (the word ‘fresh’ becomes relative in a place like this), you decide that your senses have taken enough of a beating for one day. You spot your fuchsia-coloured child refuelling at the table and seize the opportunity to grab them and make a beeline for the door.
On the way home your exhausted child in the backseat tells you that it was worth all the pain. But it’s only taken 2 hours up of the day, and now you’re emotionally drained and financially crippled. To cap it off, the bottom of your jeans look slightly damp and the car now smells suspiciously of wee.