British friends, prepare to be shocked...Every fast food restaurant in America comes equipped with a complimentary indoor play structure with foam climbing pallets, tunnel slides, and ball pits.
American friends, prepare to be shocked...In Britain, we pay 5 pounds a head for this luxury (dodgy English cuisine sold separately). It's known as a "soft play place." I know what you're going to say, "What a racket! How do they stay in business?" My Saturday morning experience will shed some light on the matter:
We stroll in from a rainy, empty parking lot, happy to be the first customers of the day. After taking my payment, the proprietor reminds me that socks must be worn at all times. Jenna thinks this is a cue to abandon her socks. I take off my shoes, pull my hair into a messy braid, and place my valuables into a money belt around my waist because I know that I'll end up on all fours, crawling over netted bridges with my kids. I look about as glamorous as a school lunch lady on sloppy joe day.
Jackets off, socks on, I issue my toddlers to the large play structure. How sweet! John just lifted Jenna onto a tricky level. Maybe I won't have to go in after all.
45 children swarm into the room simultaneously. Into the climbing frame I go.
Jenna removes her socks. *To save your weary reading eyes, let's just assume this activity is like a local news team's "traffic on the 6's" report, except instead of a brief road collision update every time the clock ends in 6, my daughter pulls off her socks and I chase her down to replace them.
Jenna has mustered enough courage to ascend all the way to the twirly tunnel slide, but not enough courage to disembark, and has thus created a queue of angry children abaft. I've no choice but to clamber up and act as a human toboggan. As she descends the chute safely in my lap, I absorb all the static. Metal fasteners attach each piece of the oversized PVC pipe and emit sufficient electric shock therapy to cure a psychiatric ward. My hair is now standing vertically.
A hung over dad unleashes his tweens to run riot in the place. They appear to be playing a game called "bowling for preschoolers." One of them knocks the wind out of my son and I decide that we'd better move into the "3's and under" part of the room.
My son makes his way into the ball pit. He is surrounded by pastel, plastic spheres. They used to be bright primary colors, but have been sitting dormant since the Clinton administration, collecting a film of filth. If the bubonic plague existed in our day, it would make its home in the ball pits of England.
Susan Stiletto enters the toddler area with her 9-month-old cherub. Susan is wearing 5-inch heels and leather pants. I forgive her for her composure because it is only a matter of months before she'll look like me: money belt catawampus and braid unravelling at the sides so as to resemble Lion-O from Thundercats. She gives me the side eye because my son comes up to my rib cage and talks non-stop.
I don't have time to explain that he is just three-years-old because some demon child has joined him in the germ chasm and is pelting both of us in the head with plastic balls.
"What is your name?" I ask him.
"My name is Legion," He replies, "for we are many."
The tweens enter the toddler area, reading the sign "3's & Under Only" as "Specially Corralled Toddlers for Bowlers Trying to Earn a Spare." They're probably related to Legion.
We cram ourselves into a tiny potty cubicle wherein I encourage my son to void his bladder while my daughter unravels an entire roll of toilet paper.
It's lunchtime. Other parents have surrendered and purchased juice and chips from the snack bar. My children will have to settle for fruit slices and peanut butter at home--and not because I am a health nut--I just refuse to pay 10 pounds for juice and chips. Weeping and disappointment ensue. The toddlers agree that I'm the worst mom ever.
Wrestling my children into their carseats, I catch a glimpse of myself in the mirror. My hair looks like I've had further electric shock therapy, and somehow, I have gotten pee on my shirt. Over the crestfallen sobs, I vow to never come to another soft play place.
John and Jenna stop sniffling enough to say, "Thank you for taking us to the soft play place, mommy. We had so much fun."
My heart melts and I promptly renounce my vow.
And that, my friends, is how soft play places stay in business.