A new study has uncovered some grim truths about what could be lurking in that hub of any toddler soft play centre – the communal ball pit.
The study from the University of North Georgia, published in the American Journal of Infection Control, found 31 different types of bacteria in ball pits, some linked to infections of the bladder, the heart-lining and skin.
Some of the bugs identified, which included Enterococcus faecalis, Staphylocccus hominis, Streptococcus oralis and Acinetobacter Iwofii, can cause serious conditions such as sepsis meningitis and pneumonia.
Findings showed that the dirtiest pit contained an average of 170,818 bacteria per ball. The study looked at ball pools in US physical therapy centres used to develop kids’ motor skills – but ball pits are also a fixture of soft play.
Researchers also discovered a yeast that can cause fungal infections in children with weaker immune systems.
This report doesn’t surprise me in the slightest. Before my grand-son started nursery, he and I were regular visitors to our local soft play in London. But believe me, after each session I made sure that I used wipes and dunked him straight into the bath when we got home.
From the moment you entered, you could tell the place needed a refurbishment. The toys had seen better days, the building smelt funky and was screaming out for a lick of paint, with masking tape covering cracks and play-mats that looked like they had been chewed by a Rottweiler. And when it came to the pit, I’m sure the balls moved on their own on numerous occasions.
Ball pits are a free-for-all – I’ve seen babies dribble milk, juice, saliva and whatever they are munching all over the balls. There was often evidence of snot, vomit, babies rusks and foods I couldn’t even identify. And God forbid the kids at the potty training stage who had the occasional ‘accident’ in the pit.
“"I’ve seen babies dribble milk, juice, saliva and whatever they are munching all over the balls."”
Shoes were definitely a no-no but there was always that one older tearaway who obviously thought the rules didn’t apply to him and would dive straight in with mucky shoes. And as for when the younger kids hit the pit, the balls went straight into their mouths. Cue parents frantically snatching these bacteria-laden globes away from grubby hands.
They say you should expose your children to some dirt to help strengthen their immune system, but the ball pit takes this tactic to another level. At our centre, the pits were rarely cleaned and stray balls popped up everywhere, in dust-filled corners or boxes that staff had forgotten about.
And yet, the weird thing was that the place was always packed – it was the hub of the local parent community, the kids obviously loved it – and when it did finally close it doors due to lack of funding there was an uproar, and a petition was quickly set up to get it reopened.
It would be nice to see it open again but one thing’s for sure: the first thing on the to-do list needs to be giving the pit a thorough hose-down and clean.