A Terrifying Tale For Halloween – I Lost My Child At Soft Play (For 10 Minutes)

"Immediately, 15 episodes of Broadchurch played through my mind on double-speed."
HuffPost UK

The second I walked into soft play with my sons this weekend, I was beset with a full-on panic attack. I knew how ridiculous this was. Given I have two children under the age of five, my exposure to soft play centres has been brief and infrequent. Not a day goes by when I don’t thank my lucky stars for this (and the fact that I don’t drive, which makes my soft-play dodging possible).

In case you’re one of the uninitiated, your nearest giant soft play centre is located in your town’s third largest industrial estate, occupying a building with a similar square footage to a discount office furniture superstore. At the door, you will be asked to remove your shoes and pay a small fee to enter this hangar, which will be carpeted in a primary colour and lit so brightly your eyes blink.

On one side, there will be a cordoned-off area for babies and toddlers (which will be populated solely by slope-browed boys over the age of 11); on the other, a modest coffee concession staffed by three teenagers who actively despise you and all you stand for. And there, in the middle of the room – towering over everyone like a to-scale replica of the original Wicker Man – will be the actual soft play thingy.

Nothing less than a giant, multi-floor skeleton of a skyscraper, constructed from foam and netting and the disembodied shrieks of ghost children, and riddled with mazes, slides and ball pits. It’s into this you must dispatch your progeny.

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No, you must – even though you’re 65% certain they’ll be lost forever in there. Make like everyone else, please, by which I mean not giving your tiny beloved people a second thought, just grabbing a latte then slumping in the seating area to scroll blearily through your phone. You must – or you are a helicopter parent.

Everyone goes to soft play. It’s perfectly safe (although, with all those kids in the mix, it’s also very sticky). There is no proof that, should your child’s head bob under the surface of the ball pit for a second they have disappeared through a portal into another dimension. Yet, still I was panicking.

In my defence, two things were going on here. One: this was only my second trip to a large soft play, and definitely the first since my two-year-old became mobile. Also, as someone who a) is very unfit and b) has zero spatial awareness, I knew that if called upon to rescue someone inside, I might not be able to climb up – and that once in there, I might get lost myself and never find my way out.

Even in the moment, I was super aware I was being alarmist. So after waving off my four-year-old as he went clambering up the levels, then playing with my two-year-old in the ball pit, I tried to shake off my worry and join my husband on a nearby sofa to share a packet of Hula Hoops (I’d picked ready salted because the hate emanating from the coffee-kiosk teenager had thrown me).

Ten minutes later, I looked up and wondered where my older son was. The younger one – who is tiny but fearless, and yells “NO FANK OO” if you ever offer to accompany him when he’s playing – was happily pelting his reflection in the wobbly mirror with balls from the pit. But my older, lanky, spider-monkey son was nowhere to be seen.

“I heard a faint, anguished 'Daddayyyyy! Mummayyy!' that sounded like my older son.”

Immediately, 15 of the most traumatic episodes of Broadchurch played through my mind on double-speed. I hopped up, and stalked around the structure, peering into its levels.

Here were three boys dressed as Batman, each one more outraged by this fact than the next. There was a red-faced dad, huffing after his thrill-seeking toddler daughter in a ballet tutu. There was my younger son, telling an older boy to “stop right there!” I heard a faint, anguished “Daddayyyyy! Mummayyy!” that sounded like my older son, but I’d fallen for this sort of thing before – when he was a baby, or even later when he was in childcare, I’d hear him calling me in the noise of the shower water – and I wasn’t falling for it again.

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I walked around and around for a good five minutes, calling my older son’s name, but catching no sight of him. At this point a chill had settled over my heart, my hands were numb, I was pretty sure my son had been “taken”, and was trying to work what my own “particular set of skills” might be (for future reference, it’s my lasagne recipe, and the fact I can harmonise with any tune).

Then I heard it again: “Mumm-ayyy! Help meeee!

Quicker than you can say “Liam Neeson”, I leapt up the foam levels with an athleticism that surprised even me, to discover my four-year-old, red-faced, blurry with tears, curled up in a ball at the top of the structure, terrified by the sheer scale of where he was. “I was calling you,” he hiccuped. “I was calling and nobody came.”

I can’t be sure, but I think in that moment I might have got that super-strength that comes to mothers in moments of extreme crisis, and – like a mountain rescue St Bernard – I carried my son down on my back. And I’m not saying I suddenly like soft play. It’s still a too-bright, too echoey hell-hole I plan to steer clear of whenever possible. What I am saying is that I was right to fear it and I have a sixth sense when it comes to my children.

And just in case I don’t, we’ve now developed a special, distinguishable “family noise” to make if any of us find ourselves in distress, so that other family members can distinguish our calls from the millions of other disembodied shrieks of the ghost children trapped in the giant foam Wicker Man.