What Soft Play Will Be Like For Kids In A Socially-Distanced World

There’s been no official guidance from the UK government, but here’s how indoor play centres are preparing.
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If you’ve ever taken a child to soft play, or remember going yourself, chances are you’ll know one thing about them: they are filthy.

That’s not to say staff and managers don’t work hard to keep them clean – it’s just that... well, little kids are dirty. They are. I’ve got two of them. I know.

Whether it’s snot, sick, dribble, bits of chewed up food, earwax, wee, milk or an unidentifiable crust or fluid or scab – kids will share it. Gladly. In fact, I stopped going to one soft play centre because the smell of cheesy feet was so overpowering, it made me gag.

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So, now we’re living in a world where hygiene is paramount – and face masks, social distancing and anti-bacterial wipes are routine – what’s the future for the shared ‘rough and tumble’ world of soft play?

There’s been no official guidance from the UK government yet on the rules or reopening of indoor play centres, but here’s how those in the industry are preparing.

Fewer soft play centres will open

Some directors of soft play centres don’t imagine opening again for a very long time, giving parents fewer options – even when life starts to resemble normality. Sean Schofield, who owns two soft play centres in Devon – Planet Play Crediton and Planet Play Honiton – can’t imagine opening until the pandemic is over, and the disease gone from the UK, or until there is a vaccine. “I just can’t see how play centres can safely operate under social distancing guidelines,” he says.

Tom Filer, director of Ocean Adventurers Ltd in Somerset, says knowing when they’ll be able to reopen is the million dollar question. “The government guidance states July 4 as a potential date for leisure,” he says, “but the important thing is that the sector as a whole is given enough notice to be able to prepare – it’s not as simple as flicking a switch and reopening tomorrow.”

Hand-washing stations

Schofield says, post-pandemic, his businesses will look and operate differently. “Hand washing and sanitising would have a greater presence in the public areas,” he says. Lizzie Orr, of Cirq d-Play Indoor Play Centre in Liverpool, adds: “We have ordered hand sanitiser stations that we can place throughout the centre so they are easily accessible.”

Some say they’ll have hand sanitiser points at every entry and exit point to the play structures.

One-way systems

It won’t be as simple as letting your kids run free as they run through the doors of soft play. “We need to look at creating some kind of one-way system through the play area, so children have as little contact with each other as possible,” Schofield tells HuffPost UK. And Filer agrees, adding: “We’ll be setting up one-way systems around the structure and centre.”

Fewer children

To keep in line with social distancing measures, soft play centres won’t be as busy as you’re used to seeing them. “We’d need to hugely restrict the number of children and adults in the venues – specifically focusing on the number of children in the play areas,” says Schofield.

This is something Anthony Kingsley, a manager at Kidzmania, in Hackney, London, is planning for, too. “We might only let four or five families in at a time and we may have to restrict the total number of children to 20,” he says. “That’s down from our regular maximum capacity of 60.

“If it’s more than 20, we don’t think people will come.”

Adults wearing face coverings

Kingsley says he doesn’t expect children to wear masks, but parents may have to. “It’s too difficult for kids to keep them on while running around, and we want to keep it normal for them – and not scare anyone,” he says. “But as for parents, we would like them to wear masks and will probably have them on sale. Staff will be wearing them, too.”

Extensive cleaning sessions

Cleaning will be top priority, owners of soft play centres tell us. “We expect to employ one member of staff to be constantly cleaning with a focus particularly on touch points, toilets and other high-traffic areas,” says Filer.

“We were the first soft play in the UK to use fogging [applying disinfectants to production areas] a means of disinfecting the whole centre and we’ll be ramping up the frequency of this process as it’s an effective way of killing Covid-19 on a large scale.”

The same goes for Cirq d-Play. “We’ve always had deep cleans every single day before we closed so this will continue,” Orr says. “Prior to opening, we’ll also have a company come in who provide an anti-viral fogging service to disinfect and prevent viruses.” But Kingsley admits it will be challenging. “Cleaning is going to be a problem,” he says. “We can’t strip it down because it’s all bolted together and for smaller kids that’s a big draw.”

Fewer tables

To accommodate social distancing, Filey says they’ll be reducing the number of tables they have in the centre. “Some children, especially younger ones, will struggle with social distancing so we’ll also allow parents onto the structure to support their children to socially distance.”


Schofield is looking at taking bookings for play slots to ensure the venue doesn’t become too crowded. Kingsley agrees: “We used to reserve private bookings for the end of the day at weekends,” he says, “but we’re going to allow people to make them at any time, so they feel safe about who their children are mixing with.”

Filer says they’ll be changing their business model as a whole. “We need to change from ‘turn up and play’ to set, prebookable two-hour sessions at a limited capacity.”