Monday 24 September 2018

This life: Hard realisations in the soft play area

Soft play zones operate as a Fisher-Price fight club
Soft play zones operate as a Fisher-Price fight club

Bill Linnane

As we head into the winter, it is time to familiarise ourselves once more with soft play areas. These pits of despair, if you are fortunate enough to not be familiar with them, are part building site (scaffolding, netting, long tubes for waste/sliding), part Victorian asylum (tattered padding, filthy conditions, shrieking).

Back in my day, the closest we got to these places was running along church pews before mass, or possibly skipping around the nearest slurry pit. But soft play areas are different - Augmentin-addled kids today don't have sturdy immune systems like we did, and there is a dread knowing in my heart that when humanity is finally wiped from this earth by a superbug, it will originate in the sticky recesses of a soft play area.

But you turn a blind eye to the grot because at least they are out of the house and with other children, and this is why soft play zones are so bittersweet. Any time I bring my kids to one I end up sitting there like a budget Piaget, watching and analysing their play with others and trying to divine their future by how they react when some other kid pushes them out of the way on the slide. Except, of course, two of my sons are usually the ones doing the pushing, leading to the parents of the pushee looking around the seating area for the parents of the monstrous pusher. At this point, I usually look around too, concerned at who might have brought these sociopathic children into such a fine establishment, even though most of the time the soft play zone operates as a Fisher-Price fight club. My middle son, however, isn't like the other two. He is gentle and quiet, and when we go to play zones, he often goes off and plays alone. At first, we thought he was an extraordinarily good child, with each of us claiming he got his sweet temperament from our side of the family. But as he grew, it became clear his shyness and silence wasn't just about his sweet nature, but about language development. His preschool pointed out that his inability to communicate with his peers meant he often played on his own. We couldn't really pretend anymore that he was just a little behind - he was struggling to be understood, and it was isolating him from his friends. He was referred to a multidisciplinary team comprised of speech therapists and psychologists, and they diagnosed that he had a severe language disorder.

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