Since looking ahead toward our upcoming parenthood, my attention has been turned to all the activities out there that parent friends post on facebook. From donkey rides on the beach, birthday parties full or sugar or colourful plastic ball pits. Activities you don’t tend to take part in as a non mum unless its for a close friend or family member with a little one. It’s so easy to judge parenting from the outside, and just as easy to forget the reasons why colourful cakes and soft play are so popular.

We are encouraged to stimulate our babies senses and revel when they learn something new or express a new emotion. But more than this we look for activities that keep the attention span of a toddler for more than 5 minutes so we can take breath and drink that long awaited rare cup of hot tea.

Last weeks adventure into parenthood took me to our local soft play centre. An industrial unit 5 minutes up the road that I had never paid attention to before. The reason for the visit was to find out more from the local Nappy Library who rent out cloth nappies and the Sling lady who offers baby wearing slings and carriers for low cost rent. As an excuse to experience the soft play I also invited along my sister-in-law and niece (making me feel a bit less daft being there with bump!).

Meeting the lovely ladies from the Nappy and Sling libraries was great – lots of useful information and advice. But WOW I seem to have forgotten how overloading on the senses these places are (and I should know as I ran a Soft Play centre for a short span in my career). With kids running free everywhere, screaming and shouting with glee, we have a sit down hot chocolate and watched from a safe distance and it made me question why these centres have become so popular.

Everywhere you look as a parent to be there is advice on stimulating your child to help them progress learning and find motor skills. Yet is this highly colourful and loud environment really the type of stimulation experts are referring to? – Well the simple answer is no. But it is a lot more complex than that.

Maybe the bright primary colours of the plastic ball pits help?

Colour is important to a child’s progression by stimulating visual senses and brain development. From 0-3 months old they see mainly in black and white, but by 3 months they have usually developed the ability to see strong colours, especially bright primary colours which help stimulate the brain further. By 6 to 12 months your babies colour vision is well developed and different hues and shades help continue their development. So toddlers and upwards who are usually so fond of these soft play centres would benefit from a wide range of colours, not just the red, yellows and blues often found in the plastic ball pits and slides. Do they provide better visual stimulation for toddlers than playing in the garden, woods or local park? – probably not.

Do softplay centres help with social skills?

Yes they can. They give opportunities for our children to interact with other kids with different personalities, different ages and a wide range of differing social skills. But they also rarely give opportunities to interact in a calm social manner which is just as important as interacting in a noisy excitable environment. Do they provide better opportunities than the local park or nursery? – probably not.

Surely they provide a safe place to play?

Yes they can. The clue is in the title ‘soft play’. Everything is designed to minimise risk for the children, providing somewhere where very little risks are needed and parents can sit back and relax. The problem is kids need risk. By playing where there is risk, kids get to learn to understand danger and make choices about themselves and their environment. This is understandably difficult for some parents, but vital for the development of our children to grow up understanding risks in life and being able to make sensible decisions when the risks get much higher. Do soft play centres provide good play opportunities where they can learn to manage their own risks? – probably not.

But its the only place they can play when it rains

Since when have we as rational human beings decided that a bit of water is the worst thing in the world for our kids? When the weather turns bad (and it quite often does here in England!) we end up staying inside instead of embracing nature in all forms and going for a walk. Yes we need to put wellies and a coat on instead of a sun hat, but where is the issue with that? Kids love to play in the rain, it is as they grow up that they start staying inside when droplets start to fall because that’s often how we lead by example. There is no bad weather, just bad clothing. So please, do yourselves a favour and enjoy the weather in all forms.

Are soft play centres not cleaner than playing outside?

Yes they are as they get cleaned with chemicals every day. This isn’t necessarily a good thing for your kids.

Today we live in a world of wet wipes and antibacterial gel. Yes we all want to protect our kids and especially our newborns who have very little immune systems to begin with. However as children grow up it has been proven through multiple scientific studies that children with higher exposure to soil, plants and animals often have a stronger immune system. It has also been shown that over exposure to cleaning chemicals can be damaging to some children’s health.

So soft play centres may not have as many benefits as playing outdoors in a natural setting with different stimulation, calmer environment and ability for risk, yet apparently they are popular as a place for parents to relax. Have you tried to relax in one of these spaces? If so well done you, but I for one would much prefer to sit in a woodland coppice surrounded by bird song and the great outdoors. This may just be a preference for some, but what if we then look into the environmental impacts of soft play?

Did you know?

A 3ft home ball pit holds around 1,000 balls. A larger deeper soft play ball pit of around 10ft would hold around 24,000 plastic balls! Ball pit balls have an average lifespan of 3-5 years. They are not recyclable. So after this time those 24,000 plastic balls go straight to landfill.

This is just one part of the soft play centre – remember all those plastic slides, foam padded plastic covered play mats and plastic toys. Non of which are recyclable.

Soft play centres are kept at a specific temperature for comfort and with good airflow to reduce passing on of germs between children in a confined space – this usually means large heaters and air conditioning units running 12 hours a day.

In a clean soft play centre, ball pits get cleaned with chemicals every 3-6 months, with waste water and chemicals of up to 20 litres going down into our waterways each time. The main play mats, slides and equipment gets sanitised every single day. An average play centre uses 1 litre of strong chemicals every day on the equipment. All of which goes into our drainage system, and most of which leaves non-recyclable plastic chemical bottles going into landfill.

Compare this to an outdoor play area…

Usually the majority of equipment is made from wood – a lot of this nowadays is sourced sustainably and when it gets to end of life it can be recycled or used as fuel.

Very little chemicals if any are used to clean down the equipment, and natural exposure to soil and plants is common.

There is no use of heating or air conditioning, saving thousands of tonnes of carbon emissions every year compared to an indoor play centre.

Playing with more risk is proven to be a strong factor in a child’s development.

For our future generation to save the environment, they first have to love it. How can they even appreciate the great outdoors if we constantly put them inside surrounded by plastic?

So do I understand the benefits of soft play centres? In some ways yes – for parents who spend the majority of time indoors themselves, it is a comfortable safe space for them to retreat to. But are they the best place to play for helping kids to develop, appreciate the natural world and for parents to have some time out – no, and they are definitely not good for the environment.

So next time you think ‘what shall we do today to entertain the kids’ take them to the local park, local woods or even into the garden if you are lucky enough to have your own outdoor space and let them free play. Enjoy watching from a distance, using their imagination, taking risks and enjoying the great outdoors. What better place to put your feet up and relax to bird song, whilst saving yourself money at the same time!

Caroline Talbot
Author: Caroline Talbot