The Five Big Beasts of the Playground Ranked in Order of Fun

I find playgrounds intimidating. They seem to bring into focus all my physical inadequacies as a parent. There are other strong, confident dads swinging gracefully through the monkey bars with a toddler under one arm, probably freestyling a rap about the size of their love for them. There are OAPs leaping off whizzing roundabouts, scooping up their grandchildren and hoisting them up round their necks in one athletic movement. I once saw my own pensionable father slip majestically down a pole from the top of a wooden rampart before flinching at the same prospect myself and scrambling down the nearest ladder of shame.

I also have a sense of the playground being a little patch of the actual world and the need to protect my sons from it. From the aggressively friendly children, scooting around with total disregard of playground convention. Standing dementedly on the seats of swings, crawling up slides. And covens of older kids gathered under the ramparts of the climbing fort, loudly listing all the sex acts they’ve ever heard of. And the dogs. I once saw the Major sprint off in terror when he spotted a cocker spaniel puppy benignly trotting towards him with intentions probably no more violent than sniffing his bum. Perhaps he wanted to check his nappy, like an oddly invasive Lassie.

I’ve been to a number of playgrounds and to stave off my neuroses I’ve identified the areas which offer the best and worst opportunities for fun whilst avoiding potential humiliation or injury. I’ve enthusiastically ranked these, beginning with my preferred choice:

No.1 – In terms of the ratio of infantile enjoyment to adult effort the swing is the probably the most effective means of entertaining the boys that I’ve found. Once I’ve worked up a solid rhythm in the swing I find that just a light one-handed push to the centre of the back can send the Major or Minor soaring off on a lovely carefree arc and give them the sensation of flying like a canary on a bungee. It also leaves a hand free to look at sport on my phone.

No.2 – The Major enjoys a roundabout and seems to possess the stamina of a NASA cadet when subjected to the impressive amount of G-forces I’m able to generate in spinning him. Issues arise however when he requests my presence on it I can’t hack it and have to stop after literally seconds. Otherwise it’s off to a quiet corner of the playground to put my hands on my knees and spit queasily into some thistles.

No.3 – If I was to describe a slide as gravity-defying it would make it sound thrilling but I’ve watched on countless times as the Major has sat motionless and confused at the top as the expected plunge hasn’t materialised. We don’t need a bobsleigh run we just want basic laws of physics adhered to. If Isaac Newton had sat at the bottom of a playground slide and not under an apple tree then we’d all still probably be groping around wondering what was stopping us floating off into the stratosphere. And he’d be on a register.

No.4 = The see-saw necessarily requires a two-man workforce. Due to a mismatch in weight between the Major and me we quite often arrive at a situation where he is basically just sat at the end of a stationary plank of wood. At the other end I have had to form my long legs into a sort of M-shape which is stretching unpleasantly at my undercarriage. If we approach this process with any more energy there is a real danger that my bulk may catapult the Major through the air.

No.5 – The zip wire or flying fox is a relative newcomer to the playground. When I was small they could only be found in woods surrounding National Trust properties. It was what turned a mere playground into an adventure playground. Until very recently the Major was unable to operate these alone and I was obliged to gather him up and board the mechanism together. This meant that I had to straddle the dangly down bit which immediately moved forcibly towards the top of my crotch when it squashed unnervingly up against other dangly down bits it met there. It’s also really difficult to dismount due to the lack of anything to get purchase on and the gravitational forces acting against us (where were you on the slide?). We normally have to rely on a kindly gran to scoop up the Major and remind him that physical co-ordination does exist in at least some humans.

Any good?

Soft Play can be Really Really Hard Play for some Parents

When I was a boy I was taken to Yorkshire and forced down a hole in the ground in the name of boy-scouting. At the bottom of this hole was a network of smaller holes some of which were being rapidly filled with gushing dark water. I was required to crawl through these holes for a time until eventually popping up back in daylight through the same hole I’d disappeared down originally but much colder, wetter and sadder than before.

At one point we were made to inch our way on our stomachs through a clammy fissure in the limestone called the Cheesepress. It was only about six inches high so to navigate it meant we had to press our little scout noses into the rock. Further on in the complex I plunged towards a stagnant pool fortunately to be saved from drowning by a kindly hand on the hood of my cagoule.

I revisited this sense of emotional ruin recently when I was compelled into the belly of a large soft play area. I had to retrieve the Major who had become becalmed in its furthest reach, struck down by a lack of confidence in his physical capabilities. The soft play was a sprawling structure located on an industrial estate. Like most other soft plays it seems.

The ball pool is just off to the left.
The ball pool is just off to the left.

To reach the Major I had to pot-hole my way along Perspex cylinders, flopping through human mangles and avoiding the many glistering snot-trails. Once we’d been reunited at the heart of darkness the Major and I had negotiate our way back out, the only means of escape being a slide so precipitous I’d have preferred to abseil down it. On a different occasion my wife reached a velocity so great she literally burnt a hole in her sock.

I get soft play, I really do. It allows you to unleash your child into a less perilous, softer world than our own. I’d happily convert my own house into a soft play, somehow creating an entirely squidgy kitchen, with a helter-skelter slide instead of stairs and the opportunity for any member of the family to curl up for a snooze anywhere, anytime.

What really frightens me about soft play is what frightens me the most about the entire parenting experience: other people’s children. I never seen anything particularly malevolent in soft play, it’s mainly boisterous hi-jinks. But boisterous hi-jinks can sometimes resemble a kind of playful mixed martial arts. In fact with all its netting, soft play is probably the genesis of cage-fighting.

I once watched as the Major struggled to ascend the face of a large cushion until another boy comradely winched him up by his arms, basically dislocating his shoulders in the process. I did not intervene, mainly because I am scared of other people’s children, and also because it would have necessitated me removing my shoes. I have a vague paranoia about the toxicity of my socks.

There are three types of soft play parents. There are those who embrace its philosophy, its capacity to swallow up your child for an hour while you remind yourself what it was like to sit down. There are some soft plays that are tacked onto pubs – they’re called things like Wonky Warehouse and House of Maim – which means that the relieved parent can submerge themselves in hard liquor.

The second type of parent willingly enters the soft play, partly in support of their child and partly because they very much enjoy cocking around in ball pools.

I am in the final band. We stand vigilantly by the sidelines, silently cursing the over-aged trespassers in the toddler section or the children dementedly walking up the slide. We adopt the classic pose of the concerned parent: one hand on the hip, the other reaching up around the neck like we’re gently throttling ourselves. We’re a bit like football physios coiled ready to tend to the injured, but without the holdalls full of smelling salts. Although that might be handy.

The last time we were at soft play, the Minor intrepidly ventured into the arena. Touchingly, Major attempted to marshal some kind of safe zone around his brother to protect him. He failed. Within minutes Minor had been inadvertently body-slammed into a crash mat by a rambunctious passer-by. And he loved it. Perhaps I should go away and sit down and drink some more liquor.


Any good?