I’ve been meaning to blog this for while. Russell thinks ‘soft play’ is “one of those things that’s better than it used to be” and I see what he means but I’m not so sure. I’m a pretty involved dad and I spend a fair amount of my time in a local soft play area and I’m definitely ambivalent about these things. Half the time (I suppose while I’m drinking a frothy coffee and reading the paper I hopefully brought with me) I think they’re pretty cool and a bit or a liberation for harassed 21st Century parents and the other half of the time (while I’m loitering by the spongy slide thing, trying to prevent injury, for instance) I think they’re a kind of kiddie hell where you pay (through the nose) for pleasures that used to be free.
It’s a very natural instinct of capitalists everywhere to ‘add value’ – to transform something that already exists by refining or enhancing it so you can charge more for it, at least for a while, until your precious improvement becomes the norm. So I guess it was inevitable that clever businesspeople would ‘add value’ to old-fashioned play by offering a secure place with reasonable coffee and no obvious sharp edges and charging for it. I remain to be convinced, though, that our kids are going to benefit, ultimately, from spending time (and cash money) in video-monitored, time-limited, rule-governed, air-conditioned play places like these. I’m not going to idealise my own childhood – which was an ordinary, working class 1960s sort of affair – but these ultra-confined play facilities are the polar opposite of the free-range play of our youth and that must influence our kids’ image of the world. Are we producing a generation of agoraphobics?