The worst thing that ever happened at Soft Play

I’m a veteran of soft play. First conscripted in 2003 when Ray was three, I’ve been serving time ever since.  The noise is terrible. The food is invariably crap. That’s if the staff bother to serve you. Mostly, they just take your money and forget your order. Occasionally, a new Soft Play will open with high hopes and big dreams but they always end up the same: a fight on the inflatables, a poo in the ball park, verruccas back home.  Your kids are whining all the time and hating it until ten minutes before the end when they have a massive volte face, decide they love, love, love it and it takes forty minutes to get them out and get on their shoes. And don’t even mention a soft play birthday party, when twenty parents you’ve never met before, dump their kids, and you have to bounce over to every six year old firing plastic missiles out of a tube, “Alfie, are you having chicken or burger? Oh, you’re not Alfie, ok. Who are you?”

A few years ago, when Ray was about six and Arnie was just a scrunched up woodland creature in a car seat, I took them and Grandad to our local soft play experience that is ‘Kiddy’s Kingdom’. Unlike Farmer Franks and Monkey World, this place aspires to be nothing else than what it is: trad soft play. Expensive and crap. Grandad carried Arnie in and parked him under the table and we sent Ray off under orders to have fun. Ray wasn’t too keen that day. I’m not surprised. His co-soft players looked like little terrorists in training. They all had shaved heads and earrings. No one, but no one, was wearing socks. And that was just in the baby area.

I got Grandad a milk shake and the foam gave him a jovial pink moustache. I got some crisps and settled down with a newspaper. Soft Play is not so bad, I decided, when you’ve got someone to share it with, especially someone who gets up every few minutes to check the children still have their limbs intact.

“Where’s Ray?” Grandad kept asking anxiously, peering into the Soft Play gloom.

“Meh, don’t worry,” I said, meaning if you’re that bothered, go and look.  He did go and look, which was great of him, he had a bit of a bounce, then came back. “It’s alright,” he said, “Ray knows how to have a good time.”

Just then, his phone went. He answered and I could hear a woman’s voice. He walked off over to the yellow counter where the teenagers were busily ignoring customers from behind the deep fat fryer. I think, eh, what’s he doing?

He comes back. All cool I ask across the tarpaulin table, “Who was that then?”

“Oh,” he says, a little flustered. “Yvonne.”

“Who’s she.”

“A friend,” he says.

“She’s got a funny voice…” I say, fishing.

“She’s got no teeth,” he says cheerfully.

“Oh!” I am surprised. She didn’t sound old on the phone. “How old is she?”

“Mid thirties.” Bout my age?

“Oh. And she’s your friend?”

He smirked. “Kind of,”


“Oh Ruth,” he said. “Don’t be such a prude. She’s very open minded” he added – Open-minded being something I couldn’t possibly be accused of. 

“She’d have to be!” I hissed. “Eurghhh.”

I don’t know what was more horrifying. The fact that his ‘friend’ was the same age as me, the fact that she had no teeth, the fact that she was, in quotes, open-minded – or the fact that he was telling me this, now, in Soft Play. I didn’t throw up – not that it would have made much difference to the general ambiance – but I wanted to. I was as unsteady as if I were dashing across the inflatables with a kid with a nose bleed under one arm and everyone’s shoes under another.

Then Ray came over crying. A big kid had pushed him over Jelly Mountain. Grandad was furious. “Where is this big kid?” but Ray said “It’s ok, Grandad.” He wanted some of my crisps.  “No,” I said furiously. I was fed up with everyone else having a bloody good time. “We’re going home. Where are your socks?”

So we left Kiddies Kingdom and I never, ever managed to go back.

The joys of supecesharzee

Arnie and I go past the card shops, the second hand shops, and the empty shops of the high street. No one will give a second glance at a kid out of school at two in the afternoon in this part of town. Hand in hand, we go, past the Cash Converters, the pawn brokers, the off license, and the bookies: Odds are fifteen-one that Arnie will need a wee soon as we arrive.

Speech therapy is in a building which also houses the local sexual health clinic. In another life, I have come in here and removed my drawers. I find speech therapy only slightly more humiliating.

It upsets me that Arnie has this struggle with something that comes so easily to me. I don’t like having to take him out of school for this appointment – what message does that send? – and I hate it that it is a group session. Apparently, Arnie is too good for one-to-one but since I can hardly understand him this is scant consolation.  Being in a group makes me feel that we are under scrutiny. Fortunately, this is not a middle class part of London: I went to monkey music with Ray in Clapham once and the lesson was conducted with the seriousness of the Middle East peace negotiations. The two mums and one Grandmother here smile at us in the waiting room and tell the boys (it appears speech problems are more prevalent among boys) to wait nicely.

When I was fighting to get Arnie these sessions, I had this idea in my head that speech therapy would be the panacea, the golden bullet, and he would walk away pronouncing “The Rain in Spain falls mainly on the Plain” perfectly. Now, I know that these classes are just another step on a wong and linding load.

Our poor darling. Arnie’s L’s and W’s are troubled and his Ks sound like Ts and his Ds sound like Fs. Which makes him yelling “kitty duck” in the playground particularly excruciating.

It is our third group session. Arnie and I take our cushions and sit expectantly in the circle. At least I do. Arnie twirls around and picks at the floor. I get the picture of his words from his folder. We are supposed to have practiced our words every day. What can I say? It’s been a busy week.

“What’s this?”


“DOGGGG,” I say.

The speech therapist comes over. “Try not to over-emphasise the ‘G’.” she says to me sharply.

Next one.

“Horthy,” he says.

“Umm, adults say horse,” I explain.

“Horthy,” insists Arnie, quite reasonably.

We have to do a group exercise and today its a jigsaw. The children practice their words and then get to do a bit of the puzzle. Arnie ponders as he always does and I think, as I always do, just how much time is wasted with these games?  “Pick a piece,” I say testily. A quarter of the lesson has already gone and he is wavering between the donkey and the farmer. “The corners, Arnie, you should always start at the corners,” I advise and then hearing myself, I think, Jay-sus, I almost wish this was the sexual health clinic. “Can you find a straight edge?”

The speech therapist comes over and says, “This is a really good way to get the children to do their words at home…” and it is as though she suspects she has a doubting Thomas in the midst.

I nod and agree, as though I spend all day playing snakes and ladders with the children. I wonder if she has children herself. Surely, playing with them is the first thing to go when you’re a parent? Do I look like a big fan of Kerplunk? I think I’ll come into my own when the kids are adults.

Arnie gets to chose a toy. He chooses Mr potato head and in the box there are three of them and one is Mr Sweetcorn head. He shoves it in my face. When I say “stop it, Arnie,” but in a pleasant voice because we are in a group, he throws himself round on his cushion.

“Concentrate on your words,” I hiss although in my head, I am composing emails that go like this.

To whom it may concern, (although you don’t seem very concerned) I flagged up Arnie’s problems with his speech 18 months ago. (I love the phrase flagged up) I am most unhappy, nay, disgruntled, with the group therapy sessions

Before I came to this group, I had the idea that everyone else’s child couldn’t speak because of their poor parenting and that my son would be the best behaved boy in the group. Wrong on both counts.

“Arnie, Arnie, concentrate. Try this.”

There is a picture of a ‘goatee’.  ‘Beardy’, Arnie insists and secretely I agree. For every word he pronounces correctly, Mr Potato or Mr Sweetcorn gains a new facial feature.

“Tractor,” says Arnie to the ‘Digger’.

“Don’t know,”  to the ‘Tag’.

“Come on, try,” I say brandishing an ear. Or at least look like you’re trying.

“Sicky?” he says with the weariness of someone three times his age. I think he means ‘ticket.’ I give him the hat and he sticks it in Mr Sweetcorn head’s mouth.

A therapist comes over, “Does he have difficulties with concentration?”

“Not usually,” I say.

“O-kay,” she says cautiously. “We’ll think up some new strategies.”

“If you could…flag some up for me, that would be excellent.”

At the end, as time runs out on the parking meter, there are stickers, new words and instructions. Arnie swings on my arm and asks for a wee.

That evening, I tell Arnie and Mini to go down and say good night to Fa Fa. This is Arnie’s name for Grandad and it seems right somehow. Mini refuses. She still has the hump with Fa fa for taking over her room. Arnie is annoyed at her, and he goes downstairs brightly; keener than ever to do the right thing.  I lean over the bannister and hear him ask his grandad for ‘a Tiss and for a tuddle’ and I think:  I’m sorry darling. I really will try better next time.