As parents to young children, we may have different ideas about parenting, but we all have one thing in common: we just want an easy life.
Every day when we haul ourselves out of bed to begin the breakfast routine I’m sure none of us are immune to sending up a silent prayer for our littles to wake up in a good mood and not give us grief the whole day long. And if you’re anything like me, an extension of that is finding activities outside of the house which are bearable: we need to find a safe haven in which our toddlers can be entertained. With, ideally, minimum input from us – just for the time it takes to throw back a cup of coffee and annihilate a slab of cake whilst simultaneously attempting the fastest-catch-up-known-to-man with our crew.
With that in mind and following a chat a few months ago with fellow blogger Fran of Whinge Whinge Wine, I’ve been inspired to put together a list of my favourite local soft play centres – and awarded them for their respective benefits. I know they’re all basically hell on earth for mums and dads alike (if you actively enjoy soft play then you’re doing it wrong) – but bear with me.
This is not about the kids having a nice time (if there’s mischief to be made they’ll be happy anywhere); this is about us parents surviving the tedium that is soft play.
Best Soft Play Essex
Best Coffee: Peapod Cafe (Billericay)
I know there are saintly types who this won’t apply to – I’ve even met one IRL. But for the rest of us who understand that getting hammered whilst in charge of a small person is not socially acceptable, we’ve replaced one substance for another, and caffeine is a prerequisite. Whatever your poison, a decent cup of it is essential: anywhere serving hot drinks which look like they’ve been scooped out of the washing up bowl are vetoed.
While Peapod is not technically ‘soft play’ and their play area is limited, they have such an awesome cafe that they’ve made this list (more than once) regardless. Their coffee rivals that of your favourite high street haunts, offering a wide variety of tasty choices – though do expect to pay for the privilege.
Best Food: Peapod Cafe
After coffee, good food is the next essential. What this means to you may vary depending on the day of the week, the quality of sleep you managed last night, whether you’re currently pregnant/breastfeeding/hungover – so I’ve created a separate award for cake. This particular award is for the savoury delights available.
Peapod has some incredible lunch options, including my own favourite which I now regularly recreate at home: poached egg and avocado on toast, with crumbled feta, toasted pine nuts and pomegranate seeds. Delish.
Best Cake: Peapod & Let’s Go Bonkers* (Burnham-on-Crouch)
Of course, more often than not, due to severe sleep-deprivation the second thing us parents crave after caffeine is cake. We want an instant hit of fat and sugar to ease the caffeine down.
This is pretty pathetic to admit, but I’m nothing if not honest: I spent months during the early days as a mother where I literally planned my day around cake.
Again, Peapod take (half of) the trophy. They offer afternoon tea (which can be upgraded to include bubbles!) as well as a spread of fabulous wares. If you want indulgent, look no further.
However, excluding Let’s Go Bonkers as a worthy joint winner of this award would be sacrilege: they make immense muffins, scoop a little out and then fill with melt in the mouth deliciousness (buttercream). I’ve not had one of these for a while, but I did go through a period of being quite addicted because they always hit the spot.
*I understand that Let’s Go Bonkers is or will imminently be under new management. This is sad news, and whoever takes over has big shoes to fill. I truly hope they live up to their predecessors.
Best Location: Let’s Go Bonkers & White Elm (Bicknacre)
There are lots of considerations when it comes to the best soft play to attend, and much of this comes down to location in terms of:
- Public transport
- What else is nearby
Whilst Let’s Go Bonkers is a bit of a drive for me (30 minutes), its locale (and cake) totally make it worth it. Admittedly, the parking leaves a little to be desired when it gets busy – but the train station is a few hundred yards away and within walking distance there’s also a park and a (very little) beach with a really lovely seawall. In the summer it’s one of my favourite destinations.
White Elm is a hidden gem. There’s a really lovely little farm area and the restaurant is not bad either. The soft play is relatively new and Pixie seems to really like it there. (I’ve not personally climbed it as yet because I’ve been the size of a house the couple of times we’ve visited.)
Best Entertainment: Mace Place (Chelmsford)
Of course one of the most important factors when it comes to soft play is how good the venue is when it comes to catering for the kids.
If there’s not enough to keep them entertained then is there even any point dragging yourself there in the first place?
Mace Playce puts on undeniably fantastic entertainment – at no extra cost. Even the appalling spelling of their name, which makes my skin itch like a…cat with fleas, is not enough to deter me from crowning them winner in this category.
Best Value: Creepy Crawlies (South Woodham Ferrers)
Obviously, despite not really wanting to frequent soft play frequently, it happens more often that we’d ideally choose. Therefore, it needs to be cheap.
Whilst this venue is relatively basic, I discovered something awesome by accident: if you arrive at 3pm onwards (perfect for after naptime), it’s half price. And usually empty. BOOM. (Please don’t all now ruin my afternoon peace.)
Best WiFi: …
It’s sometimes necessary to have good wifi, as a blogger I understand that better than most… However – I cannot, in all good conscience, call this. Here’s why:
Pixie is not yet three. If I were asked to describe my daughter’s character I’d tell you she’s precocious, feisty, funny, smart and kind. She is all of these things, and I’m told often that she’s ‘gentle’ too. But, as with any child her age, she is also unpredictable and impulsive. Whilst it’s not in her nature to be spiteful or nasty for the sake of being nasty, occasionally she will lash out if cornered or threatened with having a toy taken away, etc.
I try my best to control and discipline these unacceptable behaviours – but I also acknowledge that they’re normal and it’s not possible to completely prevent them.
Therefore, I do not view soft play as a creche. Never have, yet. Until we can fully trust our children to have enough self-restraint to not lash out when they’re cross, we should be by their side – or at the very least, as they get a little older, be very aware of where they are and what they’re doing.
So, while I may have used WiFi briefly in one or two soft play centres, I have not used them all and not for long enough to issue an award – it wouldn’t be fair.
But I’d love for you guys with older ones to offer your verdicts here!
Best Hygiene: Let’s Go Bonkers
I can’t relax around a lot of mess or filth. The mess is inevitable and I’ve learned not to see it, for the most part. However when it comes to sticky anything and ground-in stains on carpets and soft furnishings – that’s inexcusable. I can deal with tired equipment – if it’s clean. I kind of think that’s a basic requirement for a child’s play area, no? Especially for tiny ones. If only all venues agreed…
I cannot fault Let’s Go Bonkers. No soft play will ever be 100% immaculate, but this is as close you’re going to get. It’s bright, fresh – and it always looks well-maintained and clean.
Best Layout: Creepy Crawlies
Though I have a strong opinion about supervision of children in these establishments, I absolutely understand the need to encourage independence and to take the load off for ten minutes as the little horrors reach a certain age. However, this is only possible if the layout of the centre is conducive. Ideally, it will be fairly open with a 360° view of the room: there should be minimal places to hide.
Though Creepy Crawlies is arguably a little tired and lacks natural light, the layout of the apparatus is superior to anywhere else we visit. I can sit at a table and be confident that Pixie won’t be too far away or out of sight for too long. (For the record I wouldn’t be comfortable doing this when it’s very busy, but when we have the place to ourselves and she’s with friends she knows, I trust that the little ones will behave!)
Best All-Rounder: Let’s Go Bonkers
No explanation required, and overall Let’s Go Bonkers trumps all competition in my opinion.
The One That Didn’t Make the List
My hubby thinks it’s wrong of me not to include 360 Play (Basildon) somewhere in the awards. However, after careful consideration I decided that though there’s a lot there for kids, there’s really nothing there for me while Pixie still requires a level of supervision. Also, it’s enormous and gets packed out, and therefore noisy. It’s basically my worst nightmare with nothing to offset that. So yes, for those saintly types who believe motherhood is 100% about their child/ren, you won’t go wrong. But for anyone trying to retain their last shred of sanity, is swerve it until you can legitimately hide out in the cafe.
Do you agree with my selections? Are there are soft play centres I’ve missed completely which you’d recommend I visit?
If you’re a blogger and you’d like to host these awards for your area, please email me! I’ll forward you the awards (jpeg) and link back to your post!