It’s raining. You can’t go to the park, you’re bored of staying in the house… so you give the local softplay a call.
This common parental strategy became unthinkable during early lockdown. After all, these are buildings where you’re actively encouraged to touch synthetic surfaces and mingle with strangers in confined spaces. They were rightly closed, along with most other venues.
But that changed on 15 August, when indoor play centres were once again permitted to open in England, providing they’d taken measures to keep the virus at bay.
Parents everywhere gave a little whoop of delight at the prospect of returning to these invaluable play spaces. Let’s face it, softplay is brilliant. It’s good for children’s fitness, confidence building and mental wellbeing. For many children (and parents) it is, or was, a key part of their social life.
But what can you do to make sure you and your children are safe at reopened softplay centres?
Note: Always check the Government’s advice on coronavirus safety precautions before visiting a venue.
What’s Changed At Softplay?
You’ll notice a few adjustments if you venture out to your local softplay. Most places will now insist on prebooked sessions, to help plan for reduced capacity. Temperature checks will most likely be taken as you enter the venue. Those over 11 will be asked to wear face masks at all times (unless they have a medical exemption), and some venues will have set the age limit even lower.
You might find one-way systems have been imposed on some of the climbing apparatus (“About time!” shouts any parent who’s had to struggle up a tower, only to be forced back down by a descending child). Some of the equipment may be closed too. It’s hard to see how ball pits, for example, can be deep cleaned regularly enough to meet safety standards.
How To Stay Safe In Softplay
Perhaps the greatest risk at a softplay centre is close contact with other people. Even with reduced capacity, small children are likely to get closer than a metre to one another before you can intervene. You may also risk close contact when moving around the venue, or on those inevitable occasions where you have to climb into the softplay yourself to rescue a nervous child. It should go without saying that you should never visit any public venue if you have any of the symptoms of coronavirus.
The play equipment itself has the potential to transmit coronavirus. Softplay centres must regularly disinfect equipment, but your child will still be clambering over stuff that others have touched in the same session. A thorough hand wash before and after playing is essential, and consider applying antiseptic gel mid-session if you’re staying a while.
Under recent government guidance, those over the age of 11 should wear face masks when indoors (with exemptions for certain medical conditions). While younger children do not have to wear masks, it might still be a good idea if they feel comfortable to do so.
What’s The Future Of Softplay?
Like many businesses, softplay venues feared for their future during lockdown. The announcement that they could reopen was a relief for many, but a struggle lies ahead.
Not every centre has reopened. Social distancing rules -- plus stricter requirements on air circulation and ventilation -- mean that capacities are greatly reduced. Children’s birthday parties -- one of the main sources of income for softplay centres -- are still forbidden. It’s a rare venue that can turn a profit under such conditions. Some have already closed permanently.
Like the millions of kids who’ve ricocheted off their walls over the years, we can only hope they find a way to bounce back.
See our range of articles on how families can stay safe from coronavirus.
Although originally from the Midlands, and trained as a biochemist, Matt has somehow found himself writing about London for a living. He's a former editor and long-time contributor to Londonist.com and has written several books about the capital. He's also the father of two preschoolers.