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I am writing this whilst Middlest and Youngest run amok in our local soft play centre. Of all the wondrous and exciting things I offered to take them to today whilst Eldest is at school and a friend’s house this is what they wanted to do.

In the foyer there is a hippo bearing the slogan ‘You must be smaller than me to play in here’.

It is not an actual hippo, you understand, but a wooden effigy of a hippo. It is obviously not real as it stands on its back legs about five foot high. Which I guess is the point. Damn it why didn’t I take a picture? Anyway. I digress. Again.

During my many, many trips here over the duration of my parenthood I have paid that hippo scant regard. Eldest has naturally outgrown the soft play experience. But today Middlest just scraped in. Luckily he already had his shoes off. Within minutes they had returned to our encampment in the café to let me know that the place is apparently ‘smaller’ than they remembered.

And so our time as a family in such places is coming to a close. There are more ‘grown up’ versions of soft play. High rope courses, trampoline centres, indoor surfing, climbing walls, death slides. But, still, I have an affection for this shed full of ball pits and slides and cargo nets.

My first experience was when my NCT antenatal group celebrated our eldest children’s first birthday here. There were no other kids in our lives. We spent the afternoon helping our crawling first borns climb up small sets of padded steps and slide safely down, well, small slides. We hovered and protected them from the ‘big’ kids, who had reached walking stage and were perhaps 3. The dads came too. It was a milestone moment. It celebrated not only their birthdays but also all of us surviving a whole year in the new uncharted territory of parenthood. And all against the backdrop of that hippo.

When my eldest two were little we came here a fair bit in school term time for the morning on wet days before rushing home for the afternoon nap. It was cheap and convenient and always quiet.  Because it was so quiet I used to take my, by then, toddling boys on the ‘main frame’, venturing out from the safe harbour of the Under 4’s area. Onto the large slides and big gym balls.

Of course this neccesitated me going on too. To push them by their nappied bottoms up the more difficult inclines. And to be honest I quite enjoyed it. Except once when I was heavily pregnant with Youngest and I got wedged in a pair of rollers. A mass of two year olds prevented an exit in reverse and anyway my two precious charges had forged on ahead into the gloom of the ‘dark pyramid’ area where large and steep unmarked tube slides awaited. I had to squeeze. And hope. She was born a few weeks later apparently unharmed.

My first ever foray into organising birthday parties for friends took place here. Eldest’s fourth. With his pre school buddies. I was over anxious and over thought everything as usual. The party was a great success and it was then I realised that hosting parties at a venue used to dealing with such events was ‘the way forward’. I believe all my children have had at least one of their parties here since.

I have had long conversations with friends in the cafe whilst periodically forcing squash into sweaty off spring and purchasing chips.

I have sat on my own reading with a cuppa grabbing a bit of ‘quiet’ and me time.

And today I am writing this. After I discovered that there has been the surprise addition of free Wifi since I last visited.

I am going now to partake before it gets too busy and parents are banned, excepting those rescuing ‘stuck’ children. It may be the last time I can. The lure of one last go in the ball pit is strong. As long as one doesn’t  think too hard about the possibility of unsavoury contents I find it quite liberating.

So, so long soft play centre. I might have the occasional pang. Onwards and upwards. Probably in harnesses.

Footnote I am not sure how Youngest managed to dress herself to provide exact camouflage in the giant gym ball area…but it was a tad un-nerving.