(Scary) Scenes from the Soft Play Center

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I understand the concern surrounding the soft play at the mall. Any place that breeds a virus called “hand, foot and mouth disease” is no place for children. The soft play is alarmingly similar to a public restroom: it’s free, smells, and gets cleaned once a day (though whoever sees that happen?). But kids “wash” with hand sanitizer, run barefoot, zip down slides with squishy soiled diapers, and inevitably lick the 3-foot tall apple–just to see.

 

Regardless, I allow my 5-year-old daughter to frolic in the fetid foam fun that is the mall soft play. I eliminate the obvious health risks by using Wet Ones to sanitize her hands, feet and mouth before we leave. But I see the soft play as a kind of social experiment. Ava learns to play with others (or employ highly sophisticated aversion tactics, such as hissing or, Daddy’s favorite, the “Heisman Trophy” stiff-arm technique). And as a parent, I get a healthy dose of validation. I’ve seen a mother drop off her 2-year-old at the soft play alone so she could grab a bite from the food court, and I once had to separate two sisters who were strangling each other in a tunnel, out of the view of their sleeping mother. But for the most part, I sit back and watch my daughter expertly navigate through the soft play’s sea of dysfunction, dodging kids with snotty noses and coughs that sound pre-emphysemic.

I thought I had the soft play and its cast of players figured out. See, my husband and I play this game where we try to match the kid to the parent. We started recognizing the “types”: the single dad looking for a sympathetic hook up, the overworked mom looking for a moment’s peace, the pedophile . . .

But last week I encountered a whole new breed of soft-play parent. It was unexpected. Alarming. Bone chilling.

I had upped the ante by allowing Ava to play at the soft play at SeaTac. You know, the airport that has an average of 80,000 travelers per day? I figured that if she could survive coming into contact with the airplane bathroom and pressing her face against the plane’s window without contracting MRSA, the airport soft play was a mere drop in the biohazard bucket.

I sat next to a jumpy 30-something mom with an overactive 2-year-old. She seemed fine at first, making small talk with me until I noticed that her child was making a break for the exit.

“Um, your kid is going out the door.”

The mom dashed away in a panicked non-athletic sprint (a mix between Linda Carter’s Wonder Woman run and the butterfly stroke). After she corralled her kid, she flopped back down with a heavy sigh.

“She’s a very spirited kid. I have to keep an eye–”

And she was off again. Not the kid–the mom. She must’ve felt the sudden urge to drop to her hands and knees and crawl 90 mph across the floor, chasing her daughter though tunnels and down slides, squealing with delight. I can honestly say I’ve never felt that urge.

“I’m gonna get you!!!” the mom sing-songed louder than necessary.

Her daughter seemed to enjoy the chase. And the subsequent pick-up game of peek-a-boo. And Marco Polo. And the performance of “I’m a Little Teapot.” Every now and again the mom would flash me this wide-eyed “Isn’t parenting grand?” look and I’d smile weakly.

Meanwhile, Ava was content practicing a solo karate routine on the toy traffic-control tower. I looked around for the cameras–for Ed McMahon or Ashton Kutcher to inform me that I was being punked. Instead, in came Manic Mom #2.

She had one of those hands-free earpieces attached to one side of her head, which always makes me think of “Lt. Uhura” and, consequently: “dork.” It allowed her to easily chase after her little Johnny (I know his name because she said it exactly 32, 734 times in under 10 minutes).

“Let’s be pilots!” she yelled, jumping into the cockpit of a toy plane. “You can be my co-pilot! That means two people fly the plane. See? There are two seats for two pilots! One for Mommy and one for Johnny! That makes two!”

“Pace yourself, lady,” I say under my breath.

Inevitably, the hysterical moms met up, bringing their special powers together and morphing into a force that would make Captain Planet proud. My cue to leave.

Look, I get being involved. But there’s a time and a place. If you exceed the height limit, have lost all of your baby teeth, and think Bradley Cooper is cuter than Special Agent Oso, then, like a Hello Kitty mid-drift T-shirt, the soft play is not for you.

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