I don’t have the exact figures to hand, but there are approximately one billion blog posts offering parents sage advice on how to “survive” soft play. It’s certainly something to be endured (soft play is a misnomer; it’s fucking hard, gruelling even) but your survival is usually guaranteed. After all, I’ve never once entered a soft play zone to find a dad bleeding out on a crash mat, while a crazed toddler triumphantly pulls a bloodied trident from deep in his belly.
The awfulness of soft play gushes through your veins like icy water when it dawns on you that you’re going to be trapped with other families for anything up to two hours, hemmed in by a minefield of threadbare foam objects held together with drool and impetigo. From that point on there’s nothing you can really do except fix a ridiculously broad smile on your face, delirious enough to raise suspicions that you’re possibly being fellated by a trouser-lurking ghost.
‘Grin and bear it’ is the best advice I can give. (Although I tend to glare at people, mostly.)
As an aside, I also fully advocate the placement of net guns behind emergency break glass units, which should be a legal requirement in all soft play centres. Something like that would seem like the most effective, non-lethal way of stopping a marauding gang of oafish 10-year-olds rampaging through the ‘toddlers aged 2-4’ area. Little bastards.
Soft play is absolutely no fun as an adult, so I’ve been trying to recall my own childhood experiences. I think I enjoyed it…once. But my memories are surprisingly vague.
The man considered to be the ‘father of soft play’ was Eric McMillan, a Canadian designer once described by Time magazine as “The next Walt Disney”. He’s credited as the creator of the “ball crawl”, which sounds like a terrible euphemism for pubic lice, but was actually the original name of the much-loved ball pit. He created other fantastically named play attractions as well, such as the “punch bag forest”. In fact, you had to barge your way through something similar to enter Professor Peabody’s Play Place at Blackpool’s Winter Gardens in the early 1980s, which my sister and I experienced a few times as kids.
Professor Peabody’s was opened in 1983 by Paul Daniels and the entrance fee was a mere £1.75. I know these particular facts because I Googled them, they’re not things I remember. Like I said, my memories are hazy and few.
I do remember that Peabody’s was a summer fixture in the Winter Gardens’ Olympia exhibition hall, so it literally felt like you were playing in a massive aircraft hangar. I also remember, one time, when a boy completely submerged himself in the ball pit – just for the thrill – but was later carried out, limp and broken, after several children jumped on top of him by accident. It’s the equivalent of burying yourself beneath the sand on a busy beach, then having someone inadvertently ram the stake of a parasol through your scrotum. Sympathy was generally in short supply for anyone using the ball pit as a place to hide.
But the thing I remember most was the ‘Monster Drop’, a vertical drop slide that was responsible for giving me friction burns and taking the skin off my elbows. The smell of seared flesh was the only thing that cut through the heavy stench of sweat that hung in the air – but that’s about as much as I can recall.
Even the Internet, as boundless as it is, has surprisingly few traces of Professor Peabody’s. Until, that is, I stumbled across a Facebook group dedicated solely to discussing memories of summer days spent playing there, which has since plugged lots of holes in my dwindling memories.
From reading through the comments on the group, it seems that I wasn’t alone in injuring myself. Almost everyone recalls sustaining some kind of injury on the Monster Drop – from burns and grazes to gashed heads and broken arms – with many bearing the physical scars (or “medals”, as one commenter described them) to this day. One former play attendant confessed to dislocating her elbow on it. A couple of people even suggested that their acrophobia probably stems from shuffling nervously along the edge of the vertical drop, while plucking up enough courage to just let go. It felt like a very long way down.
My memories of the Monster Drop remind me of an article I once read about a father returning to his childhood summer camp with his family after years of telling his children ‘The Story of the Rock’; a “huge” rock he tried to climb as a 7 year old, but subsequently fell from, bruising his coccyx and brushing with death. However, when he and his family arrived at the camp and made a beeline for the imposing landmark, all they found was “a softly rounded boulder approximately eight feet in height”.
Peabody’s has long since closed down, so I couldn’t return to show my children the gargantuan Monster Drop even if I wanted to. However, rather thrillingly (for me) someone on the Facebook group posted a photo of their rapid descent down the slide – and it definitely looks as big as I remember. I also found a comment from someone whose experience of the drop matched my own perfectly: “I remember actually falling a few feet through the air before I hit the curve.”
I read that…and quite unexpectedly, I cried. That was it! That’s what I’d forgotten. That feeling of being young and stupid and terrified, and being totally out of control for a few fleeting seconds, before the squeal of skin sliding down varnished wood focused your mind on the creeping pain you were feeling.
The Facebook group threw up other memories of Peabody’s that I’d forgotten, such as one piece of play equipment that looks like someone welded a load of recycling bins together (interestingly, one commenter claimed that it was “always full of litter”). Members of the group also spoke of a white room where a flash went off intermittently, leaving your silhouette on the wall like a nuclear blast shadow. I honestly don’t remember that. Still, there’s every possibility that we might experience that for real in the next few days, but without having to pay £1.75 on the door.
Many members of the Facebook group bemoan the fact that health and safety probably killed off Professor Peabody’s. Is that what made it fun? The fact that you could break some bones or stagger away from the Winter Gardens with a gushing head wound? Was it the undercurrent of danger? I guess we just didn’t know any better.
An original sign featuring the great Professor (beckoning kids to “come in and play”) sits in Blackpool’s West Coast Rock Cafe to this day; a relic of a bygone era. It’s weird to think that it probably won’t mean anything to the twentysomethings out for a drink. But where’s the fun in having no scars to compare?