To soft play, or not to soft play...

I could never, and would never, claim to know how other parents feel about their children, nor would I presume to think they feel the same way as I do about all things kids-related. However I'm pretty sure I'm not alone in saying that I would do pretty much (almost) anything for my child, however unenthusiastic I feel about doing it. Take playing mummies and daddies, for example. Or nurseries, or birthday parties, or hiding and seeking in exactly the same location over, and over, and over again. And watching Peppa Pig every single day for nearly five years, without fail.

But I do (selfishly perhaps) draw the line with a couple of things. The biggest 'thing' being regular visits to soft play centers. Now I have absolutely nothing against soft play. In fact it's a genius idea, trapping a huge number of small people in a confined space while their parents watch from the sidelines crossing everything that there'll be no collisions, tears and germs shared.

The truth is, kids absolutely love it and they come away happy and exhausted - always a plus when you have one or more pint-sized people to entertain for the rest of the day. And I'm a huge advocate of kids being as active as possible (even if it isn't outdoors). Much better they spend hours sweating in a brightly-coloured, squishy playpen than lazing about in front of the TV (that's for later when they're so tired from soft play they can't do anything but flop on the sofa). So please don't think that I'm being dismissive or critical of soft play because, in a nutshell, it's bloody brilliant. If you are not an adult!

Am I alone in being the parent on the sidelines who, in their rational mind, knows there's not really any chance their child could (or would) race off the soft play equipment, without being seen, towards the heavily guarded exit and escape from the building? I'm pretty sure this scenario is extremely unlikely. But I can't help the automatic spasm of fear I experience each time I look frantically into that vast cavern of soft, squishy-coloured equipment, and for one tense moment cannot find my child among what seems like hundreds of other small, screaming people racing around. The only thing worse than that is when you've bought someone else's child with you too and you can only spot one child and not the other.

And the noise! It's of indescribable decibel levels - off the scale some might say. Although I guess the sensory overload is perfect if you're under ten, it's not so great if you're over 35, slightly hungover, or craving peace and quiet, and fresh air.

When I do resign myself to going, I generally spend the entire two or so hours craning my neck, my eyes blurring as I pear through layers of square netting to spot my offspring, pacing the perimeter of the play area, waiting to hear tears, and clock watching.

'Selfish mother', I hear you utter, and you're most probably right. Except to say that I genuinely find it one extremely stressful, and overall not very enjoyable, experience. In the past I've even lied to get out of going in favour of getting outdoors in the fresh air for a walk. 'Sorry, soft play is closed today', or 'what a shame they are full, so sorry darling'. And I have to admit, that does make me feel like a really crappy, really selfish mum, so I do try my best to only do that in emergencies i.e. when I absolutely cannot face it.

Pondering the lengths we go to to entertain our little ones and keep them happy does lead me to wander how much time I should be spending doing what my child wants to do in relation to what I need and want to do. I have this battle in my head nearly every single day. If it's a toss-up between playing doctors or doing the washing up, am I a terrible mum if I choose the washing up? My good conscience reassures me that surely it's good for my child to understand they cannot have my undivided attention every second of the day. Nor can they too frequently make demands about what they wish to do, play or watch and have me at their beck and call. Plus, I don't want my child to have to use dirty cutlery - surely that's a good enough reason too?

The same goes for soft play visits. I know my child would forgo all her Christmas sweet stash just for ten minutes in a soft play. So why do I have to be literally man-handled into going there when I know the happy and grateful smile I'd receive would be heart-melting and is absolutely the best thing since Sauvignon Blanc and then some? Perhaps because I've never found a soft play where they serve Sauvignon by the glass...

My guilty conscience, which has increased ten fold in size since I had a child - along with my wine consumption, constantly batters me with images of my daughter's disappointed face when I say I can't play with her right at that particular moment because there is something else that needs doing.

So how can we split up our days so we keep our children happy as well as get done the things we need to do, and try and do something (anything) we want to do too? Are there any guidelines, and what is actually manageable time-wise with the bits of life we have very little control over, such as work, housework, meal times and bedtime etc?

Trying to think a bit logically I roughly divided up how time is spent in a normal working day in my world:

  • Work: 37.5%

  • Sleep: 35.5%

  • Housework, meals, admin, washing etc: 14%

  • Free time: 12.5%

I feel a little bit sad sectioning my days in this way, but how am I supposed to portion up the 12.5% of free time, which equates to roughly three hours of free time? It sounds like a lot, right? It is a lot if there genuinely are three whole free hours to do with what you wish, but in my experience there's a whole lot of other stuff that can easily get in the way and eat into that time.

The point is, is devoting 12.5% of our day completely to our children enough, or is it too much? And if you're lucky enough to even get close to having 12.5% of free time, what about taking time for you, your other half, friends and family?

I guess what I'm getting to is, if we only get a very small amount of free time, trying to balance it the best way we can is vital. Is quality time the actual time we spend playing with our kids, uninterrupted, doing crafts or playing princesses? If that's the case and we spend all of our free time doing that, how do we make sure we're being quality parents if we're not using some of that free time to develop ourselves? How can we help to grow and shape these pint-sizers into being open-minded, kindhearted, adventurous little adults if we don't continue to grow too, and share our knowledge and experiences with them? What benefits our children more - quality time or quality people as parents? Both, I think, are equally important and go hand in hand.

I could survey a thousand parents to find out exactly how they split up their time and how much quality time they spend with their kids. But at the end of the day, I can only work with the free time I've got and balance quality time with being a quality parent as best I can. So would there actually be any point in doing that survey? Only perhaps to ease my guilt - if indeed other peoples' time is split out in a similar way to mine. On the other hand I might discover that more people think quality time is the priority, and wherever possible our kids should always decide how that time is spent. That'll make me feel a whole lot worse and I'll have to punish myself with obligatory weekly soft play excursions for years to come...

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