They are the salvation of a rainy day – where children can fearlessly fling themselves up and down brightly-coloured, spongy mats as parents seek solace with coffee and a chat, the latter usually drowned out by deafening, delirious-with-happiness screams.
But soft play centres face being wiped out amid the coronavirus pandemic as one of the last industries to have a proposed opening date. In the last three weeks, at least 15 have closed their doors permanently and many more are set to follow.
More than 25,000 people have signed the #RescueIndoorPlay petition, calling on the government to make a decision on reopening or offer more financial support to the UK’s 1,100 centres, which employ 30,000 people. There is also concern among operators about the impact closure could have on families with young children, which rely on soft play centres for sanity and socialisation.
“I feel for children and parents’ mental health,” says Helen Whittington, who has started a crowdfunder to replace “tricky to clean” ball pools at DJ Jungles in St Albans and Hemel Hempstead with new sensory areas that would enable social distancing.
“We have baby classes, NCT meets and are a place for people to socialise – postnatal depression could increase and children lose the confidence to mix and make friends, share and take turns.”
Simon Bridgland made the heartbreaking decision to close Big Fun House in Canterbury at the beginning of July, which he’d run for six years. The announcement was met with an “outpouring of love” from customers on his Facebook page.
“I was blown away by the volume of comments,” he says. It was not an easy decision to make, with 17 staff losing their jobs.
“We’d not had any income whatsoever since March. Soft play isn’t the gold mine people think it is – you make your money in winter to get through the summer months. Most are in big warehouses and cost a lot of money to keep going.”
Only last year he opened a £50,000 go kart track which had just a few months of use. Instead, he has decided to diversify. Mr Bridgland runs Snowflakes Day Nursery on the same site, and is going to extend it into what was Big Fun House. Children will have the run of the place and its facilities.
“It’s going to be one hell of a nursery, what with the sheer volume of space and lots of unique features.
“Personally, I think soft play is dead. The kids, they can’t social distance. So we were left with no option but to repurpose the centre.”
Another owner reworking their business is Ellis Potter, managing director of the Riverside Hub in Northampton, who is soon to get a delivery of 80 tonnes of play sand for a pop-up beach on the car park.
“It’s cost us about £1,000 a day just to stand still with the doors closed, which is a serious chunk of money,” he says.
“We’ve received hundreds of emails from parents who want to bring a sense of normality back to their children’s lives, because it’s the children that are being affected in all of this.
“We’ve implemented massive hygiene and safety measures, and spent tens of thousands of pounds with air sterilisation and antibacterial fogging – all the things that we can do to keep safe but the government are just not having it. They just won’t let us open indoor play.
“We’ve 60 staff on furlough who are apprehensive about the future, and we want to give them some clarity. There’s been some very dark times but emails and Facebook messages from customers have kept us going.”
Mikey Johnson, assistant manager of Jungleland in Telford, said the lack of clarity for soft play centres was “diabolical”.
Takings went down 90 per cent in the week before lockdown as worried families stayed at home. Within a week it was zero. As the pandemic took hold, Jungleland became a drop-off point for a local food bank.
In March the firm had 26 members of staff. Now eight remain on furlough, all eyes on the next government announcement.
“At the minute it’s an unknown,” said Mr Johnson. “Even if we have a date, it’s the rebuilding period after that.
“We’d probably be working at half capacity, and that’s just not a viable business. We need bums on seats. It’s just a waiting game.”
Representatives from the British Association of Leisure Parks, Piers and Attractions (BALPPA) – many in furry costumes – descended on 10 Downing Street recently to raise awareness of their #RescueIndoorPlay campaign. The pandemic meant they weren’t allowed to physically hand in a petition, but that is gathering pace on Change.org.
“We’ve had a huge amount of support from people who use these centres all the time – they are embedded in our local communities,” said Paul Kelly, chief executive of BALPPA.
“We want the government to tell us the date we can reopen, or tell us why we can’t. There are 1,100 centres and I can’t see them surviving if we don’t hear something soon.
“We are heading for a cliff edge.”
Lizzie Elston, 45 from Harpenden, mum to Oliver, eight, is among those who are backing the campaign.
“The benefits of soft play are massive. Oliver’s not into organised sport – we’ve tried to get him into rugby or cricket, but he’s at his happiest when he’s jumping off things just being a ninja,” she says.
“He’s always absolutely loved soft play – just being a lunatic – so it is brilliant as a parent because you can have a coffee with friends and know he’s safe, either by himself or with friends. It’s so important for his physical and mental wellbeing just not being in front of a screen.
“It can’t be overestimated, the importance of soft play – it helps how they develop, how they learn and socialise, so it’s critically important for their mental health.”