When I was 5 years old, birthday parties were a simple affair. A handful of your closest friends from school would come round for tea – always marmite or jam sandwiches and sausages on sticks followed by jelly and ice-cream. This would have come after the obligatory party games such as musical chairs, pass the parcel and musical statues. The guests would then be sent home with a piece of cake wrapped in a serviette as a thank you for attending.
When did this innocent celebration turn into a massive production? Who invented the party at the nearest soft play area? We have several near where I live and I was invited to one this week – Animal Magic in East Kilbride. These soft play areas have become the latest big money spinner where our small people are concerned and I can’t decide whether they are a good or a bad thing – you decide.
On entering the building, which is set on the edge of a trading estate, the first thing that hits you is the noise. The large room, the size of a warehouse, is full of children – hundreds of them in fact – and mostly under the age of 5. Having found your own party’s host, the children are encouraged to head off to the other end of the room where the soft play area is situated.
This is where I think it gets interesting. The sales blurb says that this is “Somewhere safe for them to run, jump, climb and have fun; to stretch both their physical abilities and their creative imagination to the maximum, whilst providing a relaxing environment for parents. Given our climate, the best all year-round solution is an indoor, soft, multi-level, adventure play area.”
Now, they may well be right. It gives the kids the opportunity to let off steam in a relatively safe environment and they are supervised by the staff as well as the parents. I do feel however that it becomes less a party for the birthday girl or boy, but more a party for all the participants. Again, good or bad thing? Not sure.
After an hour of play, the kids in your party are all rounded up to be taken off for the birthday tea. This in itself is a feat worthy of some sort of medal for the poor soul who is in charge of events. There is always one child who goes missing at this stage and then, finally, everyone is there and we can go to the party room. Party room? Party room? Wait, let’s think about this … perhaps party cupboard would be a more accurate description. A small room with no windows and no obvious method of ventilation, where the kids are crammed in and presented with their choice of such delights as “nuggets and chips”, “hot dog and chips”, “macaroni and chips” … you get the picture. Happily, the meal is rounded off with a bowl of jelly and ice-cream – some traditions are hard to dispel obviously!
After the blowing out of the cake candles and the sing-song, the kids are sent back downstairs for a final 20 minutes of play before the afternoon is brought to an end at the stroke of 5pm. Red faced and exhausted they head off home, presumably for a relatively early night.
The advantages for the parents? Well there is no clearing up to get done as this is obviously done for you – you can just walk away and leave the mess behind you. The disadvantages? Well, I can’t help but feel that the fun of the party games was sadly missing. All in all though, the kids all seemed to have a great time so I suppose that is all that matters.
On a final note, however, I was disturbed (yes, that is definitely how I felt) when I found out that there was indeed an animal corner at Animal Magic. Across from the cafeteria area were 3 glass cabinets – one containing a huge snake, one with lizards, and a third with Marmoset monkeys. Now I was under the impression (mistakenly apparently) that keeping monkeys as pets in the UK was illegal. Imagine my horror on doing some research that it is possible to own this species without any form of licence at all! On closer inspection, one of the monkeys was carrying two small babies on her back. They were clearly well looked after, fresh food and water was in the enclosure. I couldn’t help but feel that this was completely wrong however. The conditions were not ideal, approximately 10 monkeys kept in a relatively small glass box being gawped at all day long by small children – they would be much better off in their own habitat surely?