Coronavirus: “Soft play is heading for a cliff”

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Bye bye ball pools: fun but hard-to-clean attractions could disappear amid the Covid-19 pandemic


They are salvation from a rainy day – where children can fearlessly throw themselves up and down on brightly colored spongy rugs while parents seek solace with coffee and a chat, the latter usually being drowned by deafening and delirious cries of happiness.

But soft gaming centers risk being wiped out amid the coronavirus pandemic as one of the last industries to have a proposed opening date. In the past three weeks, at least 15 have closed their doors for good and many more are expected to follow.

More than 25,000 people have signed the #RescueIndoorPlay petition, calling on the government to make a decision on reopening or providing more financial support to 1,100 centers across the UK, which employ 30,000 people. Operators are also concerned about the impact the closure could have on families with young children, who rely on flexible play centers for mental health and socialization.

“I am sensitive to the mental health of children and parents,” says Helen Whittington, who launched a crowdfunder to replace the “tricky to clean” ball pools at DJ Jungles in St Albans and Hemel Hempstead with new sensory domains that would allow social distancing.

“We have baby classes, NCT meetings and we are a place for socializing – postpartum depression could increase and children would lose the confidence to mingle and make friends, share and take turns. “

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Helen Whittington says soft play centers are essential for children’s and parent’s mental health


Simon Bridgland made the heartbreaking decision to close Canterbury’s Big Fun House at the start of July, which he had been running for six years. The announcement was greeted with a “surge of love” from customers on its Facebook page.

“I was blown away by the volume of comments,” he says. It was not an easy decision to make, 17 employees having lost their jobs.

“We had no income since March. Soft play isn’t the gold mine that people think – you make your money in the winter to get through the summer months. Most are in large warehouses and cost a lot of money. keep on going. ”

Just last year it opened up a £ 50,000 kart track that only had a few months of use. Instead, he decided to branch out. Mr. Bridgland runs Snowflakes Day Nursery on the same site, and will expand it to what used to be Big Fun House. The children will be in charge of the place and its facilities.

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Simon Bridgland

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Big Fun House kart track was only installed last year


“It will be a hell of a nursery, with the volume of space and many unique features.

“Personally, I think the soft game is dead. Children cannot socially distance themselves. We therefore had no choice but to reuse the center. ”

Another owner who is reworking his business is Ellis Potter, managing director of Riverside Hub in Northampton, which will soon receive 80 tonnes of play sand for a pop-up beach in the parking lot.

“It costs us around £ 1,000 a day just to sit still with the doors closed, which is a lot of money,” he says.

“We have received hundreds of emails from parents who want to bring a sense of normalcy to their children’s lives, because it is the children who are affected by it all.

“We have massive health and safety measures in place and spent tens of thousands of pounds on air sterilization and anti-bacterial fog – anything we can do to keep it safe, but the government is failing to it just doesn’t. we open the indoor game.

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Hub Riverside

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Ellis Potter has received “literally hundreds of emails” from parents saying their children have missed something


“We have 60 employees on leave who are worried about the future, and we want to give them some clarity. There have been some really dark times, but customer emails and Facebook posts kept us going. ”

Mikey Johnson, assistant manager of Jungleland in Telford, said the lack of clarity for soft play centers was “devilish”.

Withdrawals fell 90% the week before the lockdown, with worried families staying at home. In a week, he sucked. As the pandemic took hold, Jungleland became a home base for a local food bank.

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Mikey Johnson

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‘Hundreds of families’ have been helped by the Jungleland pop-up food bank, which sent supplies to Telford Crisis Support


In March, the firm had 26 employees. Today, eight remain on leave, all eyes on the government’s next announcement.

“By the minute he’s a stranger,” Mr Johnson said. “Even though we have a date, it’s the rebuilding period after that.

“We would probably be working at half of our capacity, and it’s just not a viable business. We need tramps on the seats. It’s just a waiting game. ”

Representatives of the British Association of Leisure Parks, Piers and Attractions (BALPPA) – many in fur suits – recently descended on 10 Downing Street to publicize their #RescueIndoorPlay campaign. The pandemic meant they weren’t allowed to physically deliver a petition, but it’s picking up steam on Change.org.

“We have had tremendous support from the people who use these centers all the time – they are integrated into our local communities,” said Paul Kelly, CEO of BALPPA.

“We want the government to tell us when we can reopen, or tell us why we can’t. There are 1,100 centers and I can’t see them survive if we don’t hear something soon.

“We are heading for a cliff. ”

Lizzie Elston, 45 from Harpenden, mother of eight-year-old Oliver, is among those supporting the campaign.

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Lizzie Elston

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Oliver Elston’s mom says she would ‘have no hesitation’ in bringing him to soft play because she knows how seriously they take potty training


“The benefits of soft play are huge. Oliver isn’t into organized sport – we’ve tried to get him into rugby or cricket, but he’s at his happiest when he just jumps out being a ninja, ”she says.

“He’s always loved the soft game – just being a fool – so it’s great as a parent because you can have coffee with friends and know he’s safe, alone or with friends. It is so important for his physical and mental well-being. not be in front of a screen.

“You can’t overestimate the importance of soft play – it helps them grow, learn and socialize, so it’s critically important to their mental health. “

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