Spending time at an indoor play area is no joke, and Mike Berman shares some tips so dads can keep their sanity and children intact.
At this point, it’s almost a rite of passage for American parents. It’s -20 below outside and you’re trapped indoors. Or maybe you’ve read that it’s good for your toddler to get a little group “socialization.” Or maybe your wife screams at you with a voice drawn up from the netherworld that you need to take the kids and get out of the house, now.
It’s time to head to one of those indoor play areas. If you haven’t checked out one of these places yet, you’re in for a little shock to the system. Don’t misunderstand – they’re fantastic in many ways. And yes, they serve a purpose. But you better know what you’re in for before you walk in the door.
1. Check Your Ego At The Door:
Many of these places require you to sign a release form when you first walk through the door, surrendering your rights to sue in case of injury. Well, they might as well also have you surrender all claims to your pride, too. It ain’t gonna be pretty in there. There will be bubbles. There will be patty-cake. There will be neon colored scarves that your daughter drapes over your head. Your only choice is complete and total surrender.
2. Your Kid Is Counting On You:
On this day, you are your child’s wingman. The Goose to his Maverick. You have to stick by your kid’s side until they are comfortable enough to venture off into the class by themselves, especially if they don’t have a buddy. This is, for many kids, their first big attempt at socialization. Sure, they may have had some single or group playdates. But this is the big leagues. 10-12 new kids they’ve never seen before, with varying degrees of aggressiveness. Don’t you dare get on that iPhone. Not here. Not this time. Not today.
3. You’re The Gym Buddy:
Hand-in hand with above, you’re going to have to be your kid’s spotter for this grueling workout. You don’t see guys at the gym benching 300 pounds without a buddy standing over them. Likewise, you shouldn’t allow your child to attempt the death-defying rainbow bridge without being right there to catch them if he or she should fall. Believe me on this one. I was once a moment too late to catch my son from toppling backwards off a ladder onto a cushioned matt. I still see his face in my dreams, like the girl in Cliffhanger, falling two feet in slow motion, reaching out for his daddy who let him down. Don’t be wracked with the same guilt. Stick to your little buddy like glue.
4. Go On A Weekend:
If you’re a stay-at-home-dad and handle most of the day to day duties, then you don’t have much say in the matter – you’re going to one of these indoor play areas at least twice a week. That place is your best friend when cabin fever sets in. But if you do happen to have a choice in the matter, try to go on the weekends. Why? The Dad Factor is about 5-6 times greater and you won’t be the only baritone in the group sing-a-longs. Sure, it’s nice to make chit-chat with the ladies, but you’ll probably be much happier if you have a wingman of your own to talk to in between Circle Time and Jimbo the Clown.
5. Rhythm Isn’t Everything:
Ah, the rainbow log. So inviting. So intriguing. And yet so intimidating. When your class instructor hauls that beautiful multicolored… thing out into the middle of the floor, it’s not unlike dragging a trough out into the middle of a barnyard. Your child may have to fight for a spot. And if he or she is shy, it can be unnerving to see the more comfortable kids smacking and pounding on that log in time to the music. It may take 5-6 classes before your child finds their rightful place “at the table.” Fear not. They’ll figure it out.
After prolonged exposure to the rainbow log freeze-game, your child will be ready to procure concert tickets, buy electronics from Best Buy on Black Friday, and generally fend for themselves in any American mob mentality setting.
And look, not every kid is going to have the rhythm of Tito Puente. If your little one is hitting down on the up-note, just blow it off and think of all the money you’re going to save on music lessons.
6. Don’t Eat The Gym Equipment:
It goes without saying: there are germs everywhere at an indoor play area. It doesn’t matter how many wipeys are used, or if they make you squirt Purell on your hands upon entrance and exit. You can’t desanitize every wiffle ball, gym mat, rubber hoop and tambourine. Germs will be spread. Colds will be caught. Your single best defense is to eyeball your child like a hawk and cut them off when they try to make a three-course meal out of the gym toys.
7. Don’t Be A Pushover:
As this may very well be your child’s first big group socialization, you may find yourself having a run-in with that all too common social animal: the overly aggressive kid. You won’t quite know what to think the first time another child pushes your little girl over, or even takes a bite out of your little boy’s arm. A river of rage will flow inside you, but it will quickly be tempered by confusion, “I’ve never been in this situation. What do I do?” Do you scold the offending child’s parents? Or do you turn the other cheek?
The first time my son was shoved I took the higher ground and blew it off, kissed his tears and forgave the parents. But when I got home that night my anger started to boil up.
I wasn’t angry that the other kid “got away with something”; I was angry at myself, that I may have let my son down. Was he looking to me to see how I would react, if I would defend him? Did I just teach him that it’s okay to get walked over? After that, I swore I would not be so nonchalant about it again. You have to make a choice that’s right for your family, but my advice: be careful about being a pushover when your kid gets pushed over.
8. The Staff Are…Well…
Look, you can’t have anything but love for someone willing to devote their entire to life to playing with kids. But after years and years of singing songs and blowing bubbles, every single day, you might get a little loopy too. Take it easy on these franchisee owners, who probably opened the store with great ambition and child-like enthusiasm…until the kids showed up. In Philadelphia, our amazing owner at the indoor play area we go to was never seen without a 24oz coffee cup within arm’s reach. So save your comments, complaints and suggestions, and just be happy they don’t suddenly snap and go running off down the street willy-nilly.
9. Bubble Time Is Nirvana:
This is it. This is why you’re here. This is the money shot. The fireworks after a day at the Magic Kingdom. The big present on Christmas morning. Don’t mess with bubble time. Just stay the hell out of the way and let the magic happen. You may feel so intoxicated by the enchanting bubbles that you’re compelled to get involved. Don’t. It only lasts about 300 seconds. Every bubble matters. Just let the kids drift off into bubble Utopia, where nothing else exists.
Side-note: if you are going to pay for any of the insanely overpriced items sold at these indoor play areas, spring for their bubble wand and solution. They have somehow cracked the code, creating a device and delivery system unparalleled in the world of bubbledom. Be forewarned, however, that their secret solution is much “thicker” than most gelatins, and could leave little bubbles around your house for hours, even days. But it’s worth it.
10. Parachute Fear:
There’s nothing quite like watching that parachute unfurl across the room. But guaranteed: there will be tears. Whether it’s fear of running underneath it and being smothered to death by what can only seem as a gigantic multi-colored winged monster; or whether it’s the fear of sitting on it merry-go-round style while 12 strange adults walk in a circle, chanting songs at you, the whole thing can be a bit scary. At most classes, you’re almost certain to see one or two kids crawl off. If that’s your kid, be understanding. The last time 12 grown men and women encircled you and sang songs, you were probably being hazed at your fraternity or inducted into a cult.
Indoor play areas, what to make of you? Like that crazed relative at Thanksgiving dinner, there’s a welcome comfort in your madness. On the one hand, any parent is thankful for the reprieve, for something to do, for a chance to get a little exercise and socialization, especially in the winter. On the other hand, it can be a little overwhelming. Along with sing-a-longs, circle time and a seemingly endless soundtrack of brain-melting toddler music, you have to be prepared for overly-aggressive kids, germs, whacky owners and your child’s very legitimate parachute and rainbow-log fears. Still, you’re almost always guaranteed a solid nap after your little ones expend some energy. The trick is to commit 100% to the class and be there for your child. As long as you know what you’re getting into, you’ll have a great time…and you’ll be singing “The Mighty Duke of York” for years and years to come.