In recent months my son and I have visited some of Canberra’s indoor playgrounds, both to attend parties and to escape the house on cold and rainy days. I won’t mention which ones because I found all of them to be troubling and horrible.
On my last venture, as my son floundered in a plastic ball pit, I sat down with a ginger chai latte (they were on special) and took note of all the reasons that I struggle to enjoy indoor playgrounds.
- The stench of socks, shoes and feet.
- The screams, mostly joyous, but which reverberate off the windowless walls in a cacophonous stress-inducing way.
- The garish décor which is designed for ease of cleaning and hosing down.
- The suffering adult clientele all around me, particular parents of newborns whom I empathise with for being so very tired, but also whom I don’t speak to or console because we are all so very tired.
- The chicken-nugget-and-chip-centric food.
- The child-exclusive slides and equipment which leave me either underwhelmed or in pain whenever I attempt to join in.
- At a couple of places that I’ve encountered there are televisions which serve to punctuate the hyper-activity of the kids with periods of indolence, but which are frustrating because it’s like you’ve paid money to do something that you could have done at home.
- The indoor playground experience evokes short-term ecstasy in children, but I suspect that they do not leave the enduring and endearing sort of memories that are commonly associated with outdoor playgrounds.
- The indoor playground staff, whom I admire greatly for their will and stamina, but whom I have never seen smile (thus justifying points 1 to 8).
When I raised all of this with a friend (accomplished landscape designer Chris Webb), he pointed out that the fault lay not so much with indoor playgrounds, but rather with my less-than-generous attitude and excessive expectations. His explanation was as follows.
- Indoor playgrounds are for children and not for adults.
- Notwithstanding this, they provide parents and carers with some guaranteed and often highly valuable relief or reprieve.
- They are clearly commercial ventures and should not be compared with outdoor playgrounds, which tend to generate social capital and meaningful memories because they are places where families and communities gather for picnics and parties.
Perhaps the best way to view indoor playgrounds is as the recreational equivalent of fast food: a treat on special occasions and necessary in an emergency, but not every week or day.
What are your memorable indoor playground experiences (better not to mention venues)? Are you upbeat or downbeat about them? How can they be better? What alternatives do you have for cold and rainy days?
Kim Huynh teaches international relations at the ANU. Play areas of choice with his 4-year-old son include John Knight Memorial Park (boo hiss to those who recently vandalised it), Umbagong District Park in Latham, Tidbinbilla Nature Discovery Playground and the Arboretum. And speaking of trees, check out chriswebbdesign.com.au if you’re looking for a landscape architect.