The lowdown on indoor playgrounds

Kim Huynh 11 August 2016 6

Multicolored balls in a playground
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.

  1. The stench of socks, shoes and feet.
  2. The screams, mostly joyous, but which reverberate off the windowless walls in a cacophonous stress-inducing way.
  3. The garish décor which is designed for ease of cleaning and hosing down.
  4. 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.
  5. The chicken-nugget-and-chip-centric food.
  6. The child-exclusive slides and equipment which leave me either underwhelmed or in pain whenever I attempt to join in.
  7. 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.
  8. 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.
  9. 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.

  1. Indoor playgrounds are for children and not for adults.
  2. Notwithstanding this, they provide parents and carers with some guaranteed and often highly valuable relief or reprieve.
  3. 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 if you’re looking for a landscape architect.

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6 Responses to The lowdown on indoor playgrounds
Mike_Drop Mike_Drop 3:42 pm 12 Aug 16

Kim – I’m actually going to tip my hat for finding an issue less divisive than some of your recent posts!

Thankfully my two kids have just about moved on from the age-of-indoor-playgrounds. I have found over the years that Questacon was also a great alternative to indoor playgrounds on rainy days – although it should be noted that issues of acoustics and the quality of food/coffee still prevail. The kids have loved Skyzone (trampolining) now that they’re a bit older, and Zone 3 is also a hit for birthday parties from about seven or eight (apparently until your mid fifties).

@Spiral – everywhere we’ve been for gymnastics certainly has a unique aroma! Still – the smells of these places are a fact of life. Show me kids who don’t stink from time-to-time and I’ll show you neurotic adults.

Kim Huynh Kim Huynh 8:07 pm 11 Aug 16

Fair enough canardly, I have been a bit of a sod of late. However, if you happen to be idle, please note that I have been pretty upbeat about taverns, karaoke, reptilian women, Batman, bogans and Nick Kyrgios ( Let’s see what the week ahead holds. K

carnardly carnardly 6:50 pm 11 Aug 16

gosh – you don’t seem to like the tour de france. you don’t seem to like going to the gym. you don’t seem to like kiddies’ playgrounds. maybe you should just stay at home if its all too hard!

Maybe one day you could try and write something positive…

Spiral Spiral 1:26 pm 11 Aug 16

I think some people just like to complain. We have been visiting indoor playgrounds in Canberra since the first one(?) opened in Kambah.

Our kids and their friends have had great fun in them, especially when it is too hot or cold or rainy to play at outdoor ones. They have had some great birthday parties at them.

Sure they are not perfect and some certainly have needed some sprucing up (and several have closed down).

btw, if “The stench of socks, shoes and feet” is too much for you at a place like that, I strongly suggest you don’t even consider getting your kids into gymnastics.

madelini madelini 10:06 am 11 Aug 16

TuggLife said :

Costco and IKEA are also good excursions during the week (although obviously hell on earth on weekends).

I’m so glad you mentioned IKEA – we went up to the one in Sydney as a family every now and again when I was a kid/teen and I loved it. Now, as a 26 year old, the Canberra store is one of my favourite places to go, just to wander around and open cupboards. It’s the same kind of magic as a doll’s house.

As an aside, would there be a market for an indoor play area with bigger slides/activity spaces, and a good quality cafe (with better acoustics, as far as that is possible)? There’s so much good coffee in Canberra, it doesn’t seem fair to prevent parents from accessing it when they need it.

TuggLife TuggLife 12:03 am 11 Aug 16

They’re not for me, mostly for the same reasons you’ve identified. I also find them poor value for money so far – my toddler wants me to play with her, but I don’t fit in those poky climbing thingys, so we mostly end up just sitting and eating banana bread. They seem like they should be a lucrative commercial venture, but they always look so run down and miserable.

Play Up is excellent in cold weather, but it can get crowded, and the cafe is average. The toys are engaging, though, and Old Parliament House is fun to explore.

Our local libraries are safe havens in the winter, and we tend to visit various Giggle & Wiggle and Storytime sessions. The quality of those sessions has been pretty variable lately, though.

The Arboretum is good too – even in the wet. We usually take our wellies and a kite, and use the playground, too. The cafe provides good refuge from the wet at the end of play.

The zoo can be fun in the wet, too, because it’s quiet and good for very little ones, and there’s enough covered spots to have a picnic.

Costco and IKEA are also good excursions during the week (although obviously hell on earth on weekends).

Swimming is good fun in the wet weather, too – if you’re going to get wet anyway, you might as well get into it!

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