If you’re not the parent of a child under 42” just skip this one. But if you are, I need a minute of your time to talk about the indoor soft-play areas at Chesterfield Town Center, Short Pump Town Center and Regency Square. These are the latest in indoor play, with giant objects the kids can crawl over, slide down and hurl themselves off of. The objects are made to look like giant soda bottles or ladybugs or frogs. At Short Pump there’s a little house they can crawl into and on top of and slide down. At Chesterfield, the theme is Richmond, and so there is the James River, a canoe, a raft, a bridge, and a giant tree they can crawl underneath through a clever hollow or they can climb up into the tree and slide down either side. The stuff is easily wiped down and soft to the touch. Ingenious.
What’s the downside?
There’s something about these play areas that turn the children of Richmond into frothing beasts and their parents into blind and deaf mutes.
It’s almost the exact opposite of the clingy, cloying atmosphere at the Thomas the Tank Engine tables at the Barnes & Noble stores. And when I say clingy and cloying, I am talking about the parents. With chairs usually arranged in circle around the table, the parents have no choice but to be on their best parenting behavior. It’s like they are putting on a little show for the benefit of the other parents:
“Connor, use your gentle hands…” to the kid who just bopped another one over the head with Percy.
“Annabelle, please use your indoor voice…” to the little girl screaming her head off.
“Lucy, I don’t think you are hearing Mommy’s words,” to the girl who has been told for 15 minutes it’s time to go.
“Good job sharing, buddy! High five!” to the kid who blankly hands over Skarloey after repeated begging from his father to share.
This scene is highly annoying but not really troublesome. It’s the Lord of the Flies world of the mall play areas that’s got me in a tizzy. By their nature, these places are too crowded. There are just too many kids jammed into them at any given time and you assume that risk once you step in and take your kids shoes off. Guilty.
Short Pump’s is the smallest and since it’s located in the Food Court it is always packed. And what’s worse is that many of the parents sit outside the play area at the tables just outside of it and try to make it look like they are paying attention to their kids. I’ve seen kids land face first, get up screaming and no one comes to check on them for whole minutes if it at all. In the Chesterfield play area this weekend, my almost-5-year-old daughter was being stalked by two little girls not much older. At one point, my daughter was climbing in the tree stump and one girl made an attempt at pushing her down until she saw me glaring at her and ran away. Then she and her toady began running full throttle around the play area (it distinctly says “No Running”) while a trail of cohorts followed suit. They circled easily seven or eight times at full speed, right past their mothers, who chat-chat-chatted merrily until the ringleader stubbed her toe and started to whine. “Did you bump your toesies?” her mother asked from across the way. “You shouldn’t run so much, you might bump somebody,” she said in her most blasé sing-songy, take-no-responsibility voice. Meanwhile, my little boy was being terrorized by brothers who wouldn’t let him climb into the tree to slide down.
It made me think of one of my favorite movies, A Christmas Story
, when Ralphie and his friends are accosted by Scut Farkus (“So help me God! Yellow eyes!”) and the narrator offers the truth about childhood: “In our world you were either a bully, a toady or one of the nameless rabble of victims.”
Now, my kids are neither saints nor shrinking violets but they were shocked — I mean literally jaws dropped, mouths agape, eyes widened — to have other kids yelling at them and pushing them around. And I continue to be shocked — heaven knows why after all this time — to see parents who have no clue how to control their children and thus simply have stopped trying.I’m headed with the family to Disney World, so check back next week and I’ll let you know if anyone harassed my kids in line for the Teacups.