For most parents, the mere thought of going to a soft play space – the deafening noise, the hunched expeditions to retrieve trapped toddlers – is enough to induce a twitchy terror. But you can at least go for the best version of the experience. From a boutique ball pit to a sprawling mini metropolis, these are the places to experience a better class of padded pandemonium.
London’s best soft play spaces
Be warned that recently launched Forest Hill stay-and-play ABC Studios is far from huge and it fills up quickly. It is worth a gamble, though, because as well as a main area groaning with toys, magnetic letters and dress-up masks, where drinks are ferried to grateful parents, it has a basement level entirely given over to an enormous, grin-widening ball pit. And don’t miss Smallprint Books: a terrific children’s bookshop that has opened up next door.
Got an ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’ approach to soft play? Croydon behemoth Kidspace is the one for you (if your eardrums can take it). Split into distinctively designed zones, it features enormous undulating slides, climbing walls, go-karts, mini golf, ball blasters, multi-sensory toddler areas, trippy UV-lit tunnels and much more. Billed as suitable for anyone under 13, it’s particularly good for older kids who like a challenge and grown-ups who’ve never seen a children’s tunnel slide they didn’t want to hurl themselves down.
There are newer museum play spaces in the capital (such as the impressive but pricy Postal Museum in Clerkenwell) but the Museum of London Docklands’s Mudlarks gallery still packs plenty into a small space. As well as dock-themed soft play – complete with a squidgy DLR carriage – there are giant building blocks, divers’ helmets, tiny cranes and a waterplay table you may well have to forcibly drag the kids away from. Best of all, although the 40-minute sessions are ticketed, they cost nothing.
© Museum of London
In truth, the indoor play area at socially conscious West Hampstead venue the Sheriff Centre (the usual jumble of ball pits, slides and netted walls, with separate sections for babies and under-11s) is hardly unique. However, while some soft plays offer parents little more than a few chairs and an erratic vending machine, this place is nestled in the striking, vaulted interior of St James Church. That means you can grab a coffee or some cake from the Sanctuary Café while your charges scramble over vinyl-covered foam.
Trampoline parks are springing up faster than you can say ‘Where’s the closest A&E?’ But this Stratford newcomer has the bonus of some smart soft play options. Housed in a former nightclub (and still packing an unusually vibey, dimly lit atmosphere), ZAPSpace boasts three storeys of boingy fun for over-fours. It’s especially worth visiting for Battle Beams – a ‘Gladiators’-style duel over orange and black foam cubes – and the café-adjacent room of squishy objects that’s perfect for little crawlers.
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