If your family lives in Canada like mine, you know how it can get in the winter time: you feel cooped up inside, and if you do go out, your eyelashes start to freeze. Plus there is only so much energy your toddler can get out in his puffy snowsuit... You start to miss those days at the park when the kids would just run and climb for hours.
Like the playground, indoor play places have lots of benefits for a child's development: gross motor of course, but self-confidence, autonomy, social and cognitive skills as well. As an early childhood educator, and in the past a family activities animator at a resort, play places have always been one of my favorite field trips for my groups.
But... these places come with concern for some parents, which is why I wanted to share some pros and cons I've collected from experience and word of mouth, so that you can decide for yourself if going to one is right for your family.
The number one subject that comes up when I speak to other parents about play places is cleanliness. If I had a nickel for the number of times that a parents has said that they wouldn't take their kids to a play place because they are worried about germs and cleanliness... I have to admit, this isn't an unfounded concern. Since I work in an early childhood center, with my kids attending since they were a year old, and I figured they are going to get cold and flu germs at any public venue - especially the airborne ones. Before eating or drinking anything while at an indoor play place, it's hand washing time right away for us.
Most indoor play place companies have a regular scheduled day where they are closed to clean the facilities completely, including ball pits and tunnels. You can find this schedule on the company's website, but if not, don't be afraid to inquire via phone or email. If you really are worried about this, plan to go right after a cleaning day.
Are you a parent of a little toddler just starting to move around more? Some play places have a smaller zone sectioned off with smaller equipment meant for their youngest clients, so you don't have to worry about older kids running around and rough housing.
Once, while we were on a little road trip, we stopped at a play place to blow off some steam. We happened to just swing by so I had not done my usual research of reading reviews or looking at pictures online. As I was going through one of the tunnels with my daughter, I noticed a screw pointing out of a piece of plastic of the tunnel. I notified the person working behind the counter, and then we high tailed it out of there. The point of my story is to do your research of where you visit like I should have: in addition to making sure there is a cleaning schedule (see above), inquire how often the equipment is inspected. If you walk in, and the equipment or facilities aren't up to your standards, ask to speak to a manager and tell them what you think needs work, ask for your money back and leave.
Tip: Indoor climbing play places do not allow shoes inside, and socks are mandatory. I always pick out a pair for my kids that have the little rubber treads on the sole so they don't slip on the hard surfaces of the tunnels, mats and flooring.
I'm sure I am not the only parent that gets overwhelmed with the size of the play place and where you're kids happen to be. We only frequent locations that have a scanning system. Our favorite has bracelets with bar codes for each family member. To leave the premises, the children bracelets have to match those of the adult. Once scanned, they will buzz you through the gate.
Tip: These locations can be huge. As my kids got a bit older and were able to go off and play on their own, I usually spend my time walking around structures and observing my children - remembering what color shirt they were wearing so I can spot them faster as they move at the speed of light through the tunnels and slides.
We have been to many of birthday parties at indoor play places (see below for more about that), so we know just how crowded these places can get on the weekend!
When we had year admission passes at our local place, I always planned to arrive when it opened, what ever day of the week it was. Often we had the place to ourselves for a good hour or so. If it started to become to overwhelming, we would leave.
Tip: If you are planning on going on a week day, call the location ahead of time and inquire if there are any schools or daycares attending that day, and plan accordingly.
Most locations (especially here in the Montreal area) charge for parents as well as children, but usually at a smaller price. This may seem unfair to some who plan to watch their children from the sidelines as they play, and the more parent supervision, the less need there is for them to pay employees to do it. However, I've witnessed lots of families using the games with their children, and even climbing on the structures.
There are ways to save depending on the company. Look for deals on their websites as some have special days where parents or grandparents have free admission, or cheaper admissions for all on ped days and holidays. I have also seen some great prices on yearly passes, that work out to paying off after your third visit; which means you attend for free the rest of the year
When you end up paying for the entire family, I recommend making it a day trip. Which brings me to my next point...
All play places are different in the food area. A lot have restaurants and do not allow food brought in, while we have been to a couple that have a peanut free picnic zone.
A lot of the restaurants can be focused on kid friendly junk food, so it's not the healthiest option. But if you consider the amount of exercise your family is getting, you might not mind it as a treat.
I always preferred the ones that have a picnic area - I'd pack mostly healthy food, and then buy a big bag of chips from the counter to go with our sandwiches for a treat that was more cost effective.
A glance at an indoor play place price list for parties can come at a shock for some, especially for those with their first born, just starting to plan those "friends" parties as children get older. It'll all come down to personal preference on the amount of money, time and effort you want to put towards a birthday party. There are options that include everything from meals, snacks, the cake, a private room... even favors or loot bags! If you want all of that taken care of for you, it may be worth it to you to pay that little bit extra.
Out of the 10 kids birthday parties I have thrown, my favorite by far was the one I threw at our favorite play place for my daughter when she was three. It was easy to plan and came out to just about the same price compared to if I had planned entertainment and decorations at home. The best part was that the kids were entertained the entire time; and I didn't have to worry about my own house (and anxiety level) as they ran around and screamed and climbed. Since we just showed up, set up a treat table, and then left, we came home to a clean house, and had time for a nice long nap!
Did I leave anything out? Do you have some advice or experience to share about frequenting play places? Let me know in the comments below!
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Melissa is a mom, wife, and early childhood educator who blogs about her journey looking for new experiences for family time.