Monday, 3 March 2014

Lots of play, not much to pay

During my nearly four years of having under 5s, I’ve experienced a fair few indoor play areas. Some you’d expect to be good – for example, the ones that you have to pay to visit, in play cafés and so on. But just occasionally you come across a wee indoor play area that’s fantastic – and free (or accessible for the price of a coffee). And that’s a nice feeling. There are such areas at the National Museum (the Imagine Room), Craigmillar Library (where there’s a ball pit, a “mirror tent” and other wee toys such as trolleys, not to mention all the nearby books), Potter Around (a ceramics café in Burntisland, Fife), and North Edinburgh Arts Centre, where my two recently spent a very happy couple of hours (and, consequently, so did I).

I have heard reports of others (in cafés mostly) from friends – that the Edinburgh Cheesecake Company and Lucy’s Café, both in Corstorphine, and Leo’s Beanery on Howe Street have great play areas, for example. However, when you can count on one hand the really great indoor play areas you know personally that are free (or nearly free), it makes you wonder what makes a good one and why they’re like hens’ teeth.

So, for the purposes of this study, this is what we found at North Edinburgh Arts Centre:

- Two tables and four chairs (chunky ones that didn’t tip over)
- Paper (blank) and pens (that worked)
- Dressing-up box
- Books for a range of ages. I had to promise my daughter that we would return and read the Sleeping Beauty book next time
- Baby toys – not just one. Three is a good number. North Edinburgh Arts Centre has a couple of wire/bead ones, a xylophone and a cuddly something-or-other
- A nice big box of chunky Lego/Duplo (to empty and then fill up again for babies of a certain age)
- A wee indoor slide
- A blackboard and chalk
- Proximity to a café – I could drink a coffee right next to the play area
- Enough room to walk around without bumping into other children
- Wipeable surfaces (my son’s going through a “turn the beaker upside down when mum’s not looking” stage
- Comfy sofa – for breastfeeding, cuddling, putting on a snowsuit, reading a book.

To this list, North Edinburgh Arts Centre is about to add “a nice view” as it’s re-doing its garden, for which great things are planned including an outdoor play area (roll on the summer). I should add that all of its toys were lovely and clean.

With the exception of the nice view, the space and perhaps the blackboard, sofa and slide, most of the items on this list aren’t all that hard to sort out, particularly if you have or know children who have outgrown toys, books and dressing-up outfits. Yet too often you hear about a café with a play area, journey there filled with hope and find a grubby toy kitchen with no utensils, one chair, a sad-looking doll, one toy for a baby, a wee car and two books – all of which will probably keep your children happy for around seven minutes.

I hear that some Edinburgh restaurants are giving out tablets to occupy little ones during mealtimes, which seems amazing, but I can’t help feeling that these venues could get a nice variety of second hand toys for the sort of money you might spend on a tablet. You could produce a really good play area (or toy box, if you haven’t the room) for children to enjoy with just a bit of thought, a small outlay and some regular low-grade maintenance (cleaning, mending, replacement of batteries when needed).

And then? Then families will rush back (because they’ve promised their delighted children they will, as much as anything), and recommend you to their friends. Which, with cafés at least, seems to be a wise investment – a coffee might be what they order to begin with, but coffee can lead to cake, then to a sandwich and maybe some snacks for the kids. And, in the end, everyone leaves happy, which is definitely how we all felt when we finally trundled out of the door of North Edinburgh Arts Centre a couple of weeks ago. 

Until next time, happy playing!


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