Soft play, silence, school, fight club

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As we head into the winter, it is time to familiarise ourselves once more with soft play areas.  These pits of despair, if you are fortunate enough to not be familiar with them, are part building site (scaffoldings, netting, long tubes for waste/sliding) and a Victorian asylum (tattered padding, filthy conditions, shrieking). Back in my day the closest we got to these places was running along church pews before Mass, or possibly skipping around the nearest slurry pit. But soft play areas are different – augmentin-addled kids today don’t have sturdy immune systems like we did, and there is a dread knowing in my heart that when humanity is wiped from this earth by a super plague, it will originate in the sticky recesses of a soft play area.

But you turn a blind eye to the grot because at least they are out of the house and with other children, and this is why soft play zones are so bittersweet. Any time I bring my kids to one I end up sitting there like a budget Piaget, watching and analysing their play with others and trying to divine their future by how they react when some other kid pushes them out of the way on the slide. Except, of course, two of my sons are usually the ones doing the pushing, leading to the parents of the pushee looking around the seating area for the parents of the monstrous pusher. At this point I usually look around too, concerned at who might have brought these sociopathic children into such a fine establishment, even though most of the time the soft play zone operates as a Fisher Price fight club.

My middle son, however, isn’t like the other two. He is gentle and quiet, and when we go to play zones, he often goes off on his own and plays alone. At first we thought he was an extraordinarily good child, with each of us claiming that he got his sweet temperament from our side of the family. But as he grew it became clear that his shyness and silence wasn’t just about his sweet nature, but about language development. His preschool pointed out that his inability to communicate with his peers meant he often played on his own. We couldn’t really pretend anymore that he was just a little behind – he was struggling to be understood, and it was isolating him from his friends. He was referred to a multidisciplinary team comprised of speech therapists and psychologists, and they diagnosed that he had a severe language disorder.

At this stage I started to worry that there was more to it than just language – that his kindness, his gentleness, his not-me-ness was a sign of something deeper. After a couple of months of speech and language sessions we had a meeting with the team and they ascertained that while his speech was going to need a lot of work, he was as bright as any other child. At this point I welled up and choked back a sob, which is really the last thing you want to do in a room full of psychologists; feeling their unblinking, inhumanly neutral faces on me, as they presumably scribbled ‘father unstable, possibly to blame for everything?’ in their notebooks.

But I had been so worried about him, and his future – what if he did have an intellectual disability, what would his life be like, who would care for him when we were gone? Even for a person with full health and faculties, life can be pretty hard from time to time. My other children have a different set of obstacles ahead of them – being like me – and all of their problems will be explained to them with a solemn reading of Philip Larkin’s This Be The Verse when they turn 21. For my middle child’s speech, there was no cause. It just manifested out of the blue, and as someone who works in communications, it felt so strange to have this little being that was so affectionate but who couldn’t tell you what he wanted for dinner.

He started in big school this week, having been fortunate enough to get into a facility that is tailored to his needs. I took the day off work, which was greeted with a quiet fury by my two older children. Why did I never take the day off when they started school? Why indeed. One reason is that the school is in the wealthy enclave of Glounthaune, and I wanted to see how many Range Rovers one could fit in a set-down zone. The other was just to be there for him, because I’ve grown accustomed to being his translator.

His first day went fine, as did his second, and across the weekend he was talking in his quirky Nadsat way about seeing his new friends again this week. After two years of worrying about him, it finally feels like he will be fine, and if anything, his ability to keep quiet once in a while may work in his favour, because the first rule of soft play fight club is that you don’t talk about soft play fight club.

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