There are hard lessons to be learned at the soft play zone

<span>Photograph: Chris Robbins/Alamy</span>
Photograph: Chris Robbins/Alamy

My son runs toward me, crying. He has fallen in the indoor adventure playground. The room is enormous – an aircraft hangar of soft surfaces, spongy balls, trampolines and slides. It would, you’d think, be a challenge to hurt yourself in this environment, but it’s a challenge my son has accepted. He is not alone. A steady torrent of children streams from the cushioned gate down the padded steps to run, bawling, into their parents’ arms. We lie to ourselves that this is a place of fun. It is not. It is a house of horrors, a speed-run through trauma that parents use to toughen their children up. The cruel trick of such places is that the price of their enjoyment is a secret lesson in suffering and resilience. A kiss on the elbow, or a brief hug, and they’re back in the game, sprinting off for another eight-minute chunk of activity until their next life-ending misfortune.

A kiss on the elbow, or a brief hug, and they’re back in the game

This juncture between heaven and hell is my son’s favourite place on earth, and the place he cries most often. He calls it the ‘champoline park’.

He often induces me to join him in the ball pits – several 3ft-deep trenches filled with fraying, spongy squares, in which you can lollop around and hurl padded blocks in all directions. I can hereby attest that we have an extremely good time. I bought, and wear, the special grippy socks distributed by the centre just so I can enjoy the ecstasy of tumbling play they offer. This is always short-lived. After three minutes – during which I throw head-sized cubes of soft material at his delighted face, with enough glee that I should probably examine the psychological roots of this behaviour – either he suffers some injury or, worse, I am forgotten entirely, and he races off with people his own height. Today that’s Ardal and Nora, his slightly older cousins, whose expert steps he follows across the floor, past the trampolines and into the massive, padded castle-slide in the far corner. Sadly, this is my cue to clamber out of the pit, which I do with the stateliness of a drugged hippo, leaving the play area to resume my solemn vigil by the railings to the side. I look enviously at those mums and dads still getting some use out of their special socks and, like everyone else, listen out for crying.

Nora is next. She’s hurt her foot and expresses more pain than I did that time my back hurt so much I thought I was having a cardiac arrest. After a 90-second pep talk, she takes off to rejoin the maelstrom. She is intercepted by my son. It’s his other elbow this time. I’m about to comfort him, but Nora takes over. With the zeal of a convert, she takes his hand and tells him not to worry. In teaching them to suffer, we have taught them to console. His tears vanish. Within seconds, they’re leading me back to the cubes and telling me to be careful. I’m fine, I say, I brought my special socks and everything.

Did Ye Hear Mammy Died? by Séamas O’Reilly is out now (Little, Brown, £16.99). Buy a copy from guardianbookshop at £14.78

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