The Various Costs of Toddler Entertainment

Photo credit: Martin Cooper, CC BY 2.0.

At the moment, my son Sid is at that transitional stage between being a baby and becoming a fully-fledged toddler— which is brilliant. He’s full of beans and has become a comedy genius without even knowing it.

I really enjoy getting the playdough out (when he doesn’t try to eat it) and making shapes with him, scribbling with crayons, building blocks, bashing on drums or having storytime. But sometimes, when leaving the house in pursuit of external entertainment, it can be a little hit and miss.

Of course, everyone is different, and no two children are the same, but—based on my experiences—here is what Sid and I think of the toddler entertainment options available to us:

Soft play

Cost: £3.50 ($4.60) each time
Value for money: 3/5
Sticking power: 4/5

Soft play centers might sound unfamiliar to U.S. readers. Imagine an indoor playground where everything is padded and ready to handle hours of toddler interaction.

The first thing to understand about soft play is, if you’re feeling a bit delicate of stomach, don’t go there. Recently, I found a portion of stale fries in the ball pit, along with another kind of ablution that I won’t mention. Having said that, that’s the only time I’ve ever found anything that sinister in the realms of a soft play pit.

Anyhow, despite the odd stomach churning gross out, I’ve found our local soft play to be great for a rainy day: the apparatus is far more exciting than the makeshift obstacle course I make from cushions and blankets at home and at times, I enjoy myself even more than Sid. I think soft play is excellent for physical development, also, sometimes they play The Beatles on the PA—oh, and the cost of a decent tea or coffee is reasonable. Sid has an epic time almost every time he goes, and because of the range of swings, slides, climbing routes and padded drop zones, no two visits are ever the same—just watch out for the snot.


Cost: £5 ($6.60) each time
Value for money: 4/5
Sticking power: 5/5

Sid loves to splash around in the pool, and so do I. When it comes to burning maximum energy, building water confidence and learning new skills, swimming is a solid option. I take Sid swimming around once a week, and he seems to engage with it more with on every visit—and at £5 ($6.60) a session, it’s money well spent. Sid gets a great deal of joy from ducking and diving under the water and interacting with the other toddlers, and I reckon he loves swimming almost as much as the baby from the Nevermind album cover.

I suppose the only bad thing about swimming is the fact that getting changed and unchanged with an 18-month-old can prove technical. Once I turned my back for a few seconds, and Sid ended up escaping from the changing cubicle, running down the length of the locker room, swim shorts in hand and shouting shouting “go go go” at the OAP swim group that was about to start their aqua aerobics class.

Toddler Sensory

Cost: £7 ($9.20) per session
Value for money: 2/5
Sticking power: 1/5

For those of you who don’t know what toddler sensory is, I’ll tell you. Essentially, it’s an organized hour during which parents spend 30 minutes running around after their child trying to make sure they don’t bash into other kids and the second half embarking on a psychedelic adventure that includes singing, dancing, crying, bubble machines and flashing lights.

At £7 ($9.20) a session your child gets to play on some fairly decent apparatus (although it’s nothing you can’t get in soft play), the class is led by two trained sensory staff and the bubble machine is cool – so in that sense, it offers good value for money.

But for Sidney, it wasn’t wholly worth it. Every time I took him, he got upset, ignored most of the activities and once he did a dirty protest before trying to escape. There were fleeting moments of enjoyment and one week the theme was extra terrestrial which was quite brilliant, but really, apart from the bubble machine, Sid got little from toddler sensory. I commend the staff, and I’m sure other kids get a lot from it, but in Sid’s case, it was a bit of a dud activity if I’m honest.

The Park

Cost: Free (the occasional juice or smoothie)
Value for money: 5/5
Sticking power: 5/5

If you’re stuck for ideas, go to the park.

It may seem like the easy way out, but in all honesty, a good park has everything your child needs to have a memorable time. Plus, if you’re a parent, taking your kid to the park is a rite of passage.

There’s scenery, fresh air, space to run, places to roam, other children to play with—and there are swings, slides and seesaws. I mean, what more could you want? There are several parks near to us, so I take Sid to three on a rotational basis, and he always has the time of his life, running around, whizzing down the slide like a smiley watermelon and bouncing around on the seesaw. When it comes to value for money the park can’t be beaten; it’s free, and, due to the multitude of choice, the possibilities are endless.

Overall, for Sidney and I, toddler sensory is the least satisfactory form of toddler entertainment. The park, closely followed by swimming is the best, with soft play a great spot for a rainy day, which to be fair, is 50 percent of the time in the U.K.

Every child is different, and each activity has its own merits, but the best advice I could give is to get out there and try it all. Enjoy exploring all the options with your child, have fun and soak up every single moment—it all goes so fast.

Dan Hughes is a writer with a penchant for oddball fiction, the bass guitar, beer, Bukowski and traveling to strange places. You can find out more about him by getting lost in his Catchy Space.

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