When ball pools are just too much to bear, Molly Whitehead-Jones finds saner alternatives

Before you become a parent, you can’t believe that soft play centres are really as bad as all your child-bearing friends tell you. And then you have your own little one and you realise that your best mate was actually underplaying it when she described this vividly sweaty, brightly-hued pit that’s overflowing with lost socks and broken parents as “horrific”.

The fraying equipment, the questionable smells, the constant, echoing scream and shrieks... And the mere glimpse of a decked-out play frame seems to send kids into next-level feral, turning your normally obedient cherub into a Pom Bear-demanding banshee.

Granted, some are much better than others (take a bow, Head Over Heels, for making the soft play experience a good deal more pleasant). But surely there are better ways to spend your family time than skulking in the corner of a poorly-ventilated industrial unit sipping a watery cappuccino while your children repeatedly face-plant onto a series of sticky foam objects? 

For those times when the thought of what’s festering at the bottom of that ball pool is just too much to bear, here are a few other options worth exploring...

Rocket & Orange

Open: 9am-5pm, Monday to Saturday; 10am-4pm, Sunday

Age range: Unlimited, but probably best suited to those under six.

Admission: Free (although you’ll have to buy something, obvs)

Rocket & Orange offers up a winning formula: Load in Northern Quarter-style furniture and fittings that are stylish and practical rather than purely functional; dot around some tasteful, well-chosen toys and activities for the kids; and top it off with a tempting menu that changes seasonally (and proper coffee). This place was clearly designed to accommodate the wants of both parents and their offspring equally. It feels clean and spacious, and, though it can get loud at busy times, you can seek solace in the out-of-this-world chocolate cake.  

51-53 Borough Road, Altrincham WA15 9RA


18 02 21 Rocket Orange Soft Play Manchester
Rocket Orange Manchester Mums

Inflata Nation (toddler sessions)

Open 12-9pm Monday to Friday; 9am to 9pm, Saturday and Sunday

Age range: Under 4’s

Admission: From £5.95 for ‘Inflata Tots’ sessions (post-bouncing biscuit and cordial included)

Did you know that the UK’s first indoor inflatable theme park – a huge expanse of pillowy, hazard-free jumping space – is squirrelled away just round the corner from the Trafford Centre? They’re certainly better bouncing off the walls here than at home… To make sure they can really let loose – and you don’t have to worry about your pride and joy being crushed by an errant, overexcited teenager – you’re best sticking with the dedicated ‘Inflata Tots’ sessions, which take place Mondays from 1pm - 2pm, and Wednesdays & Fridays from 12 noon - 1pm (times may vary during school holidays).

Trafford Park, Textilose Road, Manchester M17 1WA


18 02 21 Inflatanation
Inflatanation Families Online

Bean & Brush Café

Open 8.30am-7pm, Monday to Saturday; 9am-6pm, Sunday, 

Age range: kids aged 4 and up will probably get the most out of it

Admission: Free; prices for pottery vary

Thoughtfully painting a pot alongside your child sounds a lot more appealing than careening down a 20ft slide together, right? Here at Bean & Brush Café, your little one can choose what artistic project they fancy having a go at and then get busy with the brushstrokes (the level of concentration required could well buy you a couple of minutes’ peace – score). Their creations can then be fired in the on-site kiln before being glazed. And, thanks to the varied menu here, neither of you will mind hanging round for lunch either.

The Old Sorting Office, 12 Hayfield St, Sale M33 7XW


18 02 21 Bean And Brush
Bean and Brush

Parent & Toddler Sessions at The City of Manchester Institute of Gymnastics

Classes at 9.30, 10.15 and 11am, Monday to Friday 

Age range: Under 5’s; Admission: £5 per session (post-session squash and biscuits after class)

Take your pick from either a ‘Toddler Gym’ or ‘Gym Tots’ session (the latter’s a more structured class led by an instructor; the former more free-play based) and discover if you’ve got a budding gymnast on your hands. Unlike at soft play, parent participation is required throughout, but you won’t mind giving up your chance for a quick sit down because seeing them learn and properly stretch themselves on proper equipment is so awesome. And with three successive classes running each day there’s less time pressure to get out the door in a hurry – always a plus.

Garratt Way, Gorton M18 8HE


18 02 21 Toddler Gymnastics
Toddler gymnastics

Mini Moose Land at Chill Factore

9.30am-6.30pm every day

Age range: 0-3

Admission: £7 per child, £7 per adult

Since we’ve not managed any more than a sprinkling of snow here in Manchester this winter, those in search of some icy entertainment might want to head to Mini Moose Land. With a mini sledging ramp, a soft play Igloo and the chance to strap on their own ‘Tiddly Skis’, there’s plenty to explore. It’s a bit pricey, but head there on a Friday morning and you can stay as long as you want and get a post-play snack thrown in for free as part of the ‘Play ‘n’ Cake’ session. And be sure to wrap them up warm – frostbite’s not fun.

Trafford Quays Leisure Village, Trafford Way, Stretford, Manchester M41 7JA


18 02 21 Chill Factore
Chill Factore