The coolness of Dreamland just keeps on coming as me and my Pocket Rocket, who is four, discovered at the Octopus Garden today. People are calling this place a soft play, but there’s so much more to this indoor kids play area – which all made me think: Why don’t other kids play areas ever think of this?
‘Hello you guys, have you been to Octopus Garden before?!’ Vicky leans over the front desk to address the kids enthusiastically, while we all gawp up at the big octopus above. Immediately the kids are engaged and we all feel welcome. £3.50 later and you’re met with huge tree trunks with faces, a row of pastel-painted beach huts, wonderful wall art, everywhere, and smiling staff. Most are women in forties headscarves and turned up T-shirt sleeves, as is the Dreamland staff dresscode. A woman asks the kids if they want to be shown around and I say ‘Yes we do!’ loudly for everyone because the place has so many intriguing doorways and rooms and nooks and crannies and everything to fire up a child’s imaginative play.
We start with the circus tent where the woman encourages the kids to try some circus tricks. The kids are four so they’re willing but it’s not a quick fix and we’re all excited to take everything else in. Neave bounds into the dressing-up room of every child’s dreams and another member of staff helps her to find an outfit while the rest of us explore Mini Margate, a mock up of a shopping street.
‘And this is where you can fix things!’ the nice woman says and I say, ‘Wow, power tools!’ as my son and his friend grab plastic drills and plonk themselves on vehicles. Opposite is a grocery store and the boys embrace the role play with gusto, while the nice woman joins in and asks to buy a can of tuna. There’s a mini gallery with chalkboards and chalk to create your own work of art, a deep-sea themed baby soft play area, and two fantastic sand pits complete with giant sandcastle doorways to make house or hide in. The magically lit beach huts draw you in, offering booths to eat in, colour in or chill in the mini library.
‘Come and do a puppet show for Mummy Rachel and Mummy Natalie!’ I say and sit down on the row of ornate wrought-iron benches. Seating is plenty here. The kids give it 100% with the hand-puppets inside the recreation of a Punch & Judy box – there are chests full of goodies all around it seems – but someone spies the tube slide and they charge off to climb inside the main soft play. Meanwhile I find a nice member of staff playing ball with Neave, who is standing atop a Tellytubbie hill with meadows painted behind, wearing a clown ensemble. Neave boots the ball through a pop-up tunnel and the woman throws it back.
‘It’s so nice that there are so many staff around and you actually play with the kids,’ I say. She woman tells me how great it is to get paid to play with kids and it does feel genuine because the kids are so very eager and alive with excitement. I mention how brilliant it is that Dreamland has created so many jobs for local people and the woman says what I feel is on everyone’s mind when they come to Dreamland, Margate. ‘There’s this feeling of hope’.
The staff aren’t there to look after the kids but when you have a babe in arms who needs a feed or nappy change and a toddler who runs, this sort of friendly help is like gold dust. Another employee is planting pretend plants in the allotment area. She tells me that the large empty ‘greenhouse’ will soon be used to show kids how to pot real plants to adorn the gardens and beds in Dreamland. Did I mention the cakes? They looked so good I took a photo. This is newsworthy because aside from the Cup Cake café and Turner Contemporary, good homemade cake is pretty hard to pin down in this town. I mean, they have orange and polenta. The sandwiches look like the sort you can buy in the V&A café, they sell yoyo’s and fresh fruit pots and there are no fizzy drinks. This is a Mumsnet kinda place. This is the kind of thing DFLs with babies like me miss in Thanet. Helter Skelter soft play in Broadstairs had been saving us all with its sideline of baby sensory and musical toddler classes, it’s focus on mums by offering decent food and a first name terms friendly environment. Now the Octopus Garden gives us another exciting option, and another haven through the long seaside winters.
Of course, Margate, becoming known as Shoreditch-on-Sea, is on its course into London level café culture. Dreamland will speed up the development that the Turner and the creative community have begun. I yak away to the woman at the till about how it’s clear a lot of thought has gone into the Octopus Garden so that parents get something out of it too. The childminder I’m with has one gripe though. ‘It’s wonderful but the one thing I’ll say is that you can’t see kids. There are so many places they could be.’
True, we parents like to use indoor play areas as an opportunity to sit and have a chat as these opportunities are rare, but there’s a joy about watching your kids let themselves go in this place that you wouldn’t want to miss.