Chlidren's activity centres should be places filled with laughter, fun, play, climbing and exploration. Colourful oases where kids can run free and interact with other children, places where their imaginations run riot and their energy gets fully spent.
For the owners of these centres and providers of those precious experiences they are fast becoming places filled with stress, worry and incredulity as everything they worked so hard to create looks to be torn down because of the claims culture and corporate handwringing that has run as wild as the kids they welcome.
Many have become financial prisons, once exuberant entrepreneurs now crippled by insurance premiums they can no longer afford and no choice but to pay because of the greed of litigious parents chasing a quick payday after 'Little Johnny' or 'Little Mary' sprained an ankle on a soft toy, or shipped an accidental black eye in the ball pit.
The demise of LoLo Town back in February was as a direct result of insurance premiums rocketing, in some cases, where no claims had even been made. Annual premiums now lie close to €16,000 and rising, a staggering figure for businesses that try to keep their admission prices at a minimum for hard-pressed parents, and bend over backwards to create a warm, welcoming and safe atmosphere for their young guests and families.
LoLo Town was a hugely popular activity and educational centre for small kiddies and received over 700 hundred messages of support on its facebook page when it announced it was closing down.
No amount of goodwill could save the Beechmount Park outlet in Navan. It follows the same story as Jesters play centre in Navan Town centre, which ceased operating in 2015.
Huckleberry's Den in Mullaghboy Industrial Estate and owned by Linda Murray could be next given their horrendous premium costs. Speaking today to an Oireachtas Finance Ctte, Linda said she has just 25 days to find coverage. In her role as head of the Play Activity and Leisure Ireland (PALI) which is a national lobby group calling for changes in insurance for all small businesses she said the situation was at crisis point.
Linda made an impassioned plea to the Committee to fast-track solutions to the insurance crisis, including a new investigative forum, before its too late for the leisure industry here. There are many, including the owners of Kells-based Best O'Matz play centre who think it may already be too late.
The suggestion that the Government will force insurers and the legal profession to change their ways and lower their sights on children's activities seem fanciful. But where is the personal responsibility? What parent targets a play centre for cash even if any and all medical bills are paid in the event of an accidental injury to a child? Who thinks of pushing a claim against a small business already on the tightest margin because ‘Little Tim’ lost a tooth running into another child. These things happen, it's part of childhood. There doesn’t always have to be 'someone to blame'.
We are in worrying territory here. The people who run Ireland's play centres, activities for young people and sporting events are going to become increasingly vulnerable to the claims culture that is killing our kids' playtime.
The business of providing fun for our children has become increasingly perilous. It's sad to think that greed and fraud will result in fewer and fewer places we can visit to nurture the laughter, fun and games all our children need to experience.
That the LAST children's play centre in Navan - one of Ireland's biggest towns with a population touching 40,000 - could be on the verge of closure from the gouging of insurance companies and a twisted compo culture is nothing short of scandalous.
*This article has been updated from a Leader piece that appeared in the Meath Chronicle on 9th February 2019.