If you've ever felt a squelch in the ball pit, this story's for you...

We just knew it, those places are evil… A popular indoor play centre has had an outbreak of norovirus caused by one child’s slippery-dip, um, incident.

My two boys think this is the greatest story I have ever had to cover. When I told them their eyes lit up. It’s about poo – and probably a lot of it. Just the mention of the word had them in hysterics. Laughter till they cried.

Don’t be put off – there’s something in it for you too. (Unfortunately.)

Let me set the scene. It was a birthday party at a play centre. Imagine this: the sugar-buzzed toddlers howling for their mothers, the over-tired preschoolers spinning from excitement and hyper stimulation; the slides, the climbing frames, the grotty balls, the bored parents.

Pre-kids, you swear you will never take your child there. You grimace at the idea of them. One year in and you find yourself on a first name basis with the staff, and you hear yourself telling people that the coffee “really isn’t that bad”. But have you ever really wondered how bad they can be?

Makes you think twice about ever letting your kid on a slide again, right?

The venue was Chipmunks Playland and Cafe in Tawa, New Zealand. It was August last year, and there were ten birthday parties simultaneously taking place. Makes your head spin, doesn’t it? But, sadly, one party guest wasn't too well, and after a “faecal incident” on a slide these parties turned into every parent’s nightmare.

From this one ‘code brown’ over 70 people fell seriously sick with norovirus. The victims - mainly children - rapidly came down with the virus suffering nausea, vomiting, diarrhoea, stomach cramps, headache and fever.

Parents took to Facebook to slam the centre. "Not impressed - our entire children's party was taken out by this bug," one wrote. To the play centre’s credit, they quickly shut down the premises for two days. But the damage had been done - norovirus strikes rapidly and is highly contagious.

A report into the incident from Wellington Public Health Medical Registrar Andrea McDonald and Medical Officer of Health Annette Nesdale noted the playground had limited ventilation, there was no warning about bringing in sick kids and that there was no policy on vomiting or diarrhoea incidents. However, it did note that after the outbreak the facility was clean. The centre was commended for updating the public on the outbreak on their website and on their Facebook page.


It’s a concern for parents - play centres are difficult to avoid and on rainy days or for winter birthday’s can be a godsend. But you trust your child’s health won’t be compromised. Who hasn’t watched in horror as your one-year old mouthed a plastic ball and wondered just what germs might be festering upon its shiny surface? But, let’s face it, kids will be kids and we can’t protect them in a sterilised, hand-sanitised bubble forever.

I find it hard to forget one rainy winter’s day on a holiday in Dublin taking my kids to a soft play area to escape the bitter cold. I was seated in a ‘ball pit’ happily playing with my then eight-month-old when a small Irish girl turned to me with wide eyes and said, “oh no.” A trickle past my toes confirmed my worst fears.

There were no parents or carers around to help the girl and in a vast sea of coloured balls the ‘substance’ was soon absorbed. I informed the front desk as we fled... but to this day I am still unsure what the squelching was. Did they clean it up? Possibly. Did they express concern? Not a shred.

Luckily most play centres in Australia have a high level of cleanliness they must adhere to.

The play centre franchise involved in the norovirus outbreak told Fairfax Media that they have made changes across their 16 playgrounds in New Zealand, 12 in Australia and nine in Indonesia since the incident. These changes included "installing signs to warn parents against bringing in sick children, verbal and visual screening of potential customers, reviewing clean-up protocols, and having sanitiser units in all playgrounds.”

That seems to get to the bottom of it.

Do you have any play centre horror stories?