The 10 Best Ball Pits
10. Right Track Toys Tent
9. eWonderWorld Twist Play Generation II
8. Bestway Helicopter Up In & Over
7. Kiddey 6-sided
6. Utex Pop-Up
5. My Bouncer A700
4. Kiddey Playhouse Tent For Boys
3. EocuSun Pop-Up Polka Dot
2. EocuSun Playhouse
1. My Bouncer Little Castle
Into The Pit
Childhood has certain iconic environments and experiences that span generations, creating a link between parents, children, and eventually grandchildren if the icons are strong enough to last. The long process by which one learns to ride a bicycle immediately comes to mind as a rite of passage that most of us remember fondly. As technological advancements continue, future generations are liable to recall their first smart phones the way some of us remember our first video game systems, or, in generations older still, our first meaningful piece of sporting equipment.
One place that holds a powerful mystery to it, that offers a few generations worth of memories and fun, is the ball pit. I remember seeing my first ball pit at a young age from a distance, and I watched as the kids in it writhed in delight among the colorful spheres. I was sure, beyond the shadow of a doubt, that there was water in the pit, so fluidly did the balls and the kids among them move.
When I finally set foot in a ball pit, I was amazed to discover that it was a dry environment, that the balls themselves, in all their hollow resplendence, provided just enough support to small bodies to make them seem buoyant. From that moment on, I was hooked.
While that discovery took place in a public arena, the ball pits on our list are decidedly meant for private use, occupied as they may become with your children and their friends (and, if they're big enough, probably with you and your spouse after a bottle or two of wine).
The design of any ball pit is perfectly simple. All you need is a pit with walls of a certain height that can contain the balls at a minimum depth, and then you fill that pit with said balls. The big calamity comes when it's time to put the pit away, and since it's not a great idea to dig a physical pit in your backyard and fill it with balls, the pits on our list set up and collapse by means of inflation or by a kind of collapsible spring-loaded hinge used in nylon clothes hampers. These are not only much cleaner than the mud pit in the back yard, they also don't run the risk of disturbing any ancient Indian burial grounds that might lurk beneath the grass.
How Does It Pack?
As we discussed above, the ability to break down a ball pit into something sized for storage is paramount. There will come times when your kids simply don't want to be in the ball pit, when you'll need the space in your play room, living room, or back yard for some other toys or activities. If the ball pit can't pack away neatly, it'll become an albatross, like a trampoline no one's jumped on in a decade rusting through the neglected seasons.
That fear shouldn't send you on a bee line toward the smallest pit on our list however. Most of these break down with a good bit of ease into smaller components. In fact, the size of the pit you choose should depend more on the age and size of your child than anything else, as well as, perhaps, the size of their friend pool.
If you've got very young children, they can get lost and even become afraid to enjoy some of the larger pits on our list. The sheer depth of the balls could become overwhelming. In case the pit isn't meant to be a surprise for the young one, however, it'd be worth asking if this would freak them out. If someone had asked me as a child how deep was too deep for a ball pit, I wouldn't have had an answer. To me, at that age, they couldn't get deep enough.
The reverse of this is most certainly true, that if you have slightly older or simply larger children, some of the smaller pits on our list wouldn't make the grade. There should be enough space in the pit for two to three kids to feel like they have some room to roam or explore, unless you're only interested in providing a small space to keep a single, small child safely occupied.
Some of the pits on our list have additional features like side doors to easily let kids in and out (these are also big helps when removing the balls into storage), basketball hoops to add an element of competition to the pit, and even detachable tunnels that lead into the pit from without.
The Soft Play Pioneer
The ball pit was born in the late 1970s, out of the mind of a man known as 'The Father of Soft Play,' a title that he earned by innovating play spaces designed for their combination of safety and the engagement of a child's imagination. This man, Eric McMillan, had become disgusted with the state of playground infrastructure throughout the US and Canada, and he sought to change it.
In one fascinating interview McMillan gave to People magazine back in 1979, he said that modern play spaces had become "architectural graveyards–grey asphalt slabs. They've been built by adults who've forgotten how to play."
That last bit is particularly poignant in today's playgrounds, in which a new generation of jaded adults has taken McMillan's notion of soft play and created, in this writer's opinion, a play space so safe that it deprives children of any physical sensation of their world. Ball pits, however, remain a safe, imaginative landscape where sensation and creativity can harmlessly collide.