Creating a safe play space at home for your growing baby or toddler to play independently, is essential for both of you. It helps with their development, and it will give you the time you need for self-care.
The social media pressure to fill their days with well-researched STEM activities for every waking second is mounting, and yet research shows us how important it is for little ones to explore the world in their own time and create their own baby-led activities. Research also tells us that primary caregivers, whether it be mum, dad, grandma or other, are human beings…..it may come as a surprise to some, but you do actually need to eat, have a shower, sit down and breathe in a 24 hour period. You also need to cook, fold laundry and tidy up the last fabulous activity you did.
Babies and toddlers need constant supervision. Absolutely agree. Except that doesn’t mean you have to entertain them and or stare at them without blinking for 24 hours a day. Its all about safe places and independent play.
Babies can be put down in cots, fastened into bouncers, or placed on play gym floors for a few minutes whilst you have a much-needed shower. Toddlers can play in safe playpens in the living room or in their safe bedrooms for a few minutes whilst you warm a bowl of soup.
And it is good for them.
It’s hard being the primary caregiver and no one can really comprehend the relentlessness of a day at home with the under 3’s. It can certainly feel like you are needed 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, every minute, every second, or they could hurt themselves or upend your house. And the guilt is enormous if you compare your ‘boring’ day to the Instagram mummies, with their sensory home-baked play dough tray with hidden dinosaurs and their gallery-worthy autumnal leaf pictures from their “spur of the moment walk in the woods this morning #making memories”.
But try to remember, between those #makingmemories pictures, is a lot of unphotographed time at home. You can bet your bottom dollar, even the most mumsy of mummies, let’s their little ones play independently for a few minutes.
So how? How can you create safe play spaces to give your child the opportunity to play independently?
Create a Safe Age-Appropriate Play Area
In the early days, you can pop your baby in their cot quite safely with a few soft toys or the mobile playing a tune and go for a shower in the next room. Not only will you feel better, but your baby will get the chance to be alone for a while in the very place you hope they will fall asleep alone in one day. They may fuss a bit the first few times you do this, or even cry out loud, but keep talking to them so they can hear you and go back to them after a few minutes and they will soon learn that they are safe.
Once they can stand, the cot would not be considered a safe place to play.
Once they are beyond the lying or sitting still period, you could consider using a self-contained, stationary activity centre or swing, where they can bounce or sit in a swing and still have access to some handy toys.
Personal favourites of mine were the Fisher Price Roaring Jungle and the Baby Einstein Jumper but there are many good versions out there. You may prefer a less primary coloured version such as the Little Hoppa.
You may also consider a cruiser which the baby can push around with their feet. Just ensure they can only cruise in safe spaces and cannot reach out for unsafe items. A cruiser allows your baby to practise those first stepping movements safely. There are many good examples available. Two important features to consider are the wheel width compared to your internal doorway widths, and the foldaway functionality as seen on the Red Kite version.
It’s worth having a look at your local NCT Nearly New sales for these items as they can be quite pricey and you only use them for 6 months or so.
Once they can crawl and cruise the furniture, most will resist being confined in a stationary bouncer or even a cruiser. At this point you could consider a playpen. These range in size and allow you to create a safe place with their favourite toys and interesting items.
The trick to keeping these interesting is to swap the toys regularly.
As they get a bit older they may also like to put a soft pillow and a few books in there or even invest in a canopy tent to make it into a den for them. I used a blackout bed canopy and hung it in our living room - Bed Canopy
It can also double up as a good spot to put toys at the end of the day to keep your living room tidy.
Play Room or Zone
Once they are beyond the playpen days, it can get trickier to create safe spaces. Playpen bars are too tempting to climb and actually create a risk in themselves.
At this stage you may need to create a safe room or larger play zone for them to play in. Their bedroom or a playroom, if you have the space at home, is a perfect place to create a fully safety proofed room. It’s worth investing in an extra tall Door Gate or fold out Room Divider .
Use a baby monitor so you can watch them remotely, and ensure that you have safety proofed the whole space: -
- Wardrobes or cupboards and tall furniture should be fastened to the walls
- Toys should be age appropriate and checked for small removable parts or loose battery covers
- Sharp edges should be covered up
- Plug sockets should be covered up
- There should not be any wires in reaching distance
- There should be no blind or curtain cords in reach
- If necessary, windows should be closed and locked
Never leave them for too long or go too far.
Are they ever really safe without me?
Ideally, you’d always have them in eyeline, but sometimes that just isn’t possible. You can’t move the entire playpen from the kitchen to the shower and down to the laundry room every day.
Technology is our friend here – monitors. Do set up a camera for their play space and take the monitor with you.
You’ll feel reassured as you watch them bounce or play happily and if something happens you can react quickly. Its amazing how they will suddenly learn to roll or stand when they couldn’t do it just yesterday.
Are they ever 100% safe? No. But then they’re not when you are there either.
Accidents do happen. They will bump a knee or knock over a seemingly indestructible toy at some point and graze themselves. Even when you’re two inches away they can spill their juice or knock over the paint pot. They can knock themselves on your collarbone and cry or catch their soft skin on your engagement ring. Accidents do happen. You can only do your best.
Creating safe spaces and allowing your child to play independently will benefit their development and allow you the time to care for yourself.