How to Set Up a Safe, Secure Space for Toddlers

Toddler inside a toy tunnel
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Your house is one huge discovery zone and your toddler is a natural explorer. There isn't anything you can do to change his nature at this point, and trying to explain that the kitchen cabinets are a no-go or disciplining him for knocking things over won't work because he doesn't have the cognitive skills to understand. Tell him, "No!" and he'll just do it again in ten minutes because he won't really be able to understand consequences or rules until he's three years old (and even then, it will take a lot of reminding).

There are a few things you can do, meanwhile, to keep your toddler safe and happy while you make him a snack or dash into the bathroom.

Create a Safe Play Area

No matter how large or small your home is, you can create a space that is safe for baby. You have a few options, depending on the age of your child.

Very young toddlers might still be able to use self-contained activity centers or exersaucers, where they can stand at a platform, swing around, or jump while playing with a host of toys.

When they tire of the activity center, you might use a portable play yard. Your child might resist being confined to such a small space now that he's able to walk and explore, but with the right playthings and entertainment, it's a good solution for a run to the laundry room or similar quick task.

For older toddlers, you may need to expand their play space. Items like the Playzone Play Center by Friendly Toys is a great option. Well worth the money, this is a high-quality play area where a toddler has room to walk around and, positioned away from items that could cause harm, it will allow you to have your child play independently for a longer period of time. You should remain within eyesight and check on your child regularly, but it still allows you to fold the laundry across the room without little hands throwing towels around.

You can allow your child more room to roam if you are able to block off danger zones such as stairs or the kitchen with baby gates. Giving your little one several feet to wander and explore various boxes and bins of toys while you stay nearby is an excellent way to build independence and satisfy that natural curiosity. Before you buy a gate, however, you want to be sure you consider the size of the space and whether a gate can be mounted safely.

Secure the Premises

So those are some tips, but the truth is, toddlers are better escape artists than Houdini. Just when you get used to the idea that your child is happily playing in the crib or running around the secured play area in the living room, you'll back away from the washing machine with a wet load and trip over him. Toddlers learn to scale the crib, unlock the safety gates better than mom and dad, and wiggle through the opening you accidentally left between the couch and the wall. For those reasons, try never to be out of eye or earshot for too long and keep some basic safety tips in mind:

  • Childproof everything. Windows, cabinets, cooking equipment, stairs, and hazardous materials -- they all need to be locked up or made inaccessible to small hands. Before your child is active, start baby proofing your home. You can also check online for local businesses that will come to your home and baby proof for you.
  • Keep a monitor nearby. If you can't see your toddler while you're doing your chores, put a video or audio baby monitor in the room with him, and keep the receiver with you at all times.
  • Be sure all toys are age-appropriate and safe. Sometimes, a toddler gets a hold of an item that isn't an actual toy and may become attached to it. I've had my toddlers refuse to give up old cell phones, kitchen utensils, or an older sibling’s action figure. Even if you let your child handle that item when you're around, be sure not to leave it in a play area when the baby is alone. Safe toys only go into the secured play area.
  • Don’t be gone for long. You may think it will only take you five minutes to shower, but it's easy to get distracted and linger a bit too long. Don't. Accidents happen fast, and no matter how well you think you've secured the baby's play area, you may have overlooked something that could cause harm. If you think you'll be out of sight of your active child for more than a few minutes, look for ways to set up the secure play area near you, such as setting up the play yard in the kitchen.

Accept the Mess

To be honest, I would be happy with a few pots and pans scattered on the floor. I keep my lower kitchen shelves stocked with tossable take-out containers and Tupperware that my toddler is free to play with while I prep dinner or talk on the phone. There are limits and with much (very much) reinforcement your toddler will learn that the garbage can is not a plaything, but relaxing your definition of mess may be a requirement of surviving the toddler years with your sanity intact.

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