How to Set Up a Safe, Secure Play Space for Toddlers

a toddler inside a toy tunnel

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Your toddler is a natural explorer and to them, your house is one huge discovery zone. This is a good thing because investigating their surroundings and trying new things is how children learn. What becomes tricky is keeping your curious toddler safe while they learn and explore. If left to their own devices, they'll gleefully scout what's fallen under the sofa (and likely taste it), sneakily reach for items that might topple over, and otherwise bounce around the house unaware of any potential dangers. That's where you come in.

Don't Rely on Rules Just Yet

Your toddler is most likely still too young to understand even simple rules of what's off-limits—at least consistently. Explanations that the kitchen cabinets are a no-go or disciplining toddlers for knocking things over likely won't work because they don't have the required cognitive skills yet. Tell them, "No" and they'll likely try it again in a few minutes because children don't readily understand consequences or rules until they're three-years-old. (Even then, they'll still need lots of reminders.)

In the meantime, there are important steps to take to keep your toddler safe and happy for the moments you need to take your eyes off them. Clearly, direct supervision is ideal but even when you're right there, your child can get hurt. Here's how to keep your toddler safe when you can't watch closely for a few seconds or you need to make a quick dash to the bathroom.

Choose a Safe Play Area Your Toddler Will Thrive In

No matter how large or small your home is, you can create a space that is safe for your toddler. 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, swings, or exersaucers, where they can stand at a platform, swing around, or jump while playing with a host of toys.

Another good option is a portable playpen. Some toddlers love the playpen, others resist being confined to a small space now that they're able to walk and explore. You can increase the odds that your child will happily enjoy this safe space by stocking it with their favorite playthings. The playpen is a good solution for a run to the laundry room or another similar quick task.

For older toddlers, and those who don't like to be confined, try expanding their play spaces. You can purchase "play zone" toys that create toy "walls" around your child that entertain them with lights, sounds, and other fun tactile and visual elements while keeping them contained in a safe area. These can be a bit pricey (in the range of $100 or more) but many parents feel it is money well spent, as they offer a secure, stimulating play area that gives their toddler room to walk around and encourages independent play for longer periods of time.

Additionally, you can allow your child more room to roam if you are able to block off all danger zones (such as stairs or the kitchen) with baby gates or by putting foam child protectors over sharp hazards like coffee table corners. Giving your little one several feet to wander and explore various bins of toys while you stay nearby is an excellent way to build independence and satisfy that natural curiosity—while protecting them from danger.

Quick Tip

Before you buy a baby gate, be sure you consider the size of the space and whether a gate can be mounted safely where you need it.

However you create a safe space you create for your child, always aim to remain within eyesight as much as possible. Protected play spaces let you supervise while still allowing you to fold the laundry across the room without little hands dismantling your piles.

Secure and Child-Proof the Entire Premises

In tandem with creating safe play spaces, be sure to also childproof the rest of your home. Toddlers are better escape artists than Houdini, and they are always developing new skills (such as climbing right out of the playpen), so you'll need to stay one step ahead.

In the blink of an eye, curious, often fearless toddlers may learn to scale the crib, unlock the safety gates, unbuckle harnesses, or 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 more than a minute or two. Additionally, keep these basic safety tips in mind:

  • Ideally, before your baby is mobile, start childproofing your home. If you need help, check online for local businesses that will come to your home and childproof for you.
  • Then, childproof everything. Windows, cabinets, cooking equipment, stairs, electrical outlets, and any hazardous materials—they all need to be locked up or made inaccessible to small hands.
  • Keep a monitor nearby. If you can't always see your toddler, put a video or audio baby monitor with them, and keep the receiver with you at all times.
  • Be sure all toys are age-appropriate and safe. Remember, toddlers tend to put anything and everything in their mouths. Plus, toddlers will not limit themselves to actual toys—just about any item can become a preferred plaything, so make sure these are safe as well. If you let your child handle an item that isn't specifically child-safe (such as your cell phone or keys) when you're around and closely supervising, be sure not to leave it in a play area when the baby is alone. Only put 100% safe toys in the secured play area.
  • Don’t be gone for long. It's easy to think it will only take you a few minutes to shower, but it's just as easy to get distracted and linger a bit too long.

Accidents happen fast, and no matter how well you think you've secured your child's play area, you may have overlooked something that could cause harm.

If you think you'll be out of sight of your active toddler for more than a few minutes, look for ways to set up the secure play area near you, such as setting up the playpen in the kitchen while you cook—or even right in the bathroom so you can take that longer shower.

A Word From Verywell

Despite our best efforts, sometimes accidents happen. Every toddler will eventually get a scraped knee or a bonk from a fall. As parents, we all seek to protect our children but every parent of a toddler knows this is extra challenging when the child seems to be seeking out every possible hazard.

Take comfort that the term "toddler" spells out the inherent risk of this developmentally necessary phase. Learning to walk and explore the world is a dangerous endeavor. Soon enough their toddles will make way for steady runs, skips, and confident cartwheels. And before you know it, your curious toddler will turn into a curious big kid capable of safer choices while making their way in their world.

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