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

a toddler inside a toy tunnel

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Toddlers are natural explorers and to them, your home 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, toddlers will gleefully scout what's fallen under the sofa (and likely taste it), reach for items that might topple over, and otherwise bounce around the house unaware of any potential dangers. That's where a safe toddler play area comes in.

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.

Don't Rely on Rules

Most toddlers are too young to understand even simple rules of what's off-limits—at least consistently. Explaining 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.

If you tell your toddler "No," they'll likely try again in a few minutes. Children don't readily understand consequences or rules until they're at least three years old. (Even then, they'll still need lots of reminders.)

Choose a Safe Play Area

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. In a pinch, you can also put your child in their crib, though it shouldn't be used as a play space in general.

Activity Center

Very young toddlers might still be able to use self-contained, stationary activity centers, swings, or exersaucers, where they can stand at a platform or sit in a swing and still have access to some handy toys.

Playpen

Some toddlers love the playpen. Others resist being confined to a small space once they are able to walk and explore. Increase the odds that your child will enjoy this safe space by stocking it with their favorite playthings. A playpen is a good solution for a run to the laundry room or a similar, quick task.

Play Zone

For older toddlers, and those who don't like to be confined, try expanding their play spaces. You can purchase toy "walls" that entertain kids with lights, sounds, and other fun tactile and visual elements while keeping them contained in a safe area. These give toddlers room to walk around and encourage independent play for longer periods of time.

Childproofed Room

You can allow your child more room to roam if you block off danger zones (such as stairs, the kitchen, and bathrooms) with baby gates, put foam child protectors over sharp hazards, and anchor furniture to the wall. Giving your little one room to wander and explore while you stay nearby helps build independence and satisfy natural curiosity—while protecting them from danger.

Age-Appropriate Toys

Toddlers tend to put anything and everything in their mouths; if an object can fit through the hole of a toilet paper roll, it can be a choking hazard for a child under three. If you let your child handle an item that isn't specifically child-safe (such as your cell phone or keys) when you're closely supervising, be sure not to leave it in a play area. Only put 100% safe toys in the secured play area.

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

If you need to be away from your active toddler for more than a few minutes, look for ways to set up the secure play area near you so you can continue supervising. Put the playpen in the kitchen while you cook—or even right in the bathroom so you can take a longer shower.

Secure and Childproof Your Home

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

In the blink of an eye, curious and fearless toddlers may learn to scale a bookshelf, unlock safety gates, unbuckle harnesses, or wiggle through the opening 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:.

  • Start childproofing before your baby is mobile. 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 or weapons—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. If the monitor has a cord, secure it properly so it is not a strangulation risk.
  • 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.

Baby Gate Safety

Before you buy a baby gate, consider the size of the space and whether a gate can be mounted safely where you need it. Never use pressure-mounted gates at the top of the stairs. Use those that screw into the wall; pressure-mounted gates should only be used to block off a room or the bottom of the stairs—where there is no risk of falling. Never use gates with tempting footholds, horizontal slats, or accordion-style gates without a top filler bar.

A Word From Verywell

Despite our best efforts, sometimes accidents happen. Every toddler will eventually get a scraped knee or a bruise from a fall. Learning to walk and explore the world is a dangerous endeavor. But soon enough, toddles will make way for steady runs 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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