A baby play area is a space in your home that allows your child to learn, grow, and explore in a safe way. It also keeps baby clutter confined.
When you construct this play space correctly, it can also help your child to reach their cognitive and movement milestones on time, if not early! For the parents who want to make their child's play purposeful, we detail how to create a baby play area as well as how to upgrade the space as your child grows.
Setting Up a Baby Play Area to Target Developmental Milestones
In order to make the most out of your baby play space, you want to choose toys and activities that target the development of certain skills. By knowing what your baby needs to work on, you can determine which qualities matter when selecting toys and play equipment.
This information can also help you to effectively transition to new play things as your baby gains new skills and allow them to keep progressing! Here are a few things to consider before setting everything up.
Cognitive and Movement Milestones for Ages 0 - 1
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), within the first year of life, your child should achieve these milestones:
- Holding their head up when on their tummy (2 months old)
- Grasping onto toys (4 months old)
- Rolling from their back to their tummy (6 months old)
- Pushing up with their arms while on their tummy (6 months old)
- Reaching for toys and bringing them to their mouth (6 months old)
- Looking for objects when they disappear (9 months old)
- Sitting up without support (9 months old)
- Banging objects together and moving them from hand to hand (9 months old)
- Putting things in containers (1 year old)
- Pulling to stand (1 year old)
- Walking while holding onto support (1 year old)
It's important to note that all of the ages for these milestones are averages. This means that some children will progress more quickly and others will take longer. Since children learn through play, the more time you spend helping your child to hone these skills, the faster they will probably reach these developmental markers.
Cognitive and Movement Milestones for Ages 1 - 2
The CDC notes that between ages one and two, your child should be:
- Stacking small objects (15 months old)
- Taking solo steps (15 months old)
- Walking without support (18 months old)
- Playing with toys in simple ways (18 months old)
- Copying things you do (18 months old)
- Playing with multiple toys at once (2 years old)
- Attempting to use buttons, switches, and knobs (2 years old)
- Kicking balls (2 years old)
- Running (2 years old)
How to DIY a Baby Play Area in 5 Simple Steps
Now that you know the skills you want to target, it's easy to assemble your baby play area! Here are some simple tips on how to do this for babies and toddlers.
1. Invest in a Play Space Gate
The intent of the baby play area is to allow your child to safely explore. This requires some basic boundaries. Play space gates and extra large playpens can both give your child a little bit of freedom while ensuring that they don't wander off or get into areas of your home where they don't belong.
Since you want your infant play space to grow with your baby, we recommend going with an adjustable gate. This allows you to create a confined space for when they are less mobile and then expand it when they begin to move more! Also, if your family is blessed in the height department, make sure to look for taller gates.
2. Lay Down Some Cushioning
Another key to creating a safe baby play area is to ensure that the play space has a soft, cushioned base. This can help to pad their knees and elbows during their crawling stage and then protect them from falls while they are finding their footing!
Foam play mats and area rugs are a great choice for softening up your floor space.
Blankets and large comforters may seem like a good idea, but if your baby gets wrapped up in these, it can be a suffocation risk. For the parents who are concerned about keeping their play space clean during this spit up stage, consider investing in Ruggable washable rugs. This can help to make clean up simple and keep your baby safe.
3. Babyproof the Space
If you choose to place your baby play area in the middle of the room, this step can be skipped. However, if you anchor the sides of your gate to a wall to maximize space and utilize a corner of your room, it is important to ensure that the area is babyproofed. Here are some of the top babyproofing steps to take:
- Relocate furniture outside of the play area.
- Remove drapes that are near or in the play space.
- Install blind cord wraps.
- Remove any electrical appliances and cords around the play area.
- Insert electrical outlet caps on all outlets they can access.
- Place bumpers and corner guards on sharp edges.
- Only use open toy bins. Lids are shown to cause injury to children's heads, necks, and hands.
- Position your play space away from doors. Small fingers and door jambs are a dangerous combination.
4. Hang Some High-Contrast Decor
Between birth and four months of age, your baby's vision will be blurry. This makes high-contrast objects a must! These can help to attract their attention and they aid in their vision development. Once things come into focus, these can assist your baby with their visual tracking skills, depth perception, and hand-eye coordination.
High-contrast decor items to consider:
Brightly colored mobiles over the play space
Black and white infant stimulation cards
Baby safe mirrors
Colorful play gyms with built-in mobiles
5. Choose Constructive Toys
When choosing toys, you want to select options that will help your baby to reach the listed cognitive and movement milestones listed above. This starts with toys that hone their fine and gross motor skills.
The best toys for infant play areas will:
- Feature different colors and textures:
- Textured balls
- Tag toys
- Textured books
- Make noise without electronic assistance:
- Crinkle toys
- Toy instruments like xylophones, maracas, or drums (no sticks)
- Promote stacking:
- Facilitate movement:
- Push walkers
- Ball pits
- Padded climbing toys
When choosing toys for infants, you need to make sure that they are a size that your baby can grasp and hold onto. However, they should never be small enough that your child could choke on them. Avoid items that contain small beads or buttons, removable parts, and batteries.
The best toys for one-year-old play areas will:
- Promote stacking:
- Large building blocks
- Stacking cups, blocks, or rings
- Encourage sorting:
- Block sorting cubes (with various shapes and colors)
- Stacking and sorting puzzles (with large pieces to prevent choking)
- Motivate Movement:
- Large and small balls
- Corn poppers
- Padded climbing toys
- Stepping stones
- Ball pits
- Allow for fine motor development:
- Busy boards
- Activity cubes with a bead maze
- Facilitate pretend play:
- Play kitchen
- Toy lawnmower
- Tea set
Children typically begin learning their colors between 18 months and three years of age. Choosing colorful toys and sorting games that help to introduce the colors of the rainbow can be a great investment.
Baby Equipment to Avoid
Baby containers — like swings, floor seats, jumpers, seated walkers, and bouncers — may hinder your baby’s ability to be on the go. By using these devices, your child could have delayed motor development. This is called container baby syndrome. Try to avoid choosing these types of products to include in your baby’s play space.
The American Academy of Pediatrics notes that the more time your child spends on the floor and outside of these types of container, the better off they will be! Baby play spaces are perfect for tummy time, seated play, and for toddlers on the move.
Infant Versus One-Year-Old Play Spaces
The only real difference between an infant play area and a one-year-old play area is the size of the space and the toys. In the beginning, this baby play area will mainly be used for tummy time, but as your infant grows, they will need more room to roam and developmentally appropriate toys to help them learn.
How to Expand Your Toddler's Play Space
Parents can easily expand their one-year-old's or toddler's play area by simply adding extra panels to your gate. However, for those parents who have limited communal space, this can be difficult. If square footage is a problem, another easy way to accommodate your child's play space needs is to restructure their nursery.
Remove or Anchor Furniture
To do this, first remove all the furniture from their room, except their crib, which you will need to anchor to the wall. I know what you are thinking — what about the dresser and/or changing table?
If your closet space allows, transfer your dresser to this space and use your dresser top as your diaper changing station. This is a fantastic space saver! If that is not an option, then you will need to baby proof your dresser drawers and anchor all furniture to the walls.
Make the Space Completely Safe
Next, babyproof your closet door and put a baby gate in any other doorways that give access to their room. Then, remove all drapes and decor that they can reach, install cord cleats for the blind cords, and don't forget bumpers for sharp-edged baseboards. Your goal is to make the room bare, leaving only the essentials.
Add the Toys
Finally, disperse their toys throughout the space and let them play! As they grow, you can adjust their toys to meet their developmental stages.
Baby Play Spaces Allow You to Get on Your Child’s Level
Other than giving your child a free space to roam and play, baby play spaces also invite the rest of the family to join in on the fun. Unlike a play pen, these areas get you down on your child’s level and allow you to engage with them. This can further their cognitive and physical development and give you wonderful bonding opportunities with your baby!