A safe play space, which fellow RIE® Associate Janet Lansbury calls a Yes Space, is an essential part of a baby's life.
If there is a safe place you can leave your child to play, your life opens up. You can get a drink of water, make lunch for your baby, and go to the bathroom, all without worrying about your baby or toddler getting into something that is unsafe or just not theirs.
In the early days, it’s really tempting to say, “They can’t open the cupboards in the kitchen yet, so they can just play here while I cook,” but before you know it they will be able to open those cupboards. If you make a change too late, it will be more difficult for your child to adjust to the changes. It’s much easier to establish a safe play space early on. If a child is used to gates and fences, an adequately-sized play space will not feel confining.
Not at all like a prison, a gated, safe play space is a relief to the child. Imagine being in a foreign place where you don’t know any of the cultural rules, and every time you try to do something (like stand up, wear a hat, talk loudly, etc), someone tells you to stop! Adult-oriented rooms with power cords, bookshelves, and forbidden cupboards can feel like this for children. Setting all those limits becomes exhausting for both of you. It’s so much more comforting to be somewhere where you know all the rules. For toddlers who aren't yet able to control their impulses, that means they need to spend time in a place where there aren’t any rules. Your goal in setting up a safe play space is to eliminate things you would want to set a limit about.
This doesn’t mean your baby won’t have a chance to learn to respect your limits. The play space is just one room (or part of a room). There is still a whole house and a whole world where your baby or toddler will have lots of chances to test limits every day.
You can use almost any room in your house for your safe play space. I recommend against kitchens since it’s hard to cook safely around a crawling child, but it’s great to have the play area in view of the kitchen or other places you spend time. Most hungry kids can wait longer if they can watch and confirm that, yes, you are making their food!
If you have the space, it’s excellent to have a play space solely for the baby’s independent play, but with some clever thinking you can also use a room with two purposes, like a living room or bedroom. In small apartments or houses, this is often unavoidable. As long as you can be somewhat flexible about what is in the room or how it’s set up, you should be fine. Natural light is great too, since it helps keep those super-important circadian rhythms on track.
There are lots of articles on what is unsafe for babies, so I won’t repeat all that here. Try laying down on the floor, looking around at anything that a baby or toddler could reach. Commonly missed are staples or sharp bits of metal on the underside of furniture, so getting down on the floor and feeling around can really help.
Don’t forget about climbing! If you look at the room through a toddler’s eyes, you will see that most bookshelves can be used as ladders. Opt for low shelves instead of tall ones, or secure a tall bookshelf to the wall and remove the bottom two shelves. What about the couch, what could an enterprising toddler reach from there? Can they climb to the windowsill of an openable window? Remember, your goal is to make the area so safe that you could go take a shower and not worry about your child getting a serious injury. Accept that you may have to put some things in storage, but it's only for a few years.
It’s much easier to set the area up for toddlers from the beginning than to slowly improve it as you go. Kids usually do new things sooner than you expect and often when you’re not watching. If you prepare for a toddler, you will be ready for surprising developmental milestones (like climbing bookshelves to swing from curtains like a monkey) before they happen.
The safe play space is where an awake baby or toddler will spend most of their time when they are at home. Try to spend time with your child in the play space so they won’t associate it with being left alone. Treat the space as a special place for you to go where you can both relax, where your child can play freely. Spending time in the safe play space is not a punishment or something to feel guilty about. This is a great place for you and your child to be free of the limits that must be a part of every other place they go.
A successful play space also depends on your attitude towards children’s play. If you devote a lot of energy to playing with or entertaining your child, it will feel strange to them when you inevitably leave them to play independently. If you can instead let your child take the lead in play while you observe and reflect what you see when they look to you for feedback, even a newborn will develop independent play skills very quickly.
Independent play is convenient for the adult, but the real draw is the mental, social, and creative benefits for your child, so don’t be afraid to step back from play. You can send your child a message of loving, unconditional appreciation by observing instead of directing their play.