When little M became mobile, we realized that our sweet, simple little play mat setup just wouldn’t be enough to keep her entertained and help her develop while staying safe. I knew I wasn’t a fan of playpens, and our open floor plan just doesn’t lend itself well to creating a separate space for her, so we needed to get creative!
We had the whole downstairs of our house baby-proofed, so that M could crawl around to her heart’s content, without my hovering over her all the time, and then we set out to create a safe play space for her that was functional and nontoxic, while still blending in with our modern and minimal decor (no small feat, if you’re familiar with the options out there!).
An organic play mat provided an awesome foundation for her space, and since the floor pads are modular, we’re able to configure them to suit her needs perfectly. I found a simple, modern white bookcase to lie on its side — it’s the perfect height for her to pull up on (once she’s actually pulling up), and the little cubbies are perfectly sized to keep her toys and books within easy reach. She loves crawling over to her book cubby and pulling out all her books one by one.
I kept things simple and minimal with only one or two toys per cubby and kept the rest in her felt toy bin and a clear BPA-free plastic cookie jar (that makes for an awesome receptacle for smaller toys and blocks). Both are safe for her to play with and she loves dumping all her toys out of them (we’re still working on the putting them back part).
For the top of the bookcase, I also kept things pretty minimal, with just a pretty succulent in a white pot. I didn’t want to have too many tchotchkes up there that she could pull down, and I like the idea of having a little greenery in her play space!
6 Tips To Create Your Baby’s Play Space
1. Baby Proof Your Space
This should be a no-brainer, but it’s worth mentioning just in case! Ideally, you’ll want to baby proof the entire area/room that the baby will spend time in. For us that meant the entire downstairs. This is so much better than having a playpen or small gated-in area because it gives the baby more freedom of movement and mama the opportunity to get things done!
We brought in some pros to help us get the job done. Even if you want to install all the baby proofing yourself, it is a good idea to have some professionals come in (for a free estimate, for example) just to point out all the many things that need to be proofed. There is so much more to do than corners and outlets! If it’s impossible to baby proof the whole room, then gate off as large an area as you can for baby — but know that there will come a time when the baby will spend all day trying/whining to get out!
2. Start With A Safe Surface
If you have carpet, great! That may be enough to provide a safe surface for baby to play and occasionally tumble on. You may want to throw on it a nice, soft, organic rug to provide a little extra padding and to visually delineate the space. If you have hardwood floors, organic play mats provide the perfect amount of padding for your baby to crawl and play on. I recommend steering clear of foam mats, many of which have toxic phthalates and formamide that are harmful to the baby’s health and development.
3. Keep Things Reachable
A nice low bookcase or other sturdy shelving system means that babies can reach their own toys and decide what they want to play with. This encourages independent play, self-sufficiency, and a sense of accomplishment. You’re creating a space for baby, so make sure it works for them! Keep any toy bins soft or boxes soft so baby can reach in and take out toys safely. Keep heavier items (like books and larger wooden toys) on lower shelves and lighter, softer items on higher shelves so babies won’t hurt themselves pulling them down. Again, the goal here is to create a space where the baby can play independently, without you needing to come over and entertain, hand them their toys, etc.
4. Choose Safe, Non-Toxic Toys
Pick different types of developmentally appropriate toys to have out in your baby’s play space. A set of blocks, a puzzle or two, some puppets, a stacker, and some books all offer different types of self-directed play for baby. We opted to go mostly plastic-free with M’s toys. There are so many great toy companies that make beautiful, modern, developmental wooden and plush toys that are totally non-toxic, and provide more opportunity for open-ended play than plastic or battery-operated toys, with all kinds of flashing lights and noises. For plush toys, I try to opt for organic and non-toxic fibers as well. If you’re on a budget, things you already have around the house work great too — a mixing bowl and wooden spoon, measuring cups, etc.
5. Keep Things Minimal
Now this isn’t just the aesthete in me talking. Babies get overwhelmed and overstimulated when there are too many toys to choose from. Down the line, this can lead to trouble concentrating, hyperactivity, and a needy, easily “bored” child. Try to have just a handful of toys out at a time, which allows babies to focus their play and use more of their imagination. Ever so often, you can switch out the toys to keep things fresh and interesting! This will also help your toys last longer.
6. Use A Natural, Non-Toxic Cleaner
Every few days, wipe down your toys and play area with a non-toxic cleaner. I’ve always been a fan of a plain vinegar-water solution, but since I got on an essential oil kick, I started making my own toy cleaner for little M (I also use it on her high-chair tray), to up the antibacterial power.