Toddlers are creative, curious, and sometimes even cunning, which means at this age, supervision during playtime is still key. As many parents have learned, sometimes you just don’t know your little one can do something new – and potentially dangerous – until he‘s climbing out of a playpen or scaling bookcase for the first time.
This means it’s a good idea to keep your wily little explorer within sight and reach. But this is also an age when Baby is beginning to learn how to play independently. So how can you let him do his own thing without hovering? A little preparation – what some parents refer to as babyproofing – goes a long way in creating a hazard-free space for your toddler where you can be confident that he can explore and play safely. This might include:
- Securing spaces that could pose a fall risk, such as stairs (securing options include safety gates at the top and bottom of stairs as well as doorknob covers on doors that lead to staircases), windows (securing options include having windows closed and locked, having double-hung windows opened from the top, installing window guards on the bottom half of windows, and moving furniture away from windows – and note that window screens cannot prevent falls), as well as porches, balconies, and fire escapes (securing options include locking windows and doors that provide access to these spaces).
- Securing furniture that could tip over onto a child, or items that a child might try to climb up and could tip over or fall from, like bookcases and other shelving units.
- Securing doors and cabinets that a child shouldn’t get into, like under-sink areas that contain cleaning products.
- Covering electrical outlets and wiring.
- Keeping hazardous objects out of reach – this includes obviously dangerous items (such as scissors and knives), items that could pose a choking hazard (such as small toys, small toy parts, or broken toys, latex balloons that can break, small balls, or other small objects like coins or pen caps), or less obviously dangerous items (like remote controls that a toddler could easily remove batteries from).
- Placing bumpers or guards over sharp corners that a child could fall into.
- Making sure that the clothes a child wears don’t pose any danger – risky fashion choices include drawstrings on shirts, or necklaces with beads that could be a choking hazard. And if a child is wearing footwear, it should be a type that won’t lead to slips.
- Making sure that if a child is in or on any furniture – such as a highchair or bed – that any necessary safety straps or safety rails are properly set up and used.
- Making sure play areas are well lit.
- If a child is playing outside or around water, take additional precautions as necessary- such as preventing access to roadways or traffic, providing sun protection, making sure that play surfaces (like a playset or jungle gym) are in good working order, and providing flotation devices (with proper adult accompaniment and supervision, of course) and being aware of slippery areas.
Depending on how much room you have at home, this might mean you let Baby play in a designated playroom, a gated common room, or even a smaller gated play space. If you fear that keeping a toddler in some sort of enclosed space – gated or otherwise – is restrictive, keep in mind that safety is an important element for fostering independent play. After all, having a safe play space – even if it’s a small one – means that you can give Baby, well, some space!
Real independent play in a safe space means that there are no major “nos” – no “don’t climb up that” and no “take that little toy out of your mouth.”
Knowing that he is safe means you can keep your distance. This might mean you chop some vegetables at the kitchen counter while Baby stacks plastic bowls on the floor nearby, or that you fold laundry beside Baby while he works on a puzzle. But independent play at this age doesn’t mean that you can leave him alone to do other things – instead, you’ll want to be relaxed and trusting while you observe from a distance. After all, you’re Baby’s secure ‘home base’ so he can check in with you if he needs to.
What it does mean is that now you and Baby can engage with each other in new ways. You can actively participate in his play a little less – say, not stack the bowls with him or help him put the puzzle together – and can instead observe and respond more – for example, by saying, “Wow, you stacked those bowls up so high!” Or saying, “Yes, I did see you put the tiger puzzle piece in place. Roar!” This will allow your little one to not just follow your lead and imitate you during play, but start to create, initiate, and explore exciting play plans of their own devising.
- Kenneth R. Ginsburg. “The Importance of Play in Promoting Healthy Child Development and Maintaining Strong Parent-Child Bonds.” Pediatrics. 119(1): 182-191. January 2007. Retrieved August 16 2017. http://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/119/1/182.
- Mayo Clinic Staff. “Fall safety for kids: How to prevent falls.” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, December 21 2016. Retrieved August 16 2017. http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/infant-and-toddler-health/in-depth/infant-choking/art-20044661?pg=1.
- Mayo Clinic Staff. “Infant choking: How to keep your baby safe.” Mayo Clinic. Mayo Foundation for Medical Education and Research, June 4 2016. Retrieved August 16 2017. http://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/infant-and-toddler-health/in-depth/infant-choking/art-20044661?pg=1.
- “Fall Prevention.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, April 28 2016. Retrieved August 16 2017. https://www.cdc.gov/safechild/falls/index.html.
- “Injury Prevention.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, March 3 2014. Retrieved August 16 2017. https://www.cdc.gov/healthyhomes/bytopic/injury.html.