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Call it what you want: A baby play yard or a toddler playpen (or vice versa … but more on that later) is essential for those times when you simply need two free hands. It’s also a great way to contain your kiddo’s toys in an attempt to control some of the clutter that scatters around the house. For those times when you’re out and about — or headed to Grandma’s — a portable play pen for the kids gives you peace of mind (and for overnight stays, it can even double as a foldable crib). In any case, these versatile pieces of baby gear have multiple uses, and you might want to consider getting one before your squirmy tot becomes fully mobile.
Play yards vs. playpens (… or is it playards and play pens?)
As far as we can tell, these terms are pretty much used interchangeably (it’s okay, we were confused, too). And to make things even more confusing, we weren’t sure about the spelling: Is it play yard and play pen or playard and playpen? Again, there doesn’t seem to be a right or wrong answer.
According to Dr. Chelsea Johnson, Associate Lead of Pediatrics at K Health, “A playpen is a more basic version of a playard that just allows your little one to have a secure play space and sleep. A playard will typically have more bells and whistles, such as a removable bassinet, changing station, toys, lights, etc tied to the playpen.”
For the sake of clarity, we’re going to call the one-piece enclosures — which have four sides and a bottom — playpens; stand-alone gates will hereby be referred to as play yards. (Therefore, a playpen would probably be the enclosure of choice for an infant, while the play yard/gate provides more space and is preferable for mobile tots.) And while we’re at it, we might as well explain that a Pack ‘n Play is officially the name of a Graco product, but people sometimes use it as an umbrella term to describe foldable portable playpens. That all makes sense, right? Just nod, Mama — just nod.
Are playpens good for babies?
Well, they’re good for parents … ha-ha! Kidding. But seriously, they’re a great tool for parents because they give Baby a safe space to move about, play, and explore without getting into household dangers. That said, little ones should not be confined in a playpen or play yard all day long and should always be supervised.
Are playpens safe?
“The purpose of a playpen is to give your child more freedom without sacrificing their safety,” explains Dr. Johnson. She continues, “First thing’s first: safety. Here are safety standards to look for when considering a playpen”:
- “Check the label for JPMA (Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association) certification. This means the playpen meets the safety standards of the Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC).”
- “Measure that the sides are at least 20 inches high from the floor of the playpen. It is astounding how fast infants and toddlers grow!”
- “Mesh-siding playpens should have holes smaller than 1/4 inch. Tiny fingers and buttons could get caught in larger-sized holes. Check regularly for breaks and tears in the mesh.”
- “Wooden playpen slats should be spaced no more than 2 3/8 inches apart. Don’t want tiny heads to get trapped.”
- “Railing padding on top is a nice feature to prevent your baby from bumps.”
- “A 1-inch firm mattress or pad at the bottom of the playpen should provide support and comfort.”
- “If locking side rails are a feature to allow you to lower one side rail, check that the lock is out of reach of the child. A convenient safety find is top rails that lock automatically when life into the normal position.”
- “Check the floor of the playpen for wear and tear.”
Features to look for in a playard or play pen:
Of course, functionality plays a major role too, and Dr. Johnson says to consider the following:
- Collapsibility for easy storage or for travel.
- Panels that provide the ability to adjust the size of the playpen by adding or removing panels for customization.
- Material – Plastic, wood, mesh, steel – all can make for great playpens. Consider playpen care when purchasing. Plastic is easy to wipe down overall, but some mesh-walled plans have removable fabric for ease of washing.
How much does a playpen cost?
Prices vary, but you’ll likely be spending $100-200+ for a decent one. (Although, many good budget versions do exist.) It’s an investment, for sure, but it’s one that will last you for years, so you’ll get your money’s worth. When your child grows out of using one, you can repurpose a playpen and turn it into toy storage.
Do I really need a playpen/play yard?
Yes. You’ll just have to trust us on this one.
As parents, we can feel at ease knowing that they’re safe in there, rather than roaming freely through the house, jamming forks into outlets, and trying to climb every unstable piece of furniture. Inside the playpen, the toddler thankfully has to put its constant effort to injure itself on hold. And Mom and Dad, you may even get a quick break — even if it’s just for a few minutes to grab some much-deserved coffee.
Editor’s Note: Please be aware that some of the product recommendations on this list may not have a JPMA certification, as Dr. Johnson recommends. She says that the following brands are JPMA certified: AFG International, Baby Trend, Chicco, Delta Enterprise, Dorel/Safety 1st, Evenflo, Foundations Worldwide, Graco, Joovy, L.A. Baby Products, Natart Juvenile/ALDI/TULIP, and Summer Infant.
Best Baby Playpens
Graco knows a lot about babies. And, they know that babies often need a few places to perch. This model comes with a portable bassinet that you can take with you wherever you go, and it’s newborn-approved. It also comes in a bunch of different colors, adding just a pop of fun. “Easy to use,” one Amazon customer said. “Fold up for storage or travel. Well made. The wheels on one side make it easy to move across the room when lifted up to roll, but stays put otherwise
This highly-rated playpen doesn’t just keep your kiddo safely contained — you can hop in there comfortably as well. This EAQ model actually comes in three sizes to best accommodate your household. You can fill it with balls (which are not included) to make your own home ball pit, or even pretend it’s a secret cave to enhance your child’s imagination. But, the best thing about this playpen is that it’s very easy to assemble. You’ll want to purchase a foam pad to make this pen even cozier.
Finally, a portable play yard that multitasks almost as much as you, Mama! Ideal for newborns up to toddlers weighing 30 pounds, the Lullaby Primo is compact, lightweight, and easy to assemble for ultimate portability. Chicco is definitely a brand name that many moms trust. This is also a healthy choice, as it’s GREENGUARD Gold certified. That means it has very low chemical emissions, which equals cleaner air.
Sometimes you don’t need all the bells and whistles to have a good time out and about and that’s the beauty of this affordable buy. If you are in the market for something that is easy, streamlined, and way better than plopping your baby on the floor then you’re in luck with this pack ‘n play that comes in a variety of fun patterns.
This multi-function playard has it all: travel cot with removable bassinet bed and diaper table, toys, and an activity center. The bassinet bed has a mattress to keep your little one comfy, and the travel cot can be used for kids up to three years old. The whole playard is easy to assemble and fold away, but it’s also sturdy and safe, as it has a seven-point supporting structure on the bottom and rounded corners to prevent any accidental harm (to them or you).
Best Toddler Play Yards & Baby Play Gates
Need more coverage area in your portable play yard? This model is a smart choice. It has 34.4 square feet of enclosed space, yet the eight panels consist of a thin, lightweight plastic that’s easy to fold up and carry with you anywhere. (Because it’s thin plastic, we’re pretty sure a determined toddler with some tools could find a way to break out of the enclosure, so you may want to pat the kids down and confiscate any contraband before they go inside.)
Looking for a playpen that’ll also entertain your child? Then, this model might be perfect. The height is high enough to keep toddlers secure, but with the added ball pit, they may never even feel tempted to venture away. The side panels include soft, breathable mesh, so that your child will be able to see you while also staying safe. But the best thing of all is that adults can easily get inside these as well.
Who said a play yard couldn’t have style? Skip Hop’s baby gate has clean lines and an adorable cloud design that won’t throw a wrench in your living room decor. It’s made with see-through panels so you can have a clear view of Baby from almost anywhere, and one panel is hinged so it works as a door. You can change the shape of this play yard to a hexagon or rectangle to fit your space, or you can use it as a room divider or barrier, — just secure it to a wall with the included mounts. It even comes with a hanging plush activity surface to keep Baby entertained — as if they don’t have enough toys, already.
Your toddler will feel like the king or queen of their castle with this decorative playpen by Costzon. Weighing in at just under 30 pounds, this model has a safety lock to help kids stay contained. The lock is definitely parent (and grandparent) approved, with one Amazon customer stating that “My grandson is just starting to walk and stand unassisted, so he leans on furniture. He can pull up on this playpen and lean against it and it does not move. I don’t have to worry about any sharp edges or corners. And the locking mechanism is top rate.”
Are you looking for a playpen that might go with your home decor? This model from Dora Dotey may be the perfect fit — and even better, it’s foldable, meaning it’s great for travel or to have handy for a visiting grandchild. This comes with eight panels, but you don’t have to use them all, meaning that you have more control over the size of the pen.
When you need to create a makeshift play yard for a toddler in an odd-shaped room, this eight-panel gate does the trick. It even has a door for access for the parents. It also works as a 17-foot safety gate if needed. When you install this properly, you’ll finally feel like you’re outsmarting the toddler. (The feeling won’t last long, but at least you’ll always have your memories.)
Every parent loves toys where the toddler pushes a button over and over, and the toy plays some tune that’s stuck in your head for the next 12 hours. So, here’s something great: This 18-panel play yard for toddlers has a push-button music box. Since we like that the large number of panels in this unit allows you to set up any shape you want, the music box factor can be forgiven. (But seriously, it’s a great way to keep babies occupied.) There’s also a basketball hoop that can add a bit of fun.
If you’ve had it with all of the pastels that dominate baby clothing, toys, play yards, and everything else, this Safe Zone toddler playpen is the answer. It’s mostly gray and black with bold accent colors. Added bonus: If — who are we kidding? — when the toddler smears some sort of goo on the panels, it will hardly be noticed.
Best Portable Outdoor Playpens
Parents have been falling in love with this portable outdoor play yard by SereneLife. Resembling a tent, it gives kids a spacious place to play while helping them avoid bugs and excess sunlight. The canopy folds and overall compact design make it easy to bring outdoors, and the zippers help kids stay contained. “It's a great play area for any little one,” said one parent on Amazon. “We've been able to set this up outside, at family gatherings, at the beach, at a campsite, and really can be used anywhere. We recently took this with us for a trip to the park where we were there practically all day. Not only was I able to put my little one inside of this, but there is more than enough room for them to play in without having to worry about them getting dirty from the ground.”
Sometimes it’s hip to be square, and that’s just one of the many features reviewers love about this sizable buy that’s almost fifty percent larger than most playpens. The clean lines and minimal look of the Joovy will blend in no matter where life takes you.
Ahh, if only life could be as simple as setting up this travel crib and play area that pops up in a flash. The built-in base keeps the soft mattress in place and elevated from the floor so your wee one can sleep just as soundly on the go as they do at home. Weighing in at a mere thirteen pounds, this pen and carrying case is compact enough to ride along on planes, trains, and automobiles.
Take the fam out in the fresh air without a care in the world thanks to this pop-up portable playard that can pull double duty in and outdoors. Shield sensitive skin under the detachable canopy that offers SPF 50 protection and keep things breezy thanks to the mesh side panels that prevent overheating. Bring her to the beach without freaking out courtesy of a water-resistant canvas base.
Push down the center of this simple-to-assemble set and you have yourself a ready-made space. Pull the center ring to break it down in a flash — this type of convenience sells itself. Parents are also quite fond of this product, stating “this was our third attempt at a pack n play and it stuck! It’s so easy to set up and everything fits perfectly back into the travel bag. I think this will be something we use for many years and babies to come.”
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