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/Are they safe?
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.
“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, there’s one on this list for under $50 — we gotchu, Mama.) It’s an investment, for sure, but it’s one that will last you for years, so you’ll get your money’s worth.
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.
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
Ah, the OG Pack ‘n Play. Diaper changing, sitting station, and toy zone — this multi-stage play pen and sleeper does it all. Reviewers love the interactive overhead toy bar and the long life potential of this station that switches as your mini grows older. Simply lower the mat as they transition to toddler life et viola, you have a safe play space on the go.
This highly-rated play pen doesn’t just keep your kiddo safely contained, it doubles as a ball pit! Even better, it’s roomy enough for you to fit inside, too. Fill it with plastic balls and watch you LO dive in (sans fears of public ball pit germs … bleh). When they’re not “swimming” in multi-colored bubbles, this pen can fit plenty of toys to keep littles entertained … and keep the clutter off your living room floor (if only for a little while). And in addition to keeping your tot occupied, you’ll love that it’s portable, sturdy, and has an anti-slip base.
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. It’s also GREENGUARD Gold Certified and made with organic cotton on high-touch surface areas for Baby’s ultimate safety. Further, it features an attachable bassinet for newborns up to 15 lbs, a changer for babes up to 25 pounds, and a play area for little ones up to 30 pounds. There are also fun extras like a mobile, built-in storage, and an electric toy bar with detachable toys and soothing sound effects — essentially, everything you need to keep baby safe, comfy, and entertained when you’re out and about. Phew!
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.
Best Toddler Play Yards & Baby Play Gates
When you want a bit more coverage area in a portable play yard for a toddler, 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.)
When you have a neighbor who always likes to rudely comment on your parenting techniques, we’d suggest hiding this toddler playpen in the house where the neighbors can’t see. It works well, and it looks nice, but the design in the plastic panels looks a bit like jail cell bars (if you look past the smiling bears, of course). The last thing you want to do is give the nosy neighbor an opening, so she can ask if you feel good about placing your baby inside kiddie jail. (Better yet, take this play yard outdoors, sugar the kid up, and let her go nuts inside with every loud toy you own. You might as well earn the disapproving looks.)
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.
We like this play yard design because of the versatility of the 12 panels. You can create some odd shaped enclosures when needed. And the kids will love the smiling bear face on every panel. Front and back. Every panel. That’s 24 smiling bear heads that we’re pretty sure we’re going to see in our nightmares tonight.
This toddler play yard is limited to 25 enclosed square feet, but if you don’t need something huge and hate the way other play yards assemble, you’ll appreciate the smartly designed buckles that connect to each panel with this model. It also has rubber feet on the bottom of the panels to keep it anchored when the toddler tries to escape by running through the playard wall Kool-Aid Man-style. Oh yeah!
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 some great news: This 18-panel play yard for toddlers has a push button music box. #losingmymind Because we do like that the large number of panels in this unit allows you to set up any shape you want, we’ll put up with the repetitive tune (and we’ll keep a pair of ear plugs handy).
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
When you need an outdoor toddler playpen, this Regalo model ships with a full canopy to keep the sun off the toddlers. The sides consist of a tough mesh that allows airflow. And the bottom layer is a nylon that keeps dirt and sand away. It’s almost like a bubble of protection for the toddlers … and God knows they need it.
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 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 playard 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.