Once your baby is mobile, it’s generally a good idea to keep your wiley little explorer within sight and reach; however, as your baby grows into toddlerhood, her or she is developmentally ready to learn how to play independently. So how can you let him or her do their own thing without hovering? A little preparation – or toddler-proofing – can help to create a hazard-free space for your toddler where he or she can explore and play safely. Here are some of our favorite tips:
- Secure spaces that could pose a fall risk, like steps (e.g., install safety gates at the top and bottom of stairs) and windows (e.g., keep windows closed and locked when you’re not around, have double-hung windows opened from the top, move climbable furniture away from windows). Make sure access to porches, balconies, and fire escapes is limited (e.g., lock windows and doors that provide access, put doorknob covers on doors that offer access).
- Secure furniture that could tip over onto a child or pieces that a child might try to climb up, like bookcases and shelving units.
- Secure doors and cabinets with contents that could harm a child, like under-sink areas that contain cleaning products.
- Use safety plugs to cover electrical outlets and keep wiring neat and/or tied up.
- Keep 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, broken toys, latex balloons that can break, small balls, coins, or pen caps), or less obviously dangerous items (like remote controls that a toddler could easily remove batteries from).
- Place bumpers or guards over sharp corners that a child could fall into.
- Making sure play areas are well lit.
- If a child is playing outside or around water, take additional precautions – such as preventing access to roadways or traffic, 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, you may let your toddler play in a designated playroom, a gated common room, or an 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 your little one, well, some space!
While toddler-proofing might seem like it’s just making rules to follow (and maybe break), it also means that now you and your little one can engage with each other in new ways. You can dial back your role in his or her play and can instead observe and respond more. For example, instead of doing the “work” for your little one, you can participate by saying, “Wow, you stacked those bowls up so high!” or “Yes, I did see you put the tiger puzzle piece in place. Roar!” This will allow your little one to develop some essential confidence as he or she learns how to create, initiate, and explore exciting play plans of their own.