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Friday, October 16, 2009

The Playpen Question - To Use Or Not to Use?

By Ursula Ansbach

The Playpen Question: to use or not to use?

There is a pro and con to everything and the playpen is being re-considered
as a handy tool to help out struggling and very busy parents. Easy solution:
pop the toddler into the pen, provide a few toys, stay nearby and you can do
your laundry, write your article, or chat with visiting friends.

So what's not to like about the playpen? Baby is safe, and learning to be
independent by entertaining herself. She can practice pulling herself up and
crawl about and, really what's all this nonsense about it delaying motor
development or stunting creativity?

Perhaps one of the most difficult aspects of parenting and/or child care of
any sort whether it be babysitting, grandchild sitting, professional child
care, et al, is to really understand that the decision of what to do with
baby should be based primarily on what is in the best interests of the
child. Yes, the adults needs must be considered as well, because child care
is a partnership between the two of us. What's important to understand ,
however, is that our part of that partnership is to facilitate the baby's
needs. And, I'm sure we would all agree that those needs go beyond safety
and feeding to include providing an environment that is interesting so that
baby will be happy and will develop to the best of her ability.

Having established this , let's look at the playpen from the child's point
of view. To gain a clear perspective let me suggest that you think of your
favorite hobby or pastime and then place it in an eighth of the space
usually allotted to it with a small percentage of the usual materials
involved. My favorite pastime happens to be hiking. Now let me imagine that
instead of being able to hike the five to ten or so miles through a beloved
state park, I am forced to "hike" around a quarter mile track, with nothing
to look at but some snow fences and a couple trees.

Or, to make matters worse, I'm forced to "hike" in a racquetball court.
Wouldn't make me happy. Wouldn't give me the workout I'm used to. Would bore
me to tears. And even if I were only restricted to this horrid alternative
one out of every three hikes, I would still be miserable each time it was
forced on me. So, too, the child in the playpen.

Let's consider the argument that playpens make children independent. I
counter with the question: what choice do they have? They are plopped into a
confining space with no-one else in it and one or two toys. Baby can either
cry and scream (which does happen often) or compromise and become placid.
It's really much better when that independence is baby's choice - when baby
sits quietly on a soft pillow "reading a book by himself while having the
option to crawl about and roll balls, etc. Then he is showing me he's truly
enjoying his independence rather than being co-erced into playing alone.

Once baby is crawling and/or walking, the playpen is downright depressing
because of its limitations. At that point it truly can cause physical and
emotional damage, much as we don't want to admit it.

In answer to the argument that playpens support creativity let's look at the
advantages of letting baby explore a safe area freely. We will see that
there is no contest between which approach allows the most creativity to
develop. In a playpen there may be one, two or several toys. The amount must
be limited due to safety and not overcrowding the small space. Once those
are explored and the baby has pulled herself up and/or crawled around a
while, it's over.
In a safe environment baby can crawl as much as she wants. There is a
variety of materials to play with and a variety of ways to practice pulling
up. There are also people in that environment. YOU are part of that
environment and you are what makes baby feel safe enough to explore the

The question seems to become one of how to set up a safe and stimulating
environment, where table lamps will not fall on baby's head, etc. I will
discuss how to set up a safe and stimulating environment in my next article.

As for the time element...the argument that we do not have time to always be
with baby and to entertain him or her, let me go out on a limb and say that
when this safe area is well planned you will not need to interact and
entertain every moment. Your baby will be so interested in her environment
that you may not need to supply much more supervision than you would if she
were in a playpen that was used responsibly.

I didn't use a playpen when my boys were little. I did my "important" adult
things when they were napping or so focused on their play that I could keep
a watchful eye and still make that phone call.

Having said all this I may agree that there may be a time when a playpen
could be handy. Definitely for napping while travelling or for short
"emergency" times. Perhaps an older child has a nose bleed that needs
attending and you are the only adult available. At times like this the
playpen would be most appreciated.

But let's be careful to advise them too quickly. It is all too easy to
overuse them without even realizing how long baby has been in there! It is
also too easy to choose them with our needs rather than our baby's needs in

Ursula Ansbach, owner My Baby Furniture Plus, baby furniture;
Educator, Teacher, Parent.

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