Being a mom to two little boys has definitely brought out the worst in me. One moment everything is fine, and the next I am harried, overwhelmed, covered in food and taking my frustration out on my kids. I’m just not being the parent that I want to be: calm, in control of the situation, and kind and respectful towards my kids and husband.
In my experience, though, there is one extremely practical way to have a more peaceful home with very young kids, and, as I told my husband the other day, ‘It’s as simple as closing a baby gate’.
Safe play spaces have helped me time and time again to maintain a peaceful home.
I first came across the concept of a safe play space at Janet Lansbury’s blog, and, in slightly more detail, Magda Gerber’s book Your Self Confident Baby (affiliate link). A safe play space, or a ‘yes’ space is exactly what it sounds like: an area dedicated to a child’s play, that is completely safe and where the child only has access to things that are ok to play with. Ultimately it is a place where you can leave your child unsupervised and know that they will not come to any harm.
Safe play spaces have really been a life saver for me. When toddler N. would hit his baby brother while he was nursing, I felt relatively powerless to stop it: I just didn’t have enough hands. Having a safe play space, though, meant that I could prevent the opportunity from even arising: N. would go to his safe space while I nursed the baby in another room. N. played happily while baby G. fed without physical abuse. Safe play spaces have meant that I can have a shower in the morning, use the bathroom by myself, even cook a meal in relative peace. I don’t have to spend every waking moment telling my toddler ‘No, don’t touch that’ or trying to keep the boys from hurting each other. Safe play spaces mean that I can take action before I get annoyed or upset. All of this adds up to a more peaceful mom and a more peaceful home.
Creating Safe Play Spaces
Establishing a place in your home where you can leave your child unsupervised for any length of time is relatively straightforward, although it is worth thinking about it thoroughly. As Magda Gerber points out, this space should be so safe and secure that if you lock yourself out of the house while your child is there, you would be confident that your child would be completely fine when you make it back in a few hours later, although he might be a bit hungry and upset that you were gone (affiliate link).
With this in mind, here are some things to consider when creating a safe play space:
- For young babies, a pram set up in the living room can be a cozy safe place. It has the added bonus of being portable, too, and we found that baby G. loved to have naps there! Once they are a little bigger, their cot can be another safe space.
- For older babies and toddlers, choose a room that can be gated off, like a bedroom or a play room. Our living room is completely open to our kitchen and can’t be gated, so that’s not an option for us. Instead, we’ve chosen to gate off the boys’ bedroom.
- Go crazy with baby proofing. All furniture that could possibly tip over should be secured to the walls. Double check that curtain cords are out of reach. Try to imagine what could be climbed on (like onto the radiator and into the window sill — it happened) and prepare accordingly.
- Have toys and books available that are age appropriate. Nothing should be a choking hazard. Nothing should be so precious that you would be upset if it got ripped, broken or otherwise ruined. We’ve had our fair share of book pages torn out so think carefully about what you have available.
- Do a final sanity check. If it is going to drive you crazy to have clothes pulled out of the bottom dresser drawers every day, then empty the drawers, remove the dresser, or put child locks so the drawers aren’t accessible. Don’t expect your child to just learn to not do something – change the environment so that he can’t do something he shouldn’t.
Using Safe Play Spaces to Encourage Peace
A safe play space will only help if you actually use it. There are plenty of days where I am making dinner only to have G. start grabbing N.’s toys, and N. hit back, and suddenly everyone is crying. Not exactly a peaceful home, but it has helped me to learn how to effectively use our safe play spaces to keep our home at peace.
- Playing alone in the ‘yes’ space should be fun and a joy. Separation from you, the parent, shouldn’t be used as a punishment, otherwise independent play time is going to be very confusing for your child. In other words, time-outs as a punishment should be rethought. I realize that this is a very common way of dealing with toddler misbehavior, but I encourage you to seek out other options. No Bad Kids: Toddler Discipline without the Shame is a good place to start (affiliate link).
- Think ahead about when your house gets chaotic and use the safe play space pre-emptively. I mentioned above that things start getting a little cazy while I’m making dinner. This isn’t surprising, considering I’m trying to focus on cooking and I’m not supervising the boys well. Knowing this, I often leave one of the boys upstairs in their room while I cook downstairs. Separated, the boys can’t upset each other, and I’m able to cook.
- If independent play is new to your child, warm up to it gradually. Start with just a few minutes, and add a few more every day. It can help to have independent play at the same time every day so that they learn what to expect. Always tell your child you are leaving, even if it makes them unhappy. It’s ok to not want to be left alone! Be calm and confident, and follow through with what you say. If you say five minutes, be back in five minutes.
- A safe play space is effectively unsafe if you have more than one child there. This is a tough one for us, because we have such a small house, but the number of times I have left the boys together for just a few minutes and come back to one of them crying from having his hair pulled or being hit on the head reminds me that they are simply too young to be left together without supervision.
If your child is a handful, if you spend your days saying ‘no, no, no’, if you find yourself parenting in a way that you aren’t proud of (as we all do, more often than we would like to admit), then let me suggest that maybe it isn’t your kid, and maybe it isn’t you. Take a closer look at your child’s environment. If he doesn’t have a place where he can play without fear of doing something he shouldn’t, then take the time to create that space for him. I believe it can go a long way towards a more pleasant and calm home.