Think of it like this. You’re a busy mom – or dad – and baby needs a change of scene and a spot of exercise – physical and mental. What do you do? Put baby on a blanket or cushion on the floor next to where you’re working?
Well, you could. But how safe is it? Especially, once baby starts getting ideas about being mobile.
And sure, every room can provide a source of endless fascination. But as soon as hands and mouths start reaching out, you’re asking for trouble.
Cue the baby activity mat. A place for baby to play safely without full-time supervision. A vibrant and stimulating learning environment.
Play mats haven’t been around too long, but they’ve proved popular with parents and babies alike. So popular that there are now so many to choose from, it’s hard to know where to start.
Let’s make the task of choosing a little easier by looking at the differences.
Foam or fabric?
There are two main types of baby play mats: foam and fabric.
Most foam mats are made up of interlocking tiles. The tiles are usually brightly colored and are decorated with a pattern, picture or a letter of the alphabet. The big advantage with interlocking foam tiles is that you can add more tiles and make the playmat bigger as baby grows and starts to crawl.
For fabric mat, think the quilt with some clever extras built in. These are what you might call educational and discovery toys – texture swatches, mirrored surfaces, rattles, bells, music makers… And of course, the designs are always bright and fun, which can spark a sense of excitement in baby’s mind at the mere sight of the play mat.
Maybe the first thing to think about is what size mat you want.
Some mats are large enough to cover most of a room’s floor surface. Others are small enough to tuck into a hold all and take anywhere.
For example, the IQ Baby Busy Bee Play mat(above) is only 14 x 14 inches and is designed to fold into an activity triangle for road trips; meanwhile, the Edushape Play and Sound (right) is 40 x 40 inches and offers plenty of room for babies learning to crawl.
What’s to play with?
Just as important as a play mat’s size are the toys that come with it. Different toys are designed to appeal to different age groups.
Older children may love the punch-out letters and numbers you get with some foam tiles. But young babies will be more interested in anything that simply stimulates the senses: mirrors, lights, buzzers, felines.
As a rule, fabric mats are best suited to young babies, while foam mats are better for older children.
That said, some mats bridge the gap and appeal in different ways as baby grows. This can be a great way to get more life out of your play mat.
The Edushape Play and Sound is a foam play mat that includes a mirrored tile and some musical flowers. The Tiny Love Super mat (above) is a fabric mat that measures a generous 59 x 59 inches – plenty big enough for mobile babies.
Can you wash it?
As any parent knows (and relatives so often forget) you never buy anything for your baby without thinking about how easy it will be to keep clean.
Foam tiles can be wiped clean with a damp cloth and a squirt of disinfectant. Much easier than putting a fabric play mat through the laundry.
Then again, some manufacturers of fabric play mats seem to have given this more thought than others. Some fabric mats are pretty easy to clean and will hold their color well. It’s worth checking the wash label: look for something you wash in a machine and put in a tumble dryer.
Can you take it with you?
Pretty much every mom and dad takes a baby on the road some time. And if you can take the play mat with you, so much the better.
As a familiar part of baby’s home life, the play mat can be a real comfort.
Most fabric play mats will transport easily — some even have carrying handles. Some, such as the K’s Kids Fold N Go Deluxe Play mat (right) have even been designed with travel in mind.