Choosing an activity center

Activity centers can keep a baby captivated while sharpening their developing muscles and senses. A baby's focus and vision are strengthened by the bright, splashy colors and contrasting shapes typically featured on these products. Hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills can be refined by reaching for and handling interactive toys.

There are two basic types: Seated activity centers have upright seats surrounded by toys and other items that interest babies, while play mats (also referred to as play gyms or tummy mats) are soft floor mats designed for infants. Some play mats have arches plied with dangling toys, while other models are simply covered with kid-friendly decorations. Older babies can still be entertained by some of the toys on a play mat, but once babies are able to sit up, they are usually less interested in lying down to play.

Seated play centers are recommended for children between 4 and 6 months of age who are able to sit upright unassisted, but generally not meant for toddlers who are able to stand or walk on their own (or exceed the height and weight limits set by the manufacturer, which range from 30 to 32 inches tall and 25 to 30 pounds, depending on the model). Seated activity centers, also called stationary entertainers, usually have a central seat that's surrounded by a ring of toys. In some cases, a seat rotates around the perimeter of a stationary table that contains toys and activities. In either case, a stationary entertainer is recommended for babies who are able to hold their heads steady and can sit upright unassisted, but aren't yet able to stand or walk on their own.

Many parents find themselves buying both a play mat and a seated activity center to meet the needs of their child at various ages. Some models transition from one type to the other, so they have a longer useful life. For example, the Evenflo ExerSaucer Triple Fun Active Learning Station (*Est. $130) can be used as a play mat, a stationary entertainer and as an activity table.

Other things consumers should do before buying an activity center:

  • Consider floor space. Activity centers vary greatly in size, so check physical dimensions first.
  • Examine any activity center for choking hazards. The toys around the table should all be large; any toy that is small enough to fit through the end of a toilet paper tube could pose a choking hazard to your child.
  • Batteries may be required for sound and light features. Evenflo's SmartSteps ExerSaucer Active Learning Center, for example, requires a dozen batteries for all the features to work. Some sound and light features may overwhelm or agitate more sensitive babies. The easy solution here is to remove the batteries.
  • Limit activity-center time. Experts note that babies meeting the age and weight requirements for seated entertainers (4 to 6 months of age and up, able to sit upright unassisted but not yet able to stand or walk on their own) should not be placed in stationary entertainers for longer than 30 minutes as their weaker back and leg muscles can become strained when placed in these products for a prolonged period of time.
  • Certification carries some weight. Some activity centers have been certified by the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association (JPMA), which is an organization that endorses children's products that have been manufactured according to a strict set of safety standards. While products aren't required to be JPMA-certified to be sold in the United States, choosing products with this certification can give parents added peace of mind that the product they've purchased will be safe. At the time of our visit to the JPMA website, four manufacturers are listed as having earned JPMA certification for stationary activity centers: Dorel Juvenile Group/Safety 1st, Fisher-Price, Graco and Kolcraft.
  • Know your little one's limits. Do not place a child in a seated activity center if he is already standing or walking on his own. Babies who are already standing or walking may try to do so in a stationary entertainer, which can cause the unit to tip over.
  • Look for activity centers with multiple height settings. Products with adjustable height settings can grow along with your child.

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