Play yards have come a long way from the square, barred contraptions of a few decades ago. Today's play yards offer bassinet inserts, changing station attachments, mobiles, toys and portability. No longer are playpens the default space for a baby to spend most of his or her waking hours; today's play yards double as changing stations and as a secondary crib for napping or travel. In reviews, parents say they appreciate the fact that a play yard offers a safe and secure location to place a baby while they tend to the laundry, dishes or other household chores, not to mention the convenience of a portable crib that can be easily packed up and taken on vacation, providing a safe and comfortable place for a baby to slumber.
Play yards range from basic versions that don't offer attachments and other features, to fully loaded care stations that include storage pockets for holding diapers, wipes and other essentials. Portable play yards are similar to basic play yards in design; they don't offer as many (if any) of the added features now common to standard playpens, but they do fold compactly and often have carrying bags with handles. They are typically recommended for babies up to 30 pounds, although recommended usage varies by the manufacturer and style. Bassinet and changer attachments usually have weight limits less than that of the play yard itself (typically 15 pounds for bassinets, 25 pounds for changers), so consumers should pay careful attention to specific weight limits when using playpens.
Play yards also come in versions appropriate for outdoor use. Indoor/outdoor play yards are made of metal or hard plastic, similar to many baby safety gates. (We cover baby safety gates in another report.) These playpens create an enclosed area for babies and toddlers to play safely in a material that will be easier to clean after exposure to the elements. Metal or plastic play yards are also useful for creating an indoor safe area in a room that hasn't been childproofed, or for use when traveling. These indoor/outdoor versions are typically approved for use with children of a wider age range, so they can be used with older toddlers as well.
The best professional review of playpens is by ConsumerReports.org, which rates six play yards in terms of safety, portability and ease of operation (setting up and tearing down, as well as ease of use in general). Factors such as the presence or lack of a safety strap and a bassinet attachment (and whether it could be easily removed by an older child), as well as how securely the mattress is attached, are also considered. In addition to the results of their testing, several articles accompany these ratings, providing information about types of play yards, features offered and shopping tips.
"Baby Bargains," the popular baby gear book by consumer advocates Denise and Alan Fields, also discusses play yards in the latest edition. Their coverage includes general buying advice and recommendations based on price, quality and extra features.
Canadian Family and Choice magazines each test play yards as well. Canadian Family rates four play yards, based on reviews provided by a single family for each playpen. In other words, one family didn't test multiple play yards, so no true direct comparisons are made. However, testers do rate the play yards on a scale of one to 10, and pros and cons are discussed candidly. Choice magazine tests 10 different play yards in terms of features and accessories, ease of use and how easy it is to access a child playing or sleeping inside the playpen. Most of the models included in Choice magazine's roundup aren't available in the U.S., but their coverage does include the North States Industries Super Yard XT and the Graco Totbloc Pack 'n Play, both of which are sold in the United States.
Owner-written reviews round out the overall opinion on play yards. We found hundreds of owner-written reviews for several models on BabiesRUs.com, Amazon.com and Target.com. Parents and caregivers who are using these products on a day-to-day basis can provide valuable insight into the practicality of different features under everyday use. User reviews are also a good place to spot potential problems, such as several reports of a specific feature not working as promised.
With the wide variety of play yard options available, most consumers can easily find a model that suits their needs and their tastes. Many play yards come in multiple patterns, so parents can choose styles that fit with their decor or coordinate with other baby gear. Overall, reviews for most play yards are positive. One exception is the Jeep Trek Easy Travel Playard (*Est. $140), manufactured by Kolcraft and designed for traveling. The Trek Easy offers nearly all the bells and whistles standard playpens do, including a bassinet, removable changing table and toy bar with soft hanging toys.
While the Jeep play yard gets some good scores in professional reviews for ease of use, we found some questionable ratings for safety. In user reviews on BabiesRUs.com, about 20 owners contribute to an average rating of three stars out of five at the time of our visit. Reviewers say the Jeep is hard to set up and rather large and heavy when it's folded up. When put together, it is small enough to fit through a doorway, and parents like the convenience of being able to move it from room to room without having to take it down first. But there are two reports of the plastic that locks the sides in breaking, one report of the handle breaking and one report of both zippers breaking. One parent says the changing table was too small for his 25-day-old infant, while another says the sleeping area is too small. There are many complaints about it being too bulky to travel with. Despite the features offered by the Jeep Trek Easy Travel Playard, we've excluded it from our Best Reviewed section due to the negative feedback.