The Best Play Yard (or Playard or Play Pen or Baby Jail)

Of the dozens of play yards on the market today, we think Graco's Pack 'n Play On The Go ($70; Amazon.com) is the best one out there. It's a simple play yard with practical features and a reasonable price from company known for inventing the packable portable crib. Even though it's not adorned with flashy lights or fancy nap stations, it's a sensible and useful choice for most families.

We reviewed more than 60 play yards over the course of 30 days and nearly 30 hours of research, trials and testing. While many play yard manufacturers would like parents to believe that the extra bells and whistles are important to have on a play yard, nothing could be further from the truth. The most important aspect of a play yard is having a safe place for a baby to sleep and a secure place for toddler to play.

Of the dozens of play yards, we focused on five specific manufacturers with products that fit definitive needs. We opened and closed them, used all the nifty features and gadgets and even put the lauded product-specific extras (like newborn nappers and remote-control nightlights) to the test. In the end, Graco's Pack 'n Play On The Go came out on top.

Who Should Buy A Play Yard?

A play yard is one piece of baby equipment that can benefit a lot of parents, but is by no means a necessity like diapers and wipes. The play yard can be a polarizing piece of baby gear: Ask experienced parents whether or not your new baby will need one, and you'll likely get an ear-full. Satisfaction all depends on your needs, how you plan to use the play yard, and, ultimately, the model you choose.

While some parents swear by their play yards, others think they are simple an easy way to get out of parenting. Still, any parent who plans on traveling, even if it's just to grandma's house for the night, may want to consider investing in one. A play yard is also handy if you want baby to sleep nearby in your bedroom or have safe spot to nap (and as baby grows, play) in other rooms in your home. A few parents may even want to use a play yard instead of a traditional crib.

Play yards are more popular than ever. From 2011 to 2012, the most recent years on hand for comparison, play yard purchases have grown by more than 10 percent with sales that total $128 million, said Kate Bowen of the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association (JPMA) in an interview with us. The JPMA is the national trade association that provides checks and balances to more than 300 children's product manufacturers worldwide.The JPMA certification seal ensures the product meets the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) standards, which indicates the product meets national safety standards.

"Play yards provide a safe sleeping environment when away from home, allowing families to travel with the reassurance that baby will have a safe place to sleep," Bowen said. "Grandparents won't have to worry about purchasing a crib if mom and dad arrive with a play yard in tow."

What To Look For

Play yards come in all shapes and sizes, some with only slight differences, Consumer Reports states. In its most basic form, a play yard is a metal-framed, fabric-covered, rectangle-shaped "baby container" whose four sides can be dropped so it can be folded and stashed in a carry case for easy transport. Many come with a full-sized bassinet feature, which is a secured hanging mesh attachment that uses the removable play yard floor as the mattress. This bassinet attachment can be removed and the mattress dropped to the bottom, allowing the play yard to be used with older babies or even young toddlers. Other optional attachments often include detachable toy bars, changing tables, diaper storage, and light/sound/vibration functions. Most play yards come with two wheels on one of the narrow ends so they can be tilted and easily rolled around the house.

For our purposes, we only looked at foldable play yards (also called playards, playpens and pack and plays), not baby pens or gates that serve a completely different function, such as creating a barrier between baby and dangerous spots like stairs and fireplaces.

The simplest form of play yards are ones designed primarily to keep baby safe while mom and dad get a momentary break. In some cases, they offer ample space for toddlers to play safely, and in other cases, they are smaller areas more suitable for infants. They come with or without bassinets and rarely include many accessories and attachments. The parents we spoke to say they love using these playpens when they're out and about — to the beach, to the park, to grandmas — as well as at home. When you're on the go, these stripped-down models are perfect because they're lightweight and simple. The smaller ones are less expensive ($100 or less), while the roomier versions can top out at nearly $200.

On the other end of the spectrum are dazzling deluxe models, with built-in shelves and electronic features that include music, vibration and nightlights. Many have extensive toy bars, removable toy mats and even remote controls. All that's missing are the steering wheel and brakes. These are perfect for the few parents out there who want to use a play yard instead of a crib. Often they are less expensive than a typical crib ($250 versus $500) and are easily folded and stowed away when baby is ready for a big-kid bed. However, most of the deluxe play yards are heavy (more than 30 pounds) and can't be easily moved (some don't even have wheels or fit through standard doorways). These features are important to point out because most parents buy play yards because they are lightweight and can be transported easily. We'd hate to see you invest a bundle in a souped-up model only to find down the road that it doesn't suit some of the simplest needs.

Of all of the advertised features that manufacturers say are important in a play yard, there are four specific ones that we think all play yards must possess no matter what:

Safety Back when a lot of us were kids, play yards weren't necessarily the safest spot for tots (think wedged heads and pinched toes). But thanks to increased federal oversight of design, construction and safety regulations, today's play yards are safer than ever. For the purpose of this buying guide, we only considered models that meet the latest rules (enacted in February 2013) by the Consumer Product Safety Commission that state that play yards:

  • Must not have side rails that form a sharp V when folded.
  • Must have strong corner brackets to prevent sharp-edged cracks and side-rail collapse.
  • Must have a strong mattress attachment to the play yard floor to prevent entrapment.

It's important to note that these federal regulations don't have much teeth: Older play yards manufactured before February 2013 are still on the market so watch out and check the manufacture date. Also, we know it's tempting to accept that hand-me-down play yard from your neighbor, but we suggest you politely pass and invest in a new one that meets the new safety regulations or put it on your registry. (Fortunately, our pick isn't a budget-buster.)

It's also important that the mattress is firm and not too soft or overly padded. There may be a temptation to add an extra pillow or blanket to soften up the mattress, but don't do it. Experts say these added items can only help to suffocate a child.

On a similar note, play yards must also have good air circulation. Enclosed play yards are downright dangerous. They must have breathable mesh walls. Don't ever put bumpers in a play yard or a crib, as they add to the threat of suffocation.

The JPMA also recommends that parents look for the JPMA Certification Seal, which ensures the product is tested annually to high safety standards. Also make sure you read and follow the product's instructions.

Portability Play yards were originally designed as a portable area for baby to sleep and play. And we still think that's an important feature. The best play yards are lightweight (less than 25 pounds), have wheels and can be easily maneuvered through a standard interior door when fully opened. Many of the upgraded play yard models are made wider than the basic models, making them more difficult to move through the house. Some of these models can weigh as much as 30 or more pounds. Also, many of the extras found on these deluxe models don't fit into the travel bags, so you have to lug them in addition to the play yard. Most parents who buy a play yard want (or will realize down the road that they want) one that's compact and folds easily - trust us on this. Think overnights with Auntie and yoga in the living room with mom.

Price Babies need a lot of stuff, so you don't want to break the bank on one purchase. Play yard prices go as high as $230. In some cases, you're paying for the extras that you may not need (read: Graco's Cuddle Cove) and in other cases, you're paying for exclusive brands that may or may not live up to all the hype (Phil & Teds Traveller comes to mind). On the lower end, models that dip below $40 (Cosco's Funsport) offer the basics but you lose softer fabrics, an easy fold and manageability. Somewhere in between the $200 model and the $40 model is the perfect play yard, the $70 On The Go by Graco.

Easy to clean Two words: spit-up and blowout. Your play yard should be easy to clean, and ideally, completely washable.

Fashionable Sure this seems superficial, but would you put a purple-orange couch in your red living room? We think most of you would say no, so we looked at the various color schemes offered and picked a model with offerings for almost every taste, including bright colors for more daring decorators..

There are also other touches that push a play yard from good to great. They're not mandatory but are certainly nice:

  • Removable bassinet. These give your play yard some versatility.
  • Removable diaper changing station. While these have low weight limits and a limited shelf life, they are convenient.
  • High weight limit. A low weight limit shortens the amount of time you'll be able to use the gear. Generally, bassinets can be used up to 15 pounds, which is about 3 months or until baby can push up on hands and knees. The play yard itself can be used until the child is 30 pounds, 35 inches or is able to climb out.

On the flip side, some things are flat-out deal-breakers:

  • Too deep. Who wants to bust their back bending over and lifting out a baby? Some models are particularly bad, especially if you're short parent!
  • Too small. Some play yards on the market are specifically designed for infants. Hello, waste of money!

And then there are the unnecessary features that some parents might be drawn to but mostly won't need:

  • Rocking seat. Unless you live in a super small space, this is a complete waste of money. Most parents get a swing or a bouncer for this purpose.
  • Lights, music and sound. Often these are really too far away to make a difference and the batteries run out quickly. Plus some parents (and their babies) simply hate the mechanical melodies.
  • Diaper, wipes storage. In many cases, these storage spaces are small and difficult to access.

A Bit About "Pack 'n Plays"

To say Graco is a leader in the play yard market is an understatement. To many folks, Graco's Pack 'n Play models are the best and only play yards available. Certainly the Graco name is synonymous with play yards, but that doesn't mean its the best available. There are plenty of play yard brands out there that make a quality product.

The Pack 'n Play was introduced in 1987 after Graco had already established itself as a leader in baby products. The Pack 'n Play was the first of its kind on the market. Just like other play yards, the Pack 'n Play has been subject to recalls and redesigns. The company has had plenty of successful play yard models.

How We Tested

If you're reading this, you've probably already noticed that there's an overwhelming number of play yards to choose from. We counted at least 60. We began our hunt for the perfect play yard by identifying the models that met all of our top requirements: safe, portable, reasonably priced, easy to clean, stylish. We then looked to score as many "nice to have" features as possible.

After narrowing the field, we spent a good 8 to 10 hours physically testing our top contenders in a manner similar to how a parent would use the product — or any toddler would abuse it. We assembled each one according to the manufacturer's instructions, including any accessories. We pushed and shook the changers and bassinets to ensure they are sturdy enough to handle a wiggly baby. We jostled and rattled the whole play yard, just like a toddler. Then, we broke down the play yards and stashed them in their carry bags.

We looked to baby-gear experts who have fully vetted the products and, of course, parents who are using the gear. We asked for their truthful opinions of each of products. Boy, did we get some advice!

Our Pick

The Best Play Yard (or Playard or Play Pen or Baby Jail)

After weeks of research and testing, we're confident to report that Graco's Pack 'n Play On The Go is the best on the market for most parents. Even though the On The Go doesn't have any of the glitzy features like some other play yards, it has what most parents need: It's safe, portable, easy to use and clean, and comes with a reasonable price. The design is simple and understated, a variety of fashions are available.

When it comes to safety, the On The Go is top rated. While the Consumer Products Safety Commission has enacted new rules regarding overall play yard safety, the On The Go has never been recalled. (Read above for more information on that.) The On The Go has side rails that only lower when a button is firmly pressed. The mattress, which fits snuggly into the play yard, is firm with no extra padding that could be dangerous to a sleeping baby. The bassinet and the play yard have mesh sides, making the whole thing breathable. Overall, it's a safe sleeping place for your baby.

When opened, the On The Go is narrow enough to roll through a standard household doorway. And when it's time to pack up, it folds in a snap — with feet and wheels pushing inward. (Plus, according to Graco, it's 20 percent more compact when folded than other Graco models). The hanging bassinet attachment, which clicks over the side rails into place, doesn't have to be removed to collapse the play yard, and the mattress folds around the play yard to make one compact package when folded. Believe it or not, everything actually fits back into the travel bag it came in. The folded gear fits easily into a standard car trunk with plenty of room to spare.

The On The Go is fairly lightweight, weighing in at about 23 pounds, with other models weighing in at 26 pounds on average. The On The Go can be used until the child reaches 35 inches tall or 30 pounds, or is able to climb out, which is about the same with most other play yards. The bassinet feature should only be used until baby reaches 15 pounds or can push up on hands and knees.

The On The Go features a hanging toy bar with three plush toys and a small storage bag for diapers or such. Neither are particularly amazing. The toy bar is chintzy, and the hanging storage bag is way too small to do any good. But, like we said, these are "extras" most parents don't particularly need in the first place..

There's no doubt that babies and toddlers are messy. It's a good thing that the On The Go is easy to clean. The fabric is easily wiped down with a damp cloth. If things get really bad, use some mild soap. (See below for more cleaning instructions.)

At about $70 on Amazon.com, the On The Go is quite reasonably priced — and is even more affordable than some models that offer less. Graco offers the On The Go in a variety of color schemes intended for boys and girls as well as gender-neutral styles.

Who Else Likes It?

Graco hit a home run when it comes to the On The Go. More than 900 reviewers on Amazon.com said the On The Go is great for function, price and value. Some laud the easy setup, while others say it has cute colors and patterns. The On The Go scored a 4.6 out of 5 stars. Reviewers on BabiesRUs.com, where it received 4 out of 5 stars, said the On The Go described as reliable and lightweight and is perfect for families that travel a lot. One reviewer said: "This product is perfect for our outdoor living lifestyle. Great to put in the yard while doing yard work or bbq'ing or at the beach for a nap."

Babycenter's editors give the On the Go 4 out of 5 stars, saying "We especially like how easy it is to move from place to place when it's set up and how simple it is to fold. (Seriously, if you can push a button you can quickly stash this away.)" They do point out that if you're looking for storage and entertainment, then look elsewhere.

In addition, Denise and Alan Fields of the famed "Baby Bargains" book recognized the On The Go as a "Best (for home)" recommendation in addition to many of the other Graco models.

The Step Up and Step Down

The Best Play Yard (or Playard or Play Pen or Baby Jail)

If it's bells and whistles you're after, we'd recommend the Chicco Lullaby LX ($190; amazon.com). At 33 pounds, the Lullaby outweighs many other play yards, but also has every imaginable feature available including vibration, sound and a remote-control night light. Some Lullaby models even have removable play mats. Parents report that the unlocking mechanism for folding can be difficult to maneuver and that packing it down is challenging.While it could be a great choice for a crib substitute, it's certainly not the best choice for the majority of parents.

The Best Play Yard (or Playard or Play Pen or Baby Jail)

If its bare bones you want, you should consider the Cosco Fun Sport ($55; amazon.com). At less than 19 pounds, the Fun Sport has no bassinet or other features. Although it's very basic with a thin and hard mattress, it's lightweight and easy to maneuver. Sadly, it is also hard to find in stores.



Our Picks for Travel, Toddlers and Twins

While the On The Go is perfect for most families that stay at home and travel occasionally, we know that some folks are buying a play yard for other reasons. Some may travel extensively, have twins or simply need a very basic playpen for an older tot. For them, we recommend:

The Best Play Yard (or Playard or Play Pen or Baby Jail)

  • Travel: While the On The Go will likely work for those who travel extensively, they might want a lighter weight, more portable travel crib. For this, The Guava Family Lotus Everywhere Crib ($200; amazon.com) is perfect. At a manageable 13 pounds, the Lotus easily converts into a backpack for the traveling family. It has breathable mesh for complete airflow, zipper side for easy access and a five-star review on Amazon.
  • Toddlers and twins: The Joovy Room2 Portable Play ($130; amazon.com) has 10-square-feet of play area and a 34-pound weight limit, making it perfect for a toddler or for two kids. Downside: It weighs 32 pounds. Upside: It's sturdy and solid.

The Competition

When looking at the dozens of the options, we considered a variety of play yards in our decision making. Others made the cut and aren't listed:

  • Safety 1st Sweet Wonder ($90; amazon.com) — Parents claimed the Sweet Wonder is just as good as more expensive models. The changing area and large organizer seem unnecessary. The fold is not as easy as the On The Go. At 29 pounds, it tips the scale.
  • EvenFlo Portable Baby Suite Deluxe ($84; amazon.com) — There are a lot of fun aspects to this model, including a removable bassinet that can be used as a baby gym and a fold-away diaper folder. But, in reviews, parents raised warnings about the mattress, saying it was too loose and could be dangerous.
  • Graco Pack 'n Play with Newborn Napper ($180; amazon.com) — While the play yard itself seems it is up to Graco's high standards, there are safety concerns regarding the attachable Newborn Napper. This separate sleep area is made from plush fabrics and, in some cases, has a separate pillow. The Consumer Product Safety Commision says that baby's sleeping area should be free of plush bedding because it poses a suffocation risk. Avoid this play yard altogether and go with the On The Go.

Care, Use, Maintenance, and Repair

No matter which play yard you pick, the first few times you put it together it's likely to be a lesson in frustration. They are not easily assembled and unassembled.So Play yards are hard to put up so they will be hard to knock down — this is done intentionally to keep children safe. Of course, the best way to start is to read the instruction book, but, if you're like most people, you won't. Instead, you'll wrestle with it, curse at it and demand that it's broken, until you realize there is a system to assembling and breaking down any play yard. Our advice: Don't be that person.

Gracobaby.com has a full service center with instruction books, helpful videos and safety and recall notices for all of its products, including the On the Go play yard. In addition, the company reaches its customers through all means of social media, including Twitter, Facebook and YouTube.

As far as cleaning, the On the Go's vinyl, plastic and metal parts (including the mattress, mesh sides and metal frame) can be washed with mild soap and water with a sponge. Forget about using bleach or other harsh cleansers — not only can it harm the material, it could be toxic to baby. The carry bag can also be washed in cold water on the delicate cycle and drip dried. Soft toys can be spot cleaned with warm soapy water. If your play yard gets sandy, remove all the sand from the surfaces before folding it up and putting it into the carry bag.

Wrapping It Up

Graco has grown to be a leader in play yards, and the On The Go play yard is the perfect example of why. It's the best pick for a family wanting a quick and easy way to keep a baby happy and comfy at home or on the go at a reasonable price.

Sources

1. Alan and Denise Fields, Play Yards. 2014

2. Fun and Zzzzzzs in the Play Yard. Juvenile Product Manufacturers Association. Last Updated October 26, 2012

3. Graco Pack 'n Play On The Go Travel Playard. Amazon.com review

4. Graco Pack 'n Play On the Go Play Yard, BabyCenter.com.

5. Graco Pack 'n Play On The Go Travel Play Yard - Zoofari, Babiesrus.com review

6. How to buy a play yard, BabyCenter.com

7. Interview with Kate Bowen, Associate Communications Manager. Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association (JPMA)

8. Jayne O'Donnell. "New rule aims to prevent deaths in play yards, mesh cribs" USA Today. June 27, 2012.

9. Play Yard Buying Guide, ConsumerReports.com. Last Updated May 2012

10. Play Yards: New Safety Rule to Take Effect, U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. February 19, 2013

11 .Pack 'n Play On The Go Playard, BabyCenter.com

Amy Connolly started a career as a flight attendant but took a sharp turn when she went into journalism. When she's not writing about legal, health and social service issues, she's playing taxi for her three kids — elementary-aged twins and a special-needs middle schooler.