How To Choose A Play Mat?
While our purpose is to educate parents on how to go about buying the right products that are suitable for their precious ones, please note that the tips here are mainly our personal opinions and do not mean to cast allegations or insinuations of any kind against any individuals or companies. These tips can be used as a good starting point. You should think carefully whether the tips make sense, do your own research and use your own judgments before buying a play mat.
There are so many different baby play mats available in the market, so you shouldn’t be ashamed of your confusion when you try to find the right one for your precious one. These products go by different names but are mainly called play mat, playmat or activity mat. Here are some good tips for choosing the right play mat for your baby:
Safety, safety & safety
What else can it be? Obviously, safety will always be the No. 1 concern in every parent’s mind. The issue is that there are so many different safety standards in this world – American, Canadian, European, Japanese, Korean, Australian, New Zealand, etc. No product has ever been developed and certified to meet all these standards mainly due to economical and technical reasons. And even within a country, there are multiple standards to meet for each single product most of the times. Take the European safety standards for example … Not many people will know it, but passing the most basic EN-71 European standards does not mean anything much regarding the safety of the play mat since the play mat is being governed by another standards within Europe! And even within the EN-71, there are different parts in the standards. Suppliers rarely mention these. Instead they will generalize it as ‘passing European standards’ or ‘passing EN-71 standards’ without telling you the details or what they fail. The worst thing is that standards keep evolving. Even reputable suppliers use old standards as they might have already failed the new standards. You might be confused now, but we take it to be our duties and obligations to educate consumers.
To keep things simple, just remember these rules of thumb in general: (i) avoid China brand if possible, but made in China is okay, (ii) go for brands from developed countries. Obviously, you can still go for a China brand if you know what you are buying. In general, brands from USA, Europe, Japan, Korea, etc. are considered as safe enough. Such brands would have imposed tight internal quality control process to ensure safety and quality regardless of the country of manufacture. A good example will be Apple, whose products are well known for quality and finishing even though they are mostly made in China.
Still on safety!
Don’t be surprised that we are still on safety since safety covers such a wide area. You don’t want your baby to get hurt when lying on the play mat.
The play mat must be thick and large enough so that it will protect the babies even when they stumble (which is common). If possible, they should be extra padded to cushion the fall.
If zippers are being used, they should be hidden away from the babies.
If the play mat comes with toys or activity items, they should be safely positioned.
Types & materials
There are so many different types of play mats, but in general, we classify them as fabric mat, puzzle mat, soft mat and space folder mat.
Fabric mats are those that made of clothing materials. They include mattresses which everyone is familiar with. Needless to say, fabric mats are generally the safest but is generally not waterproof unless specially treated.
Puzzle mats are commonly known as ABC or foam mats. They have huge price ranges and are usually made of foam using materials such as Polyethylene (PE) and Ethylene-vinyl acetate (EVA). Even within the same family (such as PE), the product quality and pricing of the end products can vary drastically due to plastic characteristics, chemical composition and manufacturing process. Some puzzle mats are so lousy and really stink (safe?) but they are really cheap … and these are the foam mats that caused lots of health concerns in the past! Others made of EVA are of the highest qualities, pass stringent safety standards, do not pose any health concerns and do not really have any smell even when you first open them. Unfortunately, they are not cheap and cost even more than PE soft mats. As the saying goes, not all foam mats are made equal! Puzzle mats are usually made of interlocking pieces with alphabets, numbers, symbols or even animals on them. One such example is the award winning animal tessellation foam mats which are extremely popular in other developed countries, but not so much here. If you want to go for puzzle mats, our suggestion is to use those higher quality EVA mats that are popular in developed countries such as Japan and Europe.
Soft mats are usually made of PE, Polyurethane (PU), Polyvinyl chloride (PVC) or even Silicone. PE and PU soft mats are cheap but their colors are not as rich and their surfaces are rougher so you might not want your baby to crawl on them. PE soft mats are generally cheaper, while PU soft mats can hardly be found here. On the other hand, PVC soft mats are very popular in Singapore due to their colorful designs, educational values and smooth surfaces. But they are expensive and can be rather heavy and bulky. And unknown to lots of people, PVC products are really bad for the environment and their product safety is a big concern. And we are not even talking about phthalates! Have you ever wondered why PVC mats cannot even penetrate lots of developed markets in Europe? Click here for more details.
Silicone mats are the evolution of PVC mats. They have all the great features of PVC mats, but minus the negative ones. Silicone mats are really better, softer, safer and very environmental friendly. But they are also the most expensive ones. That is why you can’t find them in Singapore yet.
Space folder mats
Due to all the concerns with PVC mats, a lot of PVC Korean suppliers have started creating the so-called space folder mats, also known as foldable mats, folder mats, space folding mats or simply folding mats. Space folder mats are the in-thing in Korea now. As the name implies, space folder mat can be easily fold up. Their surfaces use PU fabric and usually come in primary or pastel color combination. Inside the PU fabric will usually be layers of PE foams. Some suppliers have also started with simple designs on such space folder mats. Folder mats are safer and hundred times (we hold back using thousand times) more environmental friendly than PVC mats but they lack educational values. The much lighter weight of the space folder mat is another reason for its popularity as this makes it so much more portable even if you only need to move it from one room to the other.
Given all the above and since we are environmentally conscious, we would recommend space folder mat as our No. 1 choice, with fabric mat, PVC mat and high grade PE and EVA mat all in joint No. 2 spot. But for those who don’t really care about what happens to Mother Earth and are looking for attractive and educational mats, PVC mats will be a great one to have.
Fitting Play Mats
If one of your main purposes of buying the play mat is to use it together with a play yard, then you might want to buy one that can fit nicely within the play yard (or at least close to that and sit inside the play yard). Our recommendation is NOT to get a play mat that is larger than the play yard since a play yard that is sitting on top of a play mat might still shift when the baby pushes it. But the choice is yours.
Size matters! So does thickness!
Of course size matters! Seriously! The play mat has to be spacious enough for the baby to roll and play within it. But you also need to consider the available living space in your house.
The size of the play yard is usually measured in centimeters (cm) or millimeters (mm). Do not rely on the S, M, L and XL size markings because such markings from different suppliers mean different dimensions. Our advice is to always confirm the actual size of the play mat before buying so as to avoid any unwanted misunderstanding and frustration.
And how could we forget about the thickness of the play mat? Thickness matters too! After all, the play mat has to be reasonably thick enough to cushion the fall of the baby. It has to protect the little one from hitting the hard floor surface. But how thick should we go for? It really depends, since all play mats are different. You might be shocked to know that soft mats can go up to 40mm thick while space folder mats can go up to 42mm thick! Our recommendation is anything around 10mm for soft mat should be good enough in general. Some parents might prefer 15mm thickness for soft mat. As for space folder mat, the standard thickness is 40mm.
The size and material of the play mat will determine its weight. A standard 15mm PVC mat is more than 2 times heavier than a standard 40mm (no typo error here!) space folder mat of the same sizes (i.e. same length and width). That might be an important factor to you when choosing the right play mat. The much heavier PVC mat makes it less portable. Imagine if you have to carry a bulky 10kg mat from one room to another regularly!
Most play mats have some educational values in them, but they might not be attractive enough. The opposite is true too, with some attractive play mats lacking educational values. On the other hand, there are play mats that are brightly colored with attractive designs and educational values. The latest PVC mats take things a step further and provide awesome learning experiences. Using specially designed and patented ‘pens’, they can play music, speak in multiple languages and can even tell stories and play games. Some top of the range ones even provide augmented reality (AR) learning experiences that interact with your smartphones! Seriously, do you need that? Such mats are very expensive too. Always remember why you need a play mat in the first place.
Warranty / After-sales support
Some suppliers and shops allow exchange or refund within 5 days, provided that the item is never opened and never used (but there will be collection fee and administrative cost). Obviously it will be great if that time period can be dragged further. Read more about our Exchange & Return Policy here.
As for warranty, very few of them provide it as most play mats are already reasonably priced. In some cases, the suppliers might provide a limited 14 days to 1 month warranty that covers only defects in materials and workmanship but those defects have to be confirmed and agreed by the manufacturers first. Not that we didn’t warn you how limited the warranty is, but that should be good enough. After all, the play mat is much simpler than the play yard and warranty is generally not required. Continue shopping to find out more or simply click here!
When we said easiness, we mean:
- How quick and easy to assemble it when setting up for the very first time?
- How quick and easy to fold it away for storage when you no longer need it?
- How easy to clean and maintain it?
- Is the play mat waterproof?
- How portable and heavy is it?
- How easy to sell it as a 2nd hand item if you choose to do so?
Appearance is important. You want the play mat to blend in with your overall living space or the nursery room that you have painstakingly created for your precious one? Do you want a brightly colored play mat to stimulate the baby (even though there are still lots of scientific debates on how color affects babies)? Or do you prefer lighter, wooden or pastel colors? How about design?