My husband and I disagree about indoor public play-areas. Ball pits at restaurants, playpens at the mall – good idea or bad idea for our toddler?


“I love this question – I had a parent refer to the play area at the Mall as the Petri dish one time and that has always stuck with me. There are 2 issues to consider with public play areas, safety and illness exposure. With safety concerns in mind, I would never recommend public play areas for children who cannot walk well – there is too big of a risk they will get hurt. Also, for toddlers, if there are a lot of bigger, more aggressive kids playing at the time it may be best to avoid the area. Illness exposure is inevitable in these areas, so if you don’t want your child to get sick, they shouldn’t play. Sanitizing hands before and after play may help keep some germs away, but not always. That being said, the only way the body builds immunity to viruses is by being exposed to them. My kids weren’t in daycare when they were younger so I would actively seek out those Petri dish play areas so that they could be exposed to germs. I wanted them have a more protective immune system when they started kindergarten when school attendance really starts to matter.”

Dr. Mary PagnottoNorthland


“Good idea. Social play time with other kids is important. Is there a potential for getting sick? Absolutely! But, sick exposures are everywhere — daycare, grocery store, park, and school to name a few. Pick your play areas wisely (some are more clean than others), use good hand washing protocols, and let your kid have fun.”

— Dr. Brook McHughChartiers/McMurray


“Not necessarily a bad idea. Yes, there is potential exposure to very bad germs. But normal healthy immune systems can usually handle such exposures.

Ball pits and playpens are fun. I like to think that fun can bolster the function of our immune system.

So: occasional forays into these play areas need not cause undue concern.”

Dr. Brian Donnelly — North Hills


“I think it’s an ok idea. Certainly it’s a good way to catch an illness in cold and flu season. But that’s part of developing your immune system and being a kid.”

Dr. Ray O’TooleChartiers/McMurray


“I have actually trained my kids to walk by them and say “ewe.” They are germ holders. Kids, as we all know, are not the most hygienic creatures. They wipe their nose on their hand, or go to the bathroom and then climb on the play equipment. Cold viruses and the GI bug can be easily transferred from kid-to-kid in that environment. Viruses can live quite a while on hard surfaces.

That being said, you are only a kid once and should be able to act like a kid in a boring environment like a shopping mall. Best thing to do is to keep hand sanitizer and wipes nearby. Avoid eating or drinking in the play space. Do not bring your child to the play space if they are sick. Then hope for the best!”

Dr. Joe AracriGreentree


“They are a lot of fun, but they are hard to keep clean. Nonetheless, I believe it’s OK for kids to enjoy supervised play at indoor play areas.”

Dr. Sarah Kohl Chartiers/McMurray


“As long as he is not immune-compromised, it is fine for your child to play in public play areas. For young children, playing is how they learn. Not only will it help him further develop his skill sets, but it will give you a break from being the entertainment! If you are worried about germs, you can always bring hand sanitizer with you to use after he is done playing. And if he were to catch a virus, try to remember that it is making his immune system stronger. It’s never fun to see your child sick or hurt, but he can’t live in a bubble.”

Dr. Elizabeth CutrellJefferson Hills


“Is this a trick question? Socialization is a good thing, even at this toddler age of parallel play. But I would bet that an infection of some sort would follow every public play date within 2 to 5 days (depending on the time of year).”

Dr. Tony KovatchArcadia


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