Jun 20, 2023

Best sensory toys for babies and toddlers

To help with brain development

hen researching what toys to buy for your child, you will come across a sector called sensory toys - but what exactly are they?

"A sensory toy is one which stimulates one or other of the five senses a human has - smell, touch, sight, taste and sound," explains children's expert and author Rachel Fitz-Desorgher. "Engaging these senses from babyhood onwards can help the brain to develop."

Fitz-Desorgher, the author of Your Baby Skin To Skin, said sensory play is important as it helps children "explore and learn about themselves and the world around them. As they explore, they question and develop better language, and as they run and climb around their world, they develop strength and courage and confidence."

While of course you can stimulate your baby's senses without the help of props, toys are useful tool to take it to the next level... and when you run out of inspiration. And, according to Fitz-Desorgher, children are never too young or old to appreciate a sensory toy. "We never stop growing and learning and our senses never stop loving getting involved," she said.

If you’re not quite sure where to start for your own baby, or you are looking for a useful, educational gift for a child, here is a list of tried and tested sensory toys for children of all ages.

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Fitz-Desorgher is talking at The Baby Show which returns to Olympia London from October 21 to October 23.

This inexpensive gift box of six different shaped and sized balls are a great place to start when on the hunt for sensory toys. They are easy to grasp and hold for small hands and can play a part in a child's tactile development - or encouraging them to practice hand-eye coordination by moving items from hand to hand. They also make a slight squeak when squeezed and are bright and colourful for young eyes. Word of warning - pets will love them too.

These sweet kittens have been developed to challenge a child's sense of touch and help finesse fine motor skills. They have a number of features that challenge grasping or the general use of a baby's hands. For example, one of the toys is heavy, another light. One is fluffy, one crinkly. They also feature contrasting colours and patterns on their body to help a baby's vision.

A playmat is a newborn essential as it offers a baby somewhere to lie down (and therefore not be in your arms or on you for just a moment!), while engaging with the world around them. This one from Mamas & Papas is an excellent pick, mainly due to all the extras it comes with.

The set somes with four hanging toys for babies to look at as well as a rattle, a comforter and mirror - all themed in a cute yet gender neutral cloud design. While expensive up front, most of the toys will be suitable for a child long after they outgrow the mat.

These great - and cheap - toys don't look like much but babies love them. They are essentially several coloured plastic links that slot together. Young children love the bright colours, the clacking sound they make and how they feel in their hands, while older kids enjoy working out how to put them together. As the links are small and easily portable so they are great for on the go.

Before the birth of your first child, you wonder why people buy you so many muslins. Then when you have a newborn, you wonder what you’d have done without them. Etta Loves is a brand that makes various items - muslins, playmats, sensory strips - in patterns that tickle the senses and help cognitive and visual development between birth and around four months.

Muslins can be used to play peak-a-boo, or just draped nearby to your newborn for them to stare at. Each muslin square in this pack is 60cm x 60cm - the ideal size.

This is a great sensory toy that can be clipped onto a variety of surfaces - namely your pram or pram bar but also cot, bassinet, bouncer or even car seat. It comes with three soft hanging toys that babies can grab and touch and each make a noise when held or shaken. It is super light and bendy, meaning it's great for on the go.

Activity books - or books with elements such as felt flaps, crinkly patches, mirrors and tactile elements - are great sensory toys. While young babies will enjoy these books, they will get more out of them the older they get. This option from Mamas & Papas is themed around a quintessentially English garden. As well as crinkly pages, it has a squeaker and comes with a teething ring which is great for sore gums.

Sturdy-but-squishy, these three silicone Sensory Nesting Balls by Kidly have won various awards as they challenge small hands, mouths and rapidly expanding brains. Children will learn to roll, throw and catch using the balls - which come in three different sizes - while they are also excellent teething toys. The balls also look great - and would make a nice present for someone expecting.

Sophie la girafe is a cult toy. Mainly a teether, so therefore usually a toy for slightly older babies, it is made of flexible, lightweight 100 per cent natural rubber that is lovely to chew on for babies with sore gums. But it is also a sensory toy as it has dark and contrasting spots all over for visual stimulation and she squeaks for good measure. Most babies are very attached to their Sophie.

Multi-purpose items are a godsend for parents. This activity chair is three products in one - making is a great all-round purchase that is well worth the money. The activity tray, which can be removed and played with on its own and is particularly good for car journeys, will keep your child occupied for hours with eight sensory toys. Minus the activity tray, the seat can be used as a dining chair for mealtimes as it comes with straps that fit on any standard dining chair. The padded insert can be removed meaning it can be used for children up to 3 years.

The Lilliputiens activity cube is a great toy for introducing different animals and their sounds to your baby. Each face of the soft and squishy cube includes a different animal and a cool sensory activity to boot. It also has a teething ring which is always a bonus. Suitable for children aged 9 months and up.

Another cult toy that babies adore. This set of six eggs in their egg box are great for a variety of the senses. They are brightly coloured for visual stimulation and also squeek when pressed. The top of the egg comes off, and children will have hours of fun trying to put the egg tops back on. Meanwhile, on the bottom of each egg are different shapes that correspond to the bottom of the box - challenging developing brains and improving fine motor skills.

This sensory jumper and bouncer is a bit of an assault on the senses for adults, but children totally adore it. Great for strengthening legs and posture of babies due to its upright position with four height positions, this sea-themed toy comes with a bouncy seat that swivels 360° to take them from sensory toy to toy - all of which challenge a child's sight, hearing and touch.

Toys include a crab that spins, a starfish that holds a mirror, an octopus paddle toy, and flash cards with underwater imagery. It is easy to wipe down and the cover is machine washable. Suitable from 6 months or whenever your baby can sit unaided.

A bit of a retro item - but it would appear the humble abacus has come a long way in recent years in terms of being chic. This gorgeous abacus is stylish and practical - teaching young children logical thinking, awareness of shapes and colours and of course - maths skills. A great present for a first birthday at a good price point. From 12 months.

Mori makes beautiful wooden toys - and its Star Shape Sorter is no exception. The chunky blocks painted in muted tones are of safari animals and celestial characters and can be placed through corresponding holes into the sorter and then removed again. The toy therefore develops problem solving skills, hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills. Suitable from 12 months.

This set of 108 translucent colourful shells have 6 different textured surfaces, making them incredibly tactile for children. They are versatile as they are great tools to help mathematical learning such as counting and sorting but also for matching and sequencing. Also great for messy sensory play in water, sand or mud. From 18 months.

The multi-purpose Bigjigs Rolling Activity Sorter is great to help develop those all-important fine motor skills and dexterity while also working all the senses. Its multiple sides feature a flip book, moving cogs, and other interactive elements to pull, twist and flip. It is also a shape sorter, which is great for problem solving. A great all-in-one toy.

A great, multi-purpose option that will keep your little one entertained for hours. As well as helping new standers develop leg strength, little ones can play with the bead maze, work out the shape sorter, play the xylophone, give the scratch board a go, learn to turn gears and cogs and more. It is made to last in study sustainable wood and decorated with vibrant child safe paints. Suitable from 18 months.

This is a great sensory rattle set for older children that also teaches them about magnets. The set includes four magnetic bars and balls each featuring a different external structure to stimulate touch. Then, when stuck together, each makes a different sound when shaken. The balls depict various emotions, encouraging children to express themselves through play. From 12 months.

The Jojo Maman Bebe sensory block set includes 13 sturdy wooden pieces in different shapes and colours that feature different elements to explore. There's a mirror, moving beads, a kaleidoscope, and even a tambourine. Great for stacking and general play - while the fact the toy fits neatly back together is a lovely touch. Suitable from 18 months.

The Lovevery Play Kits are a fantastic toy subscription service for children. Starting from birth, a set of sustainable, beautifully made toys suitable for your child at their age is delivered every two months with literature on how to play with each toy and what they will teach your baby. The brand has now ventured into the older child category - for three years plus. While not cheap - it costs £80 per Play Kit - they are well worth the money.

Another multi-purpose item that is not only a fantastic sensory toy but one that will help new walkers - or those who are almost there - get on their feet. The walker comes with 12 activities and sensory features, all decorated in a gender-neutral, bright, nature theme with woodland and rainbow motifs. The walker is made from highly durable sustainable rubber and wood, finished with non-toxic water based colours. Pricey, but an item that could be passed down generations.