It’s no secret that hands-on learning and exploration is vital for a young child’s development. And sensory toys, in particular, are an excellent way for kids to engage with different textures, sights, sounds and even smells. “Sensory toys provide stimulation that helps create pathways to your child’s brain,” says pediatric occupational therapist Sarah Appleman. “These neuronal pathways are crucial for further skill development they will use when they are older.” Think: problem solving skills, language development, fine and gross motor skills and overall brain development.
Sensory toys are also great for calming or alerting children, depending on what they need, Appleman tells us. “For example, if you have a child who is a picky eater or tactile defensive (they refrain from touching certain textures), using sensory toys such as moon sand, dry rice or a bean bin will help desensitize your child and allow them to explore touch in a safe and calm way. Once the brain properly interprets this information, it can tolerate new textures without becoming overwhelmed thus preventing negative reactions.”
And that’s not all—sensory toys can be especially appealing to children on the spectrum, says Autism Speaks. This is because these playthings can help a child stay calm and engage her senses in an enjoyable and safe way.
And while every toy has some sensory component to it (there are five senses after all), the best ones are those that combine sensory input with targeted skill-building exercises. Here are our top picks for sensory toys for kids.
1. TeyToy My First Soft Book (Ages 0 to 3)
Board books are a go-to for bedtime stories, but if you’ve ever left a teething infant alone with one for too long, you’ll know that they aren’t nearly as sturdy as they seem. (Hello masticated, pulpy mush.) Soft books, however, can survive just about anything, which is good news because they also boast sensory features—crinkly pages, reflective mirrors, ringing bells—that augment the story time experience for tots.
2. VTech Soft and Smart Sensory Cube (Ages 3 to 24 months)
As far as sensory toys go, the Vtech sensory cube has a lot in common with soft books (see above) in that it offers auditory feedback, visual interest and tactile stimulation. But this fun plaything takes the interactive experience up a notch: First, there’s a motion sensor feature that brings to life a singing, talking puppy (Note: you can always just ‘forget’ to buy batteries and opt out of that part if it isn’t up your alley). Then there’s the set of textured balls that can be used for put-and-take play—a lowkey activity that encourages fine motor skill development and hand-eye coordination.
3. Splashin’Kids Inflatable Tummy Time Water Mat (Ages 6 months+)
This squishy inflatable mat has a water-filled inner layer so babies and little kids can enjoy the full-body sensory experience of pressing on a tiny waterbed, while feasting their eyes on the diverse group of vibrant sea creatures floating about. In other words, this mat will take your child on a pleasant underwater trip that provides visual and tactile stimulation to the tune of better neck control and gross motor function.
4. Lemostaar Sensory Balls for Kids (Ages 1+)
A collection of non-toxic textured balls that will surely float your baby’s boat—this sensory toy promotes tactile exploration, and the bright colors provide plenty of visual stimulation to boot. The balls, which come in a variety of sizes and textures, are just the right size for even the tiniest hands to grasp, and the accompanying stacking cups facilitate the development of hand-eye-coordination. Plus, there’s always the opportunity for your tot to play stick the ball in the cup—a fine exercise in visual reasoning.
5. Learning Resources Spike the Fine Motor Hedgehog (Ages 18 months+)
This colorful hedgehog comes with removable peg-shaped quills that fit into its numbered holes so kids can develop fine motor skills while learning counting, as well as color and pattern recognition. The hands-on activity provides plenty of sensory engagement for little ones—just be sure to closely supervise your child with this one, as the pegs could present a choking hazard.
6. Simply3 Kids Sand and Water Activity Table (Ages 18 months+)
Sensory tables are such a worthy investment because they provide an organized and thoughtful play space in which kids can engage with a rotating selection of stimulating materials. Example: Fill the four bins up with sand, water, water beads and uncooked rice for a tactile experience that encourages cause-and-effect experiments while stirring creativity. Of course, there’s nothing stopping you from filling a couple soup bowls with sensory material, but the mess is much more self-contained with the aid of a table.
7. BunMo Pop Tubes (Ages 3+)
An excellent skill-boosting fidget toy to keep little hands occupied, these textured tubes stretch, bend, connect and—you guessed it—pop for a complete sensory experience that’s thoroughly satisfying. Children of all ages will benefit from the tactile engagement and auditory feedback, as well as the fine motor skills boost this one provides. Bonus: This one is also great at calming down a kid who’s caught in the throes of big feelings.
8. Impresa Products Monkey Noodle String Fidgets (Ages 3+)
Can’t you just sit still? If you have never spoken, or at least thought this before, you probably aren’t a parent. To varying extents, all kids have a fundamental need to fidget, and it turns out that the habit actually enhances cognitive processing and increases focus. These brightly colored noodle strings serve up both tactile and visual stimulation, while simultaneously honing fine motor skills—making them an ideal fidget toy. Bust these out whenever your child is in need of a quiet hands-on activity, and watch his brain go to work bending and manipulating them into interlocking designs. Note: Although these have a nice calming effect, don’t give them to a kid who’s already upset or their powers might be used for evil (i.e., to give someone a painful smack).
9. Li’l Gen Water Beads Toy Set (Ages 3+)
Soft, slippery and thoroughly relaxing—little kids will love plunging their mitts into a bucket of water beads. This particular set of beads comes in a vibrant rainbow-colored palette for extra visual appeal and includes scoop and tweezer tools to help with hand-eye-coordination and dexterity. The takeaway? You can expect this sensory toy to provide a kinesthetic experience that promises to keep kids engaged for long stretches of time—just don’t leave your child unsupervised if there’s a risk they might stick the beads in their mouth (and be aware of the potential mess should said child choose to send them flying).
10. Super Z Outlet Liquid Motion Bubbler (Ages 3+)
Good news: You don’t need to master the art of hypnosis in order to successfully calm down a stressed-out kid. This liquid motion bubbler offers a mesmerizing visual experience that will lull any child (or adult) into a more tranquil state. Basically, it’s like a lava lamp without the lava (i.e., the risk that it could overheat and catch fire or explode). This sensory toy boasts beautifully colored bubbles that rain down at a laid back and rhythmic pace to ensure mild and soothing stimulation.
11. TickIt Silishapes Sensory Circles (Ages 3+)
This set of ten sensory discs offers a variety of textures, sizes and colors for kids to explore the sense of touch. Bring them out for interactive games that provide proprioceptive input and help build gross motor skills like balance and coordination, incorporate them into a yoga lesson for kids or simply throw some on the floor so the kids can play a rousing game of “the floor is lava!” No matter how you use this sensory toy, you’ll get plenty of bang for your buck.
12. Educational Insights Playfoam Go! (Ages 3+)
Playdough is wonderful, except for the fact that it dries out in the blink of an eye and crumbles into hazardously sharp bits of junk that end up everywhere. Then, there’s slime, another sensory toy that has its merits...unless you’ve ever had to remove the stuff from, say, a piece of upholstered furniture or your favorite sweater. Enter, playfoam: A miraculous moldable substance that functions in much the same way as playdough and provides as exciting a tactile experience as slime, but without the mess. Best of all, playfoam literally never dries out. (And who doesn’t like a sensory toy that’s also a sound investment?)
13. Small Fish Sensory Stress Relief Unicorn Stretchy Strings (Ages 3+)
Much like the monkey noodle strings, this fidget toy has impressive stretching power, but with an added element of tactile interest thanks to the soft silicone (unicorn?) hairs. By all accounts, this sensory toy is durable enough to survive serious fiddling, squeezing and twirling, making it an ideal choice for helping children cope with frustration or regain focus when they begin to feel antsy.
14. Curious Minds Busy Sand-filled Banana Squeeze Fidget Toy (Ages 3+)
In real life, it’s wise not to squeeze a banana, but this convincing imposter is ripe for heavy handling. The fine granular filling and durable silicone exterior mean that this squeezy sensory toy provides calming vibes along with the opportunity for hand-strengthening exercises that help build fine motor skills. Plus, this toy can always be shared between parent and child, should the former start to feel a touch impatient.
15. Floof Polar Babies Activity Set (Ages 3+)
Do you wanna build a snowman...when the sun is burning hot? Fans of Frozen and snow day enthusiasts alike will appreciate Floof: A divinely soft substance that looks like snow. Just like kinetic sand, Floof has enough tactile appeal and play potential to keep a kid occupied for hours, and it’s similarly easy to clean up.
16. Sorbus Spinner Platform Swing (Ages 3+)
Equipped with a sturdy suspension rope and well-padded frame, this swing promotes balance and helps develop gross motor skills while providing gentle movement for up to three kids at a time. Of course, this puppy also allows for full-throttle thrills—spinning, soaring and the like—so how you use it will likely depend on the specific sensory needs of your child (and perhaps whether you’ve hung it from a tree or your living room ceiling).
17. Kinetic Sand (Ages 3 to 5)
If your kid’s happy place is in the sandbox or on the beach, consider scooping up some kinetic sand—a sensory toy that provides nearly the same (some might say cooler) tactile experience as regular sand. To the touch, kinetic sand feels exactly like the real stuff you’d find at the beach, so kids can use it to mold just about anything they want. This stuff clings to itself like there’s magnetic attraction at work, which makes clean up easy, but here’s the kicker: If you prod or squish the sand, it moves in response as if it were alive. We’re not sure how it works—let’s just call it strange magic—but suffice it to say, this one offers up some fascinating tactile and visual stimulation that’s sure to please any kid.
18. GNAWRISHING Chew Necklaces (Ages 5+)
Everyone knows that babies learn about the world by putting stuff in their mouths, but it isn’t uncommon for older children to develop a habit of sucking and chewing on things—usually as a means of calming themselves down with proprioceptive input when they feel overwhelmed. Wait, what input? The proprioceptive system is located in muscles and joints and plays an important part in emotional and behavioral regulation. In other words, it’s OK to let your child chew and suck to their heart’s content—and yet, no one enjoys the cold, wet surprise that comes from hugging a child with a soaking wet shirt sleeve (ew). So, what’s the solution? Gift your kid one of these sensory chew necklaces, made of food-grade silicone, instead and everyone will be happy.
19. 4E Expandable Breathing Ball (Ages 5+)
Deep breathing is an invaluable skill when it comes to self-soothing, but it takes a lot of practice. Start teaching your tot this powerful technique early with this expandable breathing ball—a colorful sensory toy that provides kids with a real-time visual representation of what their lungs are doing with every inhale and exhale. You’ll be grateful to have this one on hand when an epic meltdown strikes—but the textural appeal and intricate collapsing-and-expanding design of this ball make it well-suited for casual playtime, too.
20. Fat Brain Toys Splitting Image Game (Ages 6+)
Visual stimulation is the name of the game with this brilliant but simple brain teaser which teaches slightly older kids how to think critically with nothing more than a mirror and a stack of patterned cards. These challenging puzzles are guaranteed to keep big kids (and even adults) engaged as they try to recreate complex images in a mirror. The end result? A mind-bending game that builds visual and spatial reasoning skills.
Hands, like every muscle in the body, benefit from regular exercise—and developing brains stand to benefit, too. This six-pack of putty, which features a range of malleability from super soft to hard, is an amazing sensory toy for keeping little hands busy and strong and little kids calm.
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