You may have heard of sensory play, but do you know what this form of play really is? According to Baby Sensory (opens in new tab), a service founded by leading parenting expert and author Dr Lin Day, sensory play helps babies learn about their world through their five senses: sight, smell, touch, hearing and taste.
So sensory play helps babies enhance their learning and develop new skills through a range of activities, and by using specifically designed sensory toys, that stimulate their senses. The Huffington Post even ran an article proclaiming that ‘Sensory learning is the affordable way to make your baby smarter’ (opens in new tab)!
Messy play and noisy play are fun forms of sensory play for younger babies, and can include sensory toys such as rattles, water mats and Play-Doh. Sensory toys can also be made from food and household items. For example, you could host a messy play party for your baby and other little ones by filling a paddling pool with edible jelly or coloured spaghetti for tiny hands to squish and explore.
Encourage outdoor play with these fun toddler and babies toys (opens in new tab)
How does sensory play help babies develop?
Sensory play is now considered vitally important in the development of a baby’s brain. According to Goodstart’s senior occupational therapist Sally Fitzgerald (opens in new tab), engaging baby in sensory play, where they explore their world through their senses, “helps to build nerve connections in the brain’s pathways.”
Home and parenting website The Spruce also has a comprehensive article on the benefits of sensory play for babies (opens in new tab) and children of all ages, stating that sensory play promotes play and language skills, fine motor skills and a sense of calm: ‘This type of sensory play is calming for kids. It helps them regulate their internal discomfort, whether that discomfort was boredom, restlessness or some other type of agitation.’
So, to recap, the top five benefits of sensory play for babies are:
- It helps build nerve connections in the brain’s pathways, boosting baby’s ability to complete complex learning tasks
- Sensory play supports baby’s play and language skills, including fine and gross motor skills
- It can help to calm your baby or child
- Sensory play encourages baby to learn a range of sensory attributes
- It can increase baby’s brain activity tenfold (opens in new tab), especially when baby is playing with basic musical instruments such as a rattle
How to create sensory play at home
Engaging baby in sensory play at home can begin with something as simple as a baby rattle or a lightshow projector. You could also get hands-on and create some DIY sensory play experiences for baby, or mix those with some specific sensory play toys for babies.
Here are our picks for the 12 best sensory toys 2017, based on parents’ feedback, how often they are used in organised sensory play for babies groups, and how well each sensory toy can stimulate baby's five senses.
Wooden baby rattle
Basic musical instruments are proving to be very important in sensory play, stimulating the majority of baby's senses and helping them to develop strong hand-eye coordination and gross and fine motor skills. This ultra cute Wooden Baby Rattle (opens in new tab) is ideally sized for little hands to grasp and shake, and is filled with sand to pique baby's hearing and interest.
A high-contrast black and white play mat such as this Black and White Jigsaw Puzzle Mat (opens in new tab) will spark baby’s visual sensory development. The tiles can be ‘locked’ together in various patterns, and it’s suitable for water play, too. If you live in America, try the Manhattan Toy Wimmer-Ferguson Double Sided Play and Pat Activity Mat (opens in new tab).
Bright Starts Shake and Spin Activity Balls
Boost baby’s brain development and fine and gross motor skills with Bright Starts Shake and Spin Activity Balls (opens in new tab). Each ball features a different sensory engager, such as a rattle or spinner, and texture. These activity balls regularly show up in play groups because of the multi-sensory experience they provide.
CaaOcho Baby Natural Rubber Sensory Ball
Stimulate your baby’s senses with CaaOcho's Baby Natural Rubber Sensory Ball (opens in new tab), finished with taste-safe food-grade paint and sporting six individual textures to encourage baby’s sense of touch. When your little one squeezes the ball, it makes a cute squeaking sound to engage baby’s hearing. Plenty light enough for teeny hands to hold and grasp.
Manhattan Toy Skwish Classic Rattle and Teether
This vintage-looking teether and rattle has been around for decades and is perfect for enhancing baby’s motor skills by encouraging them to clutch, hold and touch. The Manhattan Toy Skwish (opens in new tab) features rattling beads that slide back and forth, and the elastic ties between each non-toxic dowel enable the Skwish to be flattened.
Jungly Tails Soft Baby Book
It might look weird to you, but your baby may love the soft-touch tails, and the crinkly noises they make when scrunched, that are hanging out of this baby’s book. Jungly Tails (opens in new tab) is soft, lightweight and colourfully designed to help baby develop their sense of sight, touch and hearing, plus speech development when they’re a little older.
Baby’s first library: 11 classic baby books for little listeners (opens in new tab)
Tomy Play to Learn Aqua Splash and Print
Babies love water play and can occupy themselves for ages with a small dribble of water to pat. The Tomy Play to Learn Aqua Splash and Print (opens in new tab) is therefore ideal for sensory play, helping your little one to develop basic motor skills. Fill the lily pad with water and help baby place his/her hands and feet on the mat, or get creative with the included easy-grip stampers.
Galt Toys Classic Pop-Up Toy
Older babies will love playing with this wooden sensory toy, which includes four brightly coloured figures that pop up and down on hidden springs. The Galt Toys Classic Pop-Up Toy (opens in new tab) is designed to enhance baby’s hand-eye coordination and to stimulate their sense of sight, expanding their awareness of different colours and textures.
Anteqi Star Projector Lamp
Indulge baby’s sense of sight with this soothing projector. Dim the light in baby’s room and switch on the Anteqi Sun And Star Lighting Lamp (opens in new tab) so that it can project a serene, utterly captivating starry night sky scene across the ceiling. Baby will enjoy lying down and gazing up at the pretty stars. There are three modes to control the colour (blue, red or green), the nightlight and the rotation. The Tobar Starlight Projector (opens in new tab) is also available to UK customers.
Nuby Octopus Floating Bath Toy
Another water based sensory play treat, the Nuby Octopus Floating Bath Toy (opens in new tab) encourages tactile exploration, imagination and creativity. The three rings for hooking onto the octopus's tentacles can also be used to learn counting when baby is older.
The best baby bath tubs, toys, seats and accessories 2017 (opens in new tab)
Lamaze Freddie The Firefly
Lamaze’s Freddie The Firefly (opens in new tab) has been engaging babies the world over in fun sensory play, thanks to his soft wings that are bursting with colour and texture. Contrasting colours encourage sense of sight, while the squeaker stimulates baby's hearing. There’s also a ladybug teether onboard for encouraging little chompers.
A true staple for sensory play, Play-Doh (opens in new tab) is the ultimate mashable sensory toy. it can be moulded into any shape and comes in a range of colours to stimulate baby’s sense of sight, plus touch, and to encourage creativity. Don't be surprised if baby finds it hilarious to squish Play-Doh between their fingers and toes!