Experts state that the primary way children begin to learn is through play. Babies start learning immediately through singing, reading, and playing with their toys and activity centers. As they grow into toddlers, they continue to learn through their play, but they have more options available. Toddler play can take on many forms. One way for them to optimize learning while having fun is through sensory play.
We’ve gathered the best sensory toys for toddlers below. Read through our reviews to see which one would be the best fit for your child.
Best Sensory Toys for Toddlers
If you are not into DIY or like to have a mix of both, there are so very many toys available to choose from. Here are some sensory toy options your toddler is sure to love.
Learning Resources Mini Muffin Match Up Counting Toy Set
This little muffin tin comes with 76 pieces that promote counting, colors, matching, and adding all in one set. Its grab claw also enables the fine-tuning of your child’s fine motor skills by helping them to carefully grab one of the mini muffins at a time. The set has a mini muffin pan, 2 dice, squeezy tweezers, 12 double-sided sorting circle inserts, and an activity guide filled with fun games.
The toy is non-toxic, phthalate-compliant, lead- compliant, BPA compliant, prop 65 safe, and has no mercury to keep your child safe. The muffins are about the size of a nickel and are best for children who no longer put toys in their mouths.
- Multiple games and activities to grow with your child
- Helps with fine motor development
- Teaches early math concepts in a fun way
- Helps your child learn colors
- Muffins can be a choking hazard to younger children
- Only comes with one tweezer set
Stacking Peg Board Set
This stacking peg board set is Montessori based and often used in occupational therapies. It comes with 60 pegs, a red board to stack them into, and the pegs can be stacked on top of one another. This particular version of the set comes with an added bonus of a storage bag for the boards and small pieces. It also comes with a rainbow board for color association play and pattern making. It also comes with six stacking cups.
Your child will have a lot of fun learning their colors while using their fine motor skills to pick up the pegs and stick them in the holes, either on the board or in each other. Placing the pegs into the holes will also help with your child’s visual skills and depth perception. If you have a child with sensory disorders or autism, this toy is a constructive play option.
The pegs can also be used for learning beginning math skills. Since the pegs are stackable, you can even start introducing height concepts to your child to learn how to determine which stack is taller and which one is shorter.
- Teaches colors and coordination
- Children learn to count
- Easy storage
- Comes with bonus stacking cups
- Takes a bit of pressure to insert the pegs into the board
- Peg mats are made out of foam
Top Bright Wooden Lacing Beads for Toddlers
If you are looking for a sensory toy that can be used as a fine motor activity, the Top Bright lacing beads fit the bill. The set comes with 20 different beads of varying shapes and sizes. The string has a wooden stick on either end, making it easier for your child to string the various forms.
Blocks included list numbers 0-9, while the geometric shapes teach your child about colors and fit. The set also has a caterpillar that goes on the front and a sunflower that rotates. The shapes build cognitive skills while the lacing activities allow your child to work on precision. You can use each element separately in learning games or all together.
The wooden toys are ASTM certified with a safety buckle on the string to eliminate hazards.
- Build hand-eye coordination
- Practices patience
- Teaches colors, numbers, and shapes
- Open to imagination and creativity
- Beads can quickly come off the end of the string
- Cannot string all the pieces on at once
Musical Instruments Set
This wooden musical set is perfect for a budding toddler musician who wants to play, explore, and learn sounds. Music is known to be therapeutic for children and adults alike. What better sensory play than to feel the instruments in your hands while you explore what sound each one makes!
The set comes with percussion instruments like bells, rattle drum, bell stick, a wooden fish rainbow column, triangle, sleigh bells, maracas, wrist bells, clapper, trumpet, and a wooden sounder. Also included is a storage bag to keep everything neat and organized. The instruments have bright colors to catch your child’s eye and engage them in play. The wooden toys are non-toxic, BPA free and CPC, and ASTM certified.
- 23 pieces for a variety of play
- Hands-on learning with different sounds
- Great for both boys and girls
- Comes with a storage bag for all the instruments
- Toys are not necessarily in tune
- Some pieces may be choking hazards for smaller toddlers
Wooden Number Puzzle
This wooden sorting puzzle is great for toddler boys and toddler girls alike. It comes in the traditional rainbow colors to work for either gender. It is available in a variegated purple, which is intended more for little girls.
The board has shape sorting as well as numbers and pegs. This set will help your child with learning their colors as well as their numbers up to ten. The pegs have 55 different rings that can be sorted and stacked onto them, giving your child a great exercise in what is taller and what stack is shorter. The puzzle is made of natural wood with smooth edges for safety. The paint is non-toxic and water-based.
- Builds hand-eye coordination
- Rings and posts teach counting and color coordination
- Teaches shapes
- Builds motor skills by placing small parts in the correct places
- Recommended for 3 years and up
- Does not come with a storage bag
VTech Latches and Doors Busy Board
Busy boards have long been recognized as fantastic ways to build baby’s and toddler’s motor skills. The board is filled with latches and keys that open various doors to reveal a family and their pets. The board is battery operated with music and sounds that interact with your child. It has two different modes. The voice mode teaches your child the numbers one to five while talking about the family and pets that each open door shows.
The Vtech board also plays music, prompting your child to open another door. It plays the alphabet song, a number song, and a song about the house depending on which button is pressed. The board can be cleaned with a damp cloth as needed. The colors can vary slightly from board to board and not be exactly, as shown in the picture. This board is best for age 12-36 months and requires 2 AA batteries for continual use.
- BPA Free
- Engages multiple senses
- Helps little ones learn to manipulate latches and open them
- Great for travel and in the car to keep little hands and minds busy
- It is not bilingual
- Latches may be difficult for smaller toddlers to open
What is Sensory Play?
Sensory play is a form of activity that engages one or all five of your child’s senses. This form of play is more hands-on and allows your child to engage with the toy rather than the toy leading your child in engagement.
Studies show learning is more productive and more effective when children are using their senses. This type of play and interaction is vital to their brain growth. Sensory play allows children to use exploratory methods while they are playing and exploring their environments. These methods can help with many different situations in children’s lives, from playing with others to getting comfortable with new foods.
Benefits of Sensory Play
There are many benefits to sensory play. It helps children build neurons in their brains, making more neural pathways. Creating these pathways allows children to perform challenging tasks. Sensory play also develops their speech, motor skills, problem-solving, cognitive growth, and socialization. By engaging all of their senses, memory develops and is enhanced.
Suppose your child gets anxious or tends to get frustrated quickly. In that case, sensory play can ease their emotions, allowing your child to calm down. Sensory play also helps differentiate between different textures. Children can learn about things being soft, rough, cold, hot, sticky, or dry.
Stimulating the Senses of Sensory Play
Sensory play aims at stimulating all of your child’s senses, making their playtime more productive. People often think of sight, smell, touch, sound, and taste when they think of the senses. Two other senses stimulated by sensory play are awareness and balance. The full seven senses are:
- Sight: how our eyes receive light and interpret images.
- Touch: how the receptors in our fingers respond to temperature, vibration, and texture.
- Sound: our ears perceive the airwave vibrations into the inner ear.
- Taste: our tongues react to and interpret different flavors
- Smell: Noses take in air, and your olfactory sensors become stimulated. In turn, they share that information with your brain.
- Body Awareness: our brain’s ability to converse with our muscles and ligaments giving you the ability for spatial awareness.
- Balance: the ability to maintain your body’s equilibrium and hold yourself steady.
It is essential to help your child grow and stimulate all of these senses as they are necessary for your child’s overall development. Proper growth and interaction with them has an overall effect on how your child interacts with the world.
As a parent, you have different concerns for your toddler’s toys than you did when they were infants. You try to surround infants with softer toys that do not have any small pieces. With toddlers, you still want to take the weight and size of the toy into account. Make sure it is not too small since toddlers are known to put things in their mouths still while they play.
You also do not want to pick a toy that is too heavy for them. Many toddlers will try to pick up anything even though it may be too heavy for them, leading to injury.
Manufacturers always give an age or an age range on toddler toys. Be sure to take that into account when you are picking up a new sensory toy. What’s appropriate for a 3-year-old may have pieces that are too small for a one-year-old. Always check for sharp edges on the toy to ensure your toddler will not scratch themselves.
Many sensory toys do not have batteries, but if it does, make sure it is not easy for your toddler to get to the screws. Toddlers are famous for trying to figure out how things work and will try to get in there and take the batteries out. Batteries themselves pose a safety threat if your child chews on them.
If the toy is made of wood and painted, look into how the company processes and treats the wood. Manufacturers often use chemicals in processing that you would not want your child to put in their mouths. Also, make sure the paint is non-toxic and will not chip or peel off.
Like with any toy, always watch your child while they are playing. Curious toddlers will find a way to get into just about anything, so a watchful eye can help prevent any accidents.
Many children can have sensory disorders, whether it be a sensitivity to sound, texture, or coordination related. Sensory sensitivity can vary in degree from slight sensitivity to severe. Sensory processing disorder is defined as the brain, not responding to the information sent to it by the senses. It seems not to know what to do with the information presented by all seven of the body’s senses. Loud noises can overwhelm a small child, or a specific material on their skin may be unbearable.
It may present in some children as just being incredibly clumsy. They will continuously run into things and seem to have very little spatial awareness and control over their limbs.
With anything, this can have varying degrees. Some children will want to get away from the sound or food, while others show no response to anything in their environments.
Sensory Integration is a common treatment used to help children who display sensitivity to the world around them. They learn to interact with the world in a fun and playful way, teaching them to react to situations more appropriately.
Depending on the child’s specific aversions, different methods are useful. Sensory toys can help show children who shy away from fabrics or other touch-related sensitivities by giving them a fun outlet to become more comfortable.
Sensory toys can also help children who shy away from sounds by giving them a hands-on way of interacting with sound that is entirely within their control. This allows them to become more comfortable and have more appropriate responses when faced with sounds in their day to day lives. In this same way, sensory bins can assist with aversions to touch by allowing the child to play with different textures.
Autism and Sensory Toys
Sensory processing disorder is often associated with autism, as many children who are on the spectrum have sensory intake issues. However, they are not necessarily one in the same.
ARTC describes autism as a neurological disorder. This is often displayed as difficulty communicating, interacting socially, and has restrictive, often repetitive behaviors.
Autism can come with a particular insistence on specific objects, possibly rocking back and forth, clapping their hands, fidgeting, or even banging their heads. These behaviors are known as stimming in the autism community.
Social interaction can be incredibly difficult for some children with autism, and for others, it is near impossible. Since autism is a range, children can be anywhere from a slight speech delay to entirely nonverbal.
Sensory aversions are common among children with autism making it a common thread with children who have sensory processing disorder. Another common thread is sensory toys can be helpful to both groups. Some benefits are:
- brings focus, calm, and relaxation
- allows the child to play naturally and with a higher level of comfort
- develops skills such as planning, negotiating, and sharing, thus improving their social behaviors
- builds their coordination
- grows their gross motor skills and allows children to understand rules and activities
- improves their brain pathways by stimulating their senses
- allows children to develop and increase their ability to talk with other kids and adults
- sensory toys tend to be less distracting, therefore increasing focus
Depending on your child, having toys that do not have loud sounds and flashing lights most familiar with traditional toys will set them up for success. Sensory toys can be as simple as having clay for your child to build with or slime for them to squish around.
These calming activities can bring a sense of focus and accomplishment to a child with autism. It can even be an activity such as painting with water on the ground. An exercise that engages the senses and helps your child feel more comfortable with the elements around them.
How do I Know if my Child has a Sensory Processing Disorder?
Sensory processing disorders can be diagnosed when your child is an infant. It can first present itself in a baby as being exceptionally fussy when exposed to lights, sounds, or fabrics. As children get older, it may show as things like:
- Clothing being too itchy or scratchy
- Lights are too bright
- Sounds are too loud
- A gentle touch is unbearable
- They have a difficult time with food textures
- Too klutzy or they have poor balance
- Fear of things like swings
- Poor reaction times to movement, noises, or lights
- Behavioral issues surface
It is also possible that a child’s sensory issues will present themselves as undersensitive. In this case, look for:
- Inability to sit still
- Daredevil behavior
- Does not understand social behaviors
- No understanding of personal space
- Constantly chews on objects like hands or clothing
- Needs continual visual stimulation
- Sleep issues arise
- Not able to see things like being dirty or a running nose
If you notice any of these signs in your child, speak with your child’s doctor. They will likely refer you to an occupational therapist who will assess your child through situational observations and questions. Through this, they will make the proper diagnosis.
Frequently Asked Questions
The world of sensory toys can be confusing, especially if you are choosing toys based on your child’s specific needs and sensitivities. Many products are available in varying ranges. If you are trying to expand your child’s interaction with their senses or if you are trying to help them get more comfortable many questions can arise. We have narrowed down some of the more common questions and rounded up the answers.
There is no doubt that developing your child’s senses helps them perform to their full potential later in life. Whether you have DIY sensory toys in bins on a table or you choose toys specifically designed to enhance your child’s balance, ability to interact with touch, or fine-tune their motor skills, you are already ahead of the game.
Allowing your child to choose how they interact with toys expands their horizons and sets them up for future success. Children who build better neural pathways are shown to grasp new concepts faster and easier than their counterparts.
If you are picking toys to help with a sensory disorder, focus on ones that cater to the sense your child is having the most difficulty with. If your child has difficulties with sound, a musical set will help them learn about different music and noises in an environment they control. Most importantly, have fun learning and playing with your little one.
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Krissy lives in California with her family of three that make up “The Hadicks.” With a passion for research and helping others, The Hadicks was developed as a resource for other parents and parents-to-be!