The coronavirus pandemic has not only resulted in the closing of schools but also activities and classes that parents rely on for their babies and toddlers. Classes such as Baby Sensory, Talk Time and Bookstart are now being conducted over the internet, with virtual YouTube and Facebook Live shows, but there is a void left by the physical stimulation young children get from these classes.
Sensory learning is when play stimulates the five senses – sight, smell, touch, taste and hearing – and teaches children about the world around them.
Chris Wright, head of health and wellbeing at Youth Sport Trust, explains: “From the moment children are born, they learn to explore using their sense to process new information.
“Exploration of new textures, materials and resources help them to make sense of the world around them. For children currently experiencing nursery and pre-school closures, and no access to baby classes, this is vital development time they will never get back.”
To help infants in the UK and their parents bridge the gap during lockdown, we have spent weeks testing sensory toys for babies and toddlers, supervising our very own two-year-old “assistant reviewer”.
Each toy was evaluated based on how long it held our toddler’s attention, the different senses stimulated and the duration it would last in the home before children outgrew it.
You can trust our independent reviews. We may earn commission from some of the retailers, but we never allow this to influence selections, which are formed from real-world testing and expert advice. This revenue helps to fund journalism across The Independent.
Happy Feet Play Mats forest path mats set
Walking indoors and outdoors are key milestones for gross motor development. For infants missing out on outdoor activities due to class closures, these orthopaedic play mats can help.
Each mat is designed to promote healthy foot development, prevent and correct foot disorders as well as stimulate and develop fine motor skills. They come in bright colours with unique patterns and functional designs that instantly grab a child’s attention.
From a sensory stimulation perspective, these mats not only encourage touch with both hands and bare feet, they help to develop a sense of sound, colour and smell, as well as lay the foundations for higher brain processing including learning, memory, attention, emotion and movement.
We tested eight of the play mats, split between soft mats (suitable for children under two and a half years) and firm mats (suitable for children over two and a half years). The company recommends that children from two and a half years can have a 50/50 split between the two different types of mats. Our toddler engaged with the mats straight away, exploring the textures with their hands before walking over them with bare feet.
Each mat comes with interlocking pieces which can be mixed and matched – this also encouraged the toddler to put pieces together and remove them as they liked. Colours included were red, yellow, green, brown, orange, blue, turquoise and pink, giving the child a variety of sight sensory stimulation. Mats can be bought in sets, catering for babies or toddlers, or individually starting from £11.95 per mat.
Little Senses lights and sounds activity dome
For parents, having toys that last from when their child is a newborn through to preschool is a godsend. This is why the Little Senses Lights and Sounds Activity Dome from the Early Learning Centre is such a crowd-pleaser.
Suitable for newborns through to 36 months, this den is a brightly-coloured triangular dome that stimulates all the senses while also teaching children about cause and effect, encouraging tummy time and also acting as a great calming environment for overtired infants, thanks to its sounds and glowing lights.
It has three modes of plays, which grow with the child – playmat, cosy play space and activity centre. Babies can make the most of the hanging animal toys inside as well as the glowing lights, while toddlers can play with the cogs and ball tunnel on the outside.
Our toddler was attracted instantly to the dome’s flashing buttons on the outside and ball tunnel and even took to eating their snacks inside the den when it was time to relax. At nighttime, they found the outdoors noises played by the den soothing and watched as the glowing lights changed, calming them down ready for bedtime.
The downsides to this interactive toy the self assembly and the number of batteries required to make the most of the functions. However, once these are in place it makes for a great addition to any size home.
Great Little Trading Co. multi activity rocket
The beautiful design and multiple activities on this wooden rocket help to develop colour recognition and hand-eye coordination. Appropriate for 18 months and over, the toy has beads, levers and gears to teach push and pull, as well as a bell to stimulate hearing, a safety mirror for sight and a clock with moving hands for touch.
Our toddler reviewer took to this toy straight away, playing with the beads in different ways, which was great for teaching him cause and effect – if you move the bead one way, it spins, and if you push it it moves in a different direction.
Like the activity den, the rocket needs assembling and requires the parents to have their own tools – we tried this with one person and realised we needed two to make sure the wooden toy was safe for toddler use.
Magna-Tiles Stardust 15 magnetic pieces
An alternative to building blocks, Magna Tiles are a must have for any infant. Depending on which set you buy – there are three to choose from – children can build their own creations, encouraging imagination as well as sensory learning through touch.
The Stardust set comes with 7 glittery tiles and 4 mirror tiles in square and 4 triangle tiles – great for basic mathematical understanding. Using magnets, the tiles attract one another and help basic building skills as well as help develop spatial reasoning and creative thinking. Your toddler could be a budding engineer building anything from mini houses to rockets.
The company advises that the sets are for ages 3 and above, so younger toddlers will need to be supervised.
Mr Tumble touch my nose sensory soft toy
The jolly man from the CBeebies show Something Special has been reimagined in doll-form with this Mr Tumble touch my nose sensory soft toy. Using sights and sounds to stimulate the senses, children can interact with Mr Tumble by pressing his nose, which makes the doll light up.
The character says popular phrases from the show (“Take your finger, touch your nose, blink three times and off it goes!”) to encourage interaction, as well as playing classic Mr Tumble catchphrases and songs while the lights on his waistcoast change colour.
The doll also has different textures on it such as soft hair and hard buttons, stimulating the touch senses. It’s an excellent way to entertain your baby or toddler without putting on the television.
My 1st Years Personalised wooden push along activity walker
This walker not only encourages gross motor skills, helping babies learn how to walk and keep balance, it also comes with eight different activities to keep children playing and learning for longer.
Made from natural birch plywood, the wooden activity walker is multi-functional and is decorated with a colourful sun and rainbow. Activities include mazes, cogs, abacus beads and shape sorters, and parents can make the walker extra special by personalising it with their child’s name (up to nine characters free of charge). It is suitable from one year of age.
In terms of self-assembly, we found this pretty easy to make though we would recommend two people tackle it to ensur that it’s safe for toddler use. An allen key is included.
Sheni and Teni’s 3-in-1 puzzle set
For parents who want to teach their toddlers about different cultures, Sheni and Teni’s 3-in-1 puzzle set is a brilliant way to do it.
The multipack puzzles depict traditional scenes from countries in Africa such as South Africa, Nigeria and Ghana. Each puzzle showcases the vibrant and colourful cultures across the African continent, while fostering creativity and innovation. According to the company, the puzzles encourage cultural education, which research suggests helps with such skills.
Each set comes with short stories to describe what is happening in the image, using words from the appropriate local language. The puzzles themselves help with hand and eye coordination development as well as problem solving. The entire set aids the developmental stages of two through to five year olds.
My Treasure Toys sensory bin ‘scoop and fill’ wooden set
Taking Instagram and Pinterest by storm, sensory bins are ideal for engaging children’s mind through sensory and play-based learning. This set from My Treasure Toys provides everything parents and their children need to start their creative learning journey, which can be accompanied by different types of messy play. The set includes all the wooden basic essentials – six miniature scoops perfectly sized for little hands, a wooden tray, a wooden bowl, a wooden egg cup, wooden cup and barrel to fill and transfer with.
Parents can fill the wooden tray with rice, beans, lentils, coloured pasta, popcorn kernels, flour, oats, cereal or sand and glitter to help their infants learn through touch and taste. While these ingredients are not included, the possibilities are endless when it comes to messy play – social media is bursting with options for themes ranging from “Under the Sea” to “Christmas”, so get searching while you wait for your order to arrive. The tray is suitable for children aged three years and over – younger toddlers would need to be supervised.
Hape Baby Einstein magic touch drums
If your child likes music then this sensory toy will be right up their street. The Hape Baby Einstein magic touch drums teaches infants to create their own music using realistic percussion noises including a drum kit, bongos and other instruments.
The toy has two modes which you can switch between – drum and melody, the latter of which exposes children to classical music while tapping their own drum beat. Toddlers and babies alike can develop their understanding of cause and effect as well as hand and eye coordination, and it can help children to understand musical rhythm and encourage copying their parents.
There’s also an adjustable volume feature, meaning that parents can reduce the level of noise depending on how enthusiastic their child is with the drums. Recommended for six months and above, this is a great sensory toy for introducing children to music.
Tender Leaf Toys touchy feely animals
This toy is more for toddlers though can be used by babies with parental supervision. This puzzle not only encourages problem solving, but also sensory stimulation through touch.
It includes five woodland animal shapes – perfect for teaching children about animals and wildlife – which can be lifted and sorted, encouraging hand-eye coordination. Underneath each piece is a different texture, helping children to understand that animals can feel different.
Given the age suitability, parents can also use the puzzle as a tool for interacting with their children, promoting talking and a higher level of learning such as memory retention.
The verdict: Sensory toys
The forest path mat set from Happy Feet Mats is a great way to start sensory learning in the home as it includes stimulation for all five senses. While set prices are on the high side, parents can invest in a couple of mats at a time, making it a fun learning experience for the children from a young age through to preschool. The Little Senses light and sounds activity dome from the Early Learning Centre is also a great way to incorporate sensory learning for all five senses from newborn all the way up to 36 months.