When we talk about the importance of play (hello, educational toys!), one of the main benefits is the chance for kids to go on sensory explorations, checking out different feels, sounds, even smells. Enter sensory toys, which are designed to activate different senses. "These are toys that stimulate the tactile system through various textures, vibration, temperature, or weight," says Shelli Dry, ODT, a pediatric therapist and director of clinical operations at Enable My Child. "Visual toys can light up, flash, run in patterns, and stimulate color receptors by changing colors. Vestibular toys would be things like swings, rocker boards, scooter boards, skateboards, and spinners — toys that move through space in different directions and different speeds. Auditory toys may have music, metronome beats, chimes, or bells." Just watch out for toys that do too many of these at once, Dr. Dry cautions, since those may be overstimulating.
There are many advantages to these types of experiences. "Sensory toys are beneficial to all ages and abilities and not limited in use," Dr. Dry says "They may be used to activate or to calm, to encourage engagement and hand-eye coordination, and to increase participation and turn-taking. The key is to analyze each toy’s properties and find the one that best matches your child’s interests." Here are 15 sensory toys for babies, for toddlers, and for big kids, as chosen by the experts at the Good Housekeeping Institute's Little Lab.
Sometimes, kids need something that will help them calm down when they're overstimulated. This tube set comes with a calming glitter tube, a fidget tube, a reverse hourglass, and a soothing gravity spinner.
Ages 6 months+
This squishy ball is covered in easy-to-grab bumps that each offer a different texture for babies to explore. It also has cool colors, bold patterns, and stimulating rattling sounds.
The Dimpl Digits toy features the numbers one through 10 in a rainbow of bubbles that give a satisfying pop when you push them in. Flip it over, and you'll find the numbers in Spanish, too. Younger kids might prefer the smaller, original Dimpl that has the same pushing sensation without the numbers. (And maybe you or an older child might want a Simple Dimpl keychain for yourself?)
Ages 6 months+
This set of four see-through balls come covered in nubs for a tactile sensation that babies don't get from smooth ones. As they get older, they can also roll and track them, working on both gross and fine motor coordination.
For a building toy that provides some extra texture, Bristle Blocks come with interlocking pieces made of soft, rubbery spikes. The big bucket of pieces also encourages open-ended and imaginative play.
Ages 6 months+
For babies who need extra oral stimulation, this teether provides soothing vibrations when those little mouths bite down on the corn cob. It helps soothe sore gums when your baby is teething, but they might enjoy the sensation even when they're not.
For kids with boundless energy, scooter boards get them working their muscles (especially if they try to use them on their bellies). If your home setup doesn't work for this kind of scooter, at-home trampolines are another way for them to expend excess energy.
This is really two toys in one: Kids can dig through the Playfoam to find the collectible toy — and then use the compound to build, smush, and play. Bonus: It never dries out!
These bendable, waxy craft sticks are compact, so they're great to stash in the car for long trips or keep in a backpack to pull out while you're waiting for food at a restaurant. This kit also comes with a booklet of ideas for a craft projects.
Kinetic Sand always feels like the perfect, wet, sand-castle-making sand from the best spot on the beach. With this kit, kids can use molds and tools to scoop, shape, and squish the sand. It also comes with three pounds of sand!
Glitter Dots come in rolled up balls that kids can squish onto their projects for a burst of color. They'll love the feeling of pressing the dots onto a craft, and you'll love how it takes the place of loose glitter. This craft kit comes with 84 Glitter Dots, two rollers, nine roller cutter attachments, six shape cutters, two resist sheets, one cardstock box, three cards, one clay tool, one work mat, and an instruction sheet, but you can also buy smaller, one-off keychain kits.
Designed for kids with restless hands, this cube has six sides with different functions on each face. Some have buttons to push, switches to flip, wheels to roll, or toggles to click. And at 1.25" cubed inches, it fits in the palm of a hand.
Punkinfutz has partnered with the Sesame Workshop for a set of quiet fidget toys that includes a marble maze, a pom-pom bracelet, a bag with "emoji" patches that help teach emotions and more. You also get the Punkin Passport, which gives you access to digital programming and activities.
If you want someone else to go through the work of researching and choosing sensory toys for you, consider the Sensory Theraplay subscription box. Items are chosen by a pediatric occupational therapist, and each box is geared towards kids between the ages of 5 and 9, though some items are good for all ages. Boxes start at $41, but you get a discount on each one if you prepay for multiple months.