An Age-By-Age Guide to Sensory Toys
Experts weigh in on the best sensory toy options to benefit babies, toddlers, and—yes—even big kids.
These days, it can be easy to get overwhelmed by the selection of toys available for our children. As the mom of a 4-year-old, I’m constantly trying to find toys that will keep my daughter happy and entertained, while also serving a bigger purpose and educating her.
That's why sensory toys can be such a game changer. They are designed to stimulate the five senses: sight, hearing, touch, smell, and taste. Sensory toys come in different colors, textures, and sounds, and can be a wonderful option for both neurotypical and neurodivergent children.
The benefits are vast. Sensory play can positively impact a child’s development from birth to early childhood as it helps build nerve connections in the brain’s pathways, according to the Cleveland Clinic. It promotes language, fine motor, and gross motor skills, while also boosting cognitive growth.
What’s more, it can help kids regulate their emotions and help them calm down. "Sensory toys can also be used as tools for sensory and emotional needs during periods of anxiety, stress, or change to help kids regulate their bodies and minds, complete tasks, and feel more calm,” explains Nikki Hurst, an occupational therapist and therapeutic content lead at Embodied, Inc. “They also help with the development of their five senses, and encourage learning through play."
Here are some of the best sensory toy options for different age groups, according to experts.
Related:The Ages and Stages of Play
For babies, the goal of any toy should focus on sensory experience, motor development, and problem-solving, explains Bonnie Ivers, Psy.D., clinical psychologist and clinical director of the Regional Center of Orange County, a nonprofit supporting individuals with developmental disabilities and their families.
For visual development, Dr. Ivers says toys with high contrast colors (such as black and white) are best. In terms of auditory development, toys that chime, shake, and rattle are great options. “Some of these, particularly rattles, squeeze sound toys, and shakers, can also promote motor skills too,” adds Dr. Ivers. What else helps with motor skills? “Stacking rings or nest cups toys are great for motor development, specifically fine motor skills,” says Dr. Ivers. “These toys additionally help with the development of cognitive skills.”
Also, look for toys that provide different textures. "Cloth or textured baby books offer a great sensory experience, where each page is a different texture and each time the baby plays with the book, they can have a different experience, which allows for further learning opportunities,” says Dr. Ivers.
But focusing on tummy time for babies is key. “Toys that can hold a baby's attention and interest can help maintain a longer time on one's tummy," says Dr. Ivers. "Toys such as tummy time mirrors, visually colorful toys they can grab, and playful activity mats provide an entertaining distraction to keep one on their tummy longer."
At the toddler stage, from ages 2 to 3, kids are typically ready to engage with more toys. A great place to start are sensory bins—literally, a bin or box filled with various materials meant to stimulate the senses. They are a simple way to help kids become more comfortable with different textures, and a way for kids to engage in independent play, explains Hurst. On top of that, they're easy to make at home with household items, such as plastic bins, shaving cream, pasta, and water beads. Sensory bins can be curated to your child’s interests or even themed to a season or holiday. Keep in mind, there are also options for sensory bins available online with fun themes such as an ice cream shop, dinosaurs, and the ocean.
Another great option for toddlers? Busy boards. "Busy boards support toddlers' fine motor development and can include varying sounds, textures, bright colors, and patterns," says Hurst. "There are many varieties based on your little one's interests, such as boards with different switches that trigger colorful lights, or a board with a steering wheel, key, and gear shift."
Shakers, bean bags, or rain sticks are another entertaining way to get your toddler’s senses going, explains Allison Wilson, senior director of curriculum and innovation at Stratford School, which has several locations in California. "Shaking instruments and moving to music are rhythmic experiences proven to be IQ boosters,” says Stratford. “For a child that needs a quieter experience, consider a rain stick. In addition to calming sounds, children can observe cause and effect."
If you’d like to get in on the pop fidget craze, around this age is a good time to introduce the popular sensory toy option. These toys, like the ones from Pop It, can also help children focus and be used as a calming tool.
Related:I'm a Mom and an Expert on Play: Here Are 6 Activities You Didn't Know Were So Good for Your Kids
For parents who don't mind if things get a little messy, consider Play-Doh or puffy clay for kids ages 3 to 5. Wilson says these can help those little fingers build muscle strength and encourage big ideas to come to life through play and creativity. For added fun, use cookie cutters, scents, stamps, or rolling pins.
Kinetic sand is another enjoyable option for this age group. It’s also easy to store, doesn’t dry out, and is a good idea for busy families since it's simple to clean. Sand also supports motor development, creative thinking, and calmness.
For kids who love to draw, pull out some scented markers and paper. “Scented markers are perfect for boosting memory and providing a sense of calm, as smells are linked to the regions of the brain that process emotion," explains Wilson.
Another toy perfect for preschool-aged children? A simple old-fashioned doll. "Dolls not only help children develop important social-emotional skills like empathy, caring, and compassion, but doll play lends itself to increased language and vocabulary," says Donna Whittaker, vice president of curriculum and innovation at Big Blue Marble Academy. "Dolls that are weighted or made of soft materials may be a good choice for children who are neurodivergent."
Don’t forget about those classic blocks either. Although blocks can be used at earlier ages too, preschoolers can get even more creative with them.
“Although the shape or form of the blocks cannot be changed, what can be created with them can,” explains Whittaker. “When children play with blocks, they are developing motor skills and increasing their vocabulary as well as learning physics, engineering, geometry, problem-solving, and flexibility. When children bring props (think small pretend people and cars) into their block play, they are moving from the sensorimotor stage of development to dramatic or pretend play which is a higher level of play." Children who are neurodivergent may appreciate blocks that are heavier or textured compared to typical building blocks.
Big Kids (5-8)
From ages 5 to 8, it’s a great idea to get family game night going. Children this age are typically better able to understand games with rules, and board games can be a great option since they support and reinforce this knowledge. "Successfully playing board games requires turn-taking, impulse control, focused attention, rule following, and an understanding of fairness," says Whittaker.
If your kid loves to move, they can benefit from an active game, like the colorful Twister. “They follow simple directions, need to have an awareness of their body in space, and practice balance and coordination,” points out Whittaker.
Try a good ol' game of charades, too. “Games with direction cards, like charades, require children to recall previous knowledge and translate that information into action,” says Whittaker.
Related:5 Benefits of Pretend Play
The Bottom Line
Engaging kids in play at any age is important for their development. Opting for sensory toys can help kids reap even more benefits, including in their brain development, problem-solving and fine motor skills, language, creativity, body awareness, and more. There’s one for every age group and it can make shopping for toys a little less overwhelming.