10 best sensory toys to help with your little one’s development

·10-min read
We brought in our nine-month-old tester to discover the different ways to interact with these toys (iStock/The Independent)
We brought in our nine-month-old tester to discover the different ways to interact with these toys (iStock/The Independent)

Fun fact: a million new neural connections are made in the brain every second in our first few years of life. By the age of one, the all-controlling organ has doubled in size, meaning the foundations for future learning have already been laid.

The concept of baby sensory play supports this crucial period of development to benefit their brains and bodies in the future.

“Quality sensory toys are important for healthy intellectual and physical development, and they can help babies move on to the next developmental stage,” says Dr Lin Day, a parenting expert, author and founder of the popular Baby Sensory programme, which runs classes throughout the UK. “Equally important is the recognition that they have many therapeutic benefits, such as the relief of stress, anxiety and frustration.”

Sensory starts with – as you might have guessed – activating the senses. That helps little ones interact with the world around them, learning more about themselves, others and their environment.

“Quality sensory toys for babies are rich in sights, sounds, textures and mouthing ‘tastes’,” says Day. “Brightly coloured sensory toys attract interest, and they invite curiosity and exploration. Moving toys promote focusing, eye-teaming and tracking in young babies. They also encourage exercise and movement in mobile babies. Musical toys such as rattles and drums promote hearing awareness, and they can provide an emotional release for babies (and young children).”

Read more:

How we tested

We tested these baby sensory toys in the very scientific environment of our living room with the help of someone who’s an expert in what it’s like to be a young hive of neural activity: our nine-month-old (and some of his equally well-versed pals). We were looking for toys that can stimulate multiple senses in different ways, encourage play and learning, and “allow for success without a prescribed structure”, as Day suggests – meaning there’s more than one way to interact with them.

The best sensory toys for 2022 are:

  • Best overall – Taf Toys tissue wonder box: £19.99, Amazon.co.uk

  • Best mealtime sensory toy – Sassy light up rainbow reel: £13.99, Jojomamanbebe.co.uk

  • Best on-the-go sensory toy – Early Learning Centre soft sensory balls: £12, Elc.co.uk

  • Best multiuse sensory toy – Mushie stacking cups: £9.95, Littlehomes.co.uk

  • Best musical toy – Halilit maracito: £2.99, Halilit.co.uk

  • Best for crawling babies – Hape penguin musical wobbler: £12.99, Amazon.co.uk

  • Best for toddlers – Edushape sensory puzzle blocks: £19.14, Planethappytoys.co.uk

  • Best for language skills – The Little Sensory Box my first words flashcards: £6.99, Thelittlesensorybox.com

  • Best wooden sensory toy – Jaques of London bouncing bunnies: £9.99, Jaqueslondon.co.uk

  • Best comforter – Etta Loves sycamore teething comforter: £18.50, Ettaloves.com

Taf Toys tissue wonder box

Best: Overall

Rating: 9.5/10

If you, like us, have noticed how much little hands love pulling wet wipes out of the packet (a fun game to contend with during nappy changes), this clever creation will go down a storm with both parties concerned.

The colourful box, decorated with different images on each side, comes with eight “tissues” of sheer organza in different colours and two larger squares of fabric that crinkle and rustle noisily. The box itself is made from tough cardboard, while the top is plastic that’s designed to be soft on any mitts reaching inside.

Seeing as our small human is very much enjoying emptying and filling lately, this one’s been a big hit. Helping with colour recognition while also stimulating the senses of sound and touch, this toy can be used in plenty of ways throughout the different stages of development.

Buy now £19.99, Amazon.co.uk

Sassy light up rainbow reel

Best: Mealtime sensory toy

Rating: 8.5/10

This fun bit of sensory kit has it all – lights, colours, sounds and textures – and is an excellent way for babies to practice their hand-eye coordination. The rubbery domes around the edge of the wheel are easy to grip to set them spinning, and each has a different textural pattern. When in motion, that wheel lights up in different colours, while tiny balls create a rainfall sound as they tumble around inside. There’s also a rubbery hoop around the stand to fiddle with and a spinning sphere in the centre of the wheel.

Thanks to the sucker at the base, this toy can be stuck to most flat, smooth surfaces – we found it fantastic for keeping our testers occupied in their highchairs while waiting for dinner to be served.

Buy now £13.99, Jojomamanbebe.co.uk

Early Learning Centre soft sensory balls

Best: On-the-go sensory toy

Best: 8/10

Sensory balls are brilliant for encouraging the development of motor skills and spatial awareness. These soft, light, easy-grip examples from the Early Learning Centre come in packs of six, and each has a different shape and texture to stimulate that all-important sense of touch.

They can be gripped, rolled, thrown and squeezed with tiny hands. They all feel and act differently, given the various forms. One has smooth, round indents, another is dotted with little bumps and one is covered in ridges, for instance. The bright colours caught the attention of our testers, who loved watching them roll around and exploring their tactility with podgy fingers.

Buy now £12.00, Elc.co.uk

Mushie stacking cups

Best: Multiuse sensory toy

Rating: 7.5/10

There are so many ways to play with this simple sensory toy. Stacking cups are fantastic for sorting and organising by size and colour, building and even bath time (they’re fun toys for pouring out water or watching it trickle through the holes in the base). The matte finish makes them tactile for little hands – hands that love pushing them over when assembled in a tower.

We love the on-trend pastel shades – this is a rare example of a baby toy that looks at home in a grown-up space, which is handy as little ones (famously) aren’t hot on putting their toys away after playtime. They pack away nicely too, nesting inside each other.

Buy now £9.95, Littlehomes.co.uk

Halilit maracito

Best: Musical toy

Rating: 7.5/10

A sensory play experience doesn’t need to involve specialist or expensive kit – something that rattles is all you need to get going. This maraca is made especially for tiny hands; it’s smaller than your average percussion instrument and has an easy-grip, textured handle.

Instruments like this encourage movement and activity in babies, thanks to the noisy reward each time they shake them, and our tiny testers loved to wrap their mitts around it and flail their arms in the air. Nice and durable (whacking it on the table/wall/floor was a favourite move), the maracito took a beating very well, and its bright colours earn it bonus points.

Buy now £2.99, Halilit.co.uk

Hape penguin musical wobbler

Best: For crawling babies

Rating: 9/10

Made from eco-friendly wood and long-lasting plastic, this fun little guy, which combines movement and sound for a multisensory experience, grabbed the attention of the babes we introduced him to.

With a domed, weighted base, the penguin wobbles and spins when nudged, giving off fun jangling sounds and flapping his little wings as he goes. Even when given the most boisterous of prods, the robust bird rights itself ​​without falling over, happily playing a tinkly tune.

By encouraging dimpled fists to push and poke, this waddling penguin gets those fine motor skills working and helps little ones hone their hand-eye coordination.

Buy now £12.99, Amazon.co.uk

Edushape sensory puzzle blocks

Best: For toddlers

Rating: 7.5/10

Building blocks are classic baby sensory toys, and these foamy ones up the ante with their bright colours, knobbly texture and varying shapes. Given their Tetris-style design, they’ll get the cogs turning in toddlers by encouraging problem-solving, concentration and shape recognition.

They’re made from a lightweight material, so there’s no worry of knocks and bumps when they get piled up and then pushed over – and there’ll be no sore adult feet if they’re accidentally stepped on while scattered over the floor (because we know what a specific kind of pain that is).

Squishy and durable, they’re made for toddlers aged two and up.

Buy now £19.14, Planethappytoys.co.uk

The Little Sensory Box my first words flashcards

Best: For language skills

Rating: 7/10

These fun flashcards are perfect for toddlers starting to find their first words. They feature everyday objects with colour themes, and they’re bright and bold for visual stimulation.

There are loads of different ways you can use these for sensory play: try helping your tot sort by category or colour, hunt for matching items around the house, or use them as prompts for making relevant sounds. Wipe clean and hardy, these cards are made to last.

Buy now £6.99, Thelittlesensorybox.com

Jaques of London bouncing bunnies

Best: Wooden sensory toy

Rating: 8.5/10

The world of baby paraphernalia is strewn with plastic, so it’s great to choose more ethical and sustainable knickknacks when you can. This toy is made from wood that’s been approved by the Forest Stewardship Council for its ethical production. It’s plenty hardy and remained in pristine condition after much battering by our chief tester, who currently loves to bash any and all objects against any and all hard surfaces.

When you push down on each little cylinder, a hidden spring mechanism sends it leaping up into the air, captivating our nine-monther – who promptly wrapped his sticky fingers around the gravity-defying bunny and clamped his gums around it (the paint is water-based and safe for this, thankfully).

Decorated in bright primary colours, this compact game appeals to babies’ sense of sight as well as touch. In time, it’ll help them hone their fine motor skills and categorisation abilities, thanks to the colour-coordinated carrots painted on the base.

Buy now £9.99, Jaqueslondon.co.uk

Etta Loves sycamore teething comforter

Best: Comforter

Rating: 7.5/10

Patterns are helpful for visual development in young babies. Box-fresh people are learning to use their eyes and sharpen their focus, and their brains are working out how to make sense of images, process colour and form visual connections.

The fabric’s pattern has been developed in collaboration with an orthoptist (an expert in how our eyes work with each other and the brain). The result is a carefully designed print featuring a purposeful choice of shape, colour, size and placement that effectively stimulates the connections between a little one’s eyes and brain.

The nicely sized wooden ring is great for little hands to clasp and for gums to gnaw on, and our tester loved to wave it around, watching the fabric fly about.

Buy now £18.50, Ettaloves.com

The verdict: Sensory toys

Full disclosure: choosing a best sensory toy is something of a fool’s errand. Babies vary wildly in their play preferences, even before considering the many cognitive and sensory development stages they’re constantly moving through. All the toys on our list went down a storm and engaged our mini reviewers.

So, we based our best buy selection on the reaction of our own little tester while also considering longevity, opportunities for different types of play and learning, and the general multisensory experience.

The Taff Toys tissue box scored highly on all fronts, being made up of several elements that can be used in many ways. Hape’s penguin musical wobbler also ticked the boxes and took the rough play that our boisterous tot threw at him like a well-made champ.

Voucher codes

For the latest discount codes on baby tech and essentials, try the links below:

To send your little one into a sweet slumber, check out our round-up of the best baby mobiles for your little one’s cot or crib