It’s not long before newborns begin to engage with their surroundings, using their senses to discover the world and make crucial developments such as co-ordination, motor skills, logic, self-awareness and physical strength.
Activity mats and play gyms can help with this stage in their development with stimulating toys as well as space for tummy time to help build neck and arm strength. All our recommendations are suitable from birth, though many feature hanging toys that tend to be reachable by hand or kicking foot from two to three months of age.
Children’s toys have the tendency to turn your home into a picture of garish disarray, particularly in smaller spaces. Enter Skip Hop’s range of baby products, which marry style with practicality and innovation. This adorable, padded activity mat creates a teepee setting for your baby to roll around in, with a mesh forest background, woodland animals to look at, flaps that reveal hidden creatures as well as a light-up firefly to bat, turtle mirror to look into and a rattling bear and musical racoon to grab. There’s also a bear cushion to prop up baby’s head or for support during tummy time. What’s more, the tepee is tall rather than sprawling so won’t take up too much floor space.
While this takes a little longer to assemble than most activity mats and requires batteries (not included), the Magic Stargaze gym offers a stimulating environment for little ones to kick, grab, stretch and make music in. The textured rubber dangling toys double as teethers, while the kick tabs and pad activate coloured lights and different musical bursts that play over a selection of soothing tunes – a boon to parents driven around the bend by repetitive nursery rhymes. There’s also an option to plug in an MP3 device to play your own music through the built-in speakers, as well as a cushion to support tummy time, while the plump mat is comfortable on hard floors and big enough for learning to roll over, featuring a hidden mirror and squeaker and crinkly textures. A big hit with our tiny tester.
This cheerful Fisher Price mat introduces babies to the sights and sounds of the wild, with spinning butterflies, a plush giraffe, crinkly leaves, hanging monkeys and toucans and a variety of nature sounds, lights and music. The toys can be positioned low down for smaller babies to grab and there’s a mirror to encourage self-awareness.
Another endearing Skip Hop winner, this mat features five hanging woodland creatures that are low enough for smaller babies to grab or kick. The leaves crinkle, the owl rattles, the flower squeaks and there are also nature sounds, a mirror in the tree trunk and a tummy cushion for support. Lots of fun for younger babies to have here.
This is for parents that subscribe to the Scandi-chic school of nursery design. Finn & Emma’s birch play gym (also available in a darker non-toxic finish) is simple, practically proportioned but also good fun for little ones. While it doesn’t come with a mat, it will sit over your child’s favorite quilt or blanket. It features a detachable racoon and fox, knitted and fairly traded in Peru, and a sustainable Indian hardwood hedgehog and squirrel. Unlike many gyms, the arch height is also adjustable, so babies can play happily while they grow. There are several other design options, including birds, robots, jungle animals and even Polaroid-toting hipsters.
Another simple, practical, FSC-certified birch option, this sleek, Danish-designed gym folds down to a compact single frame that can be put away once baby has finished playing – ideal for small spaces. It is sold as frame-only, but has nine holes for attaching your child’s favourite toys. Frank Fischer also does a line of compatible toys such as friendly musical animals and mirrors.
This is a good value option from developmental toy specialist Lamaze. The central spinning, cradling ladybird will encourage babies that aren’t keen on tummy time to lie face forward and explore the five petals, building neck and back strength while enjoying the colors, textures and sounds on the mat.
Given that babies might only play on an activity mat for a couple of months, a low price point is appealing. Ikea’s budget option is made from birch and features several brightly colored, moveable wooden toys that dangle from the arch that can be used with your own mat (why not try it with Ikea’s reasonably-priced sheepskin rugs?) and will help develop your child’s hand-eye co-ordination.
The Verdict: Baby gyms
Mamas & Papas’ Magic Stargaze Stripe mat offers a modern take on the traditional baby gym, with sights and sounds that parents will want to join their baby in enjoying, while Skip Hop’s Camping Cubs gym makes an unusually attractive addition to your home as well as offering your child a stimulating environment for those early but crucial milestones in their development.