All toys are meant to give kids some kind of experience, whether it’s role-playing toys that fostering the imagination, outdoor toys that get them up and active, artsy toys help get their creative juices flowing or educational toys like STEM play sets that teach kids about certain educational topics. But sensory toys focus in on touch, sight, hearing, taste and smell and try to direct kids’ attention to one or more of those sensations.
“Sensory toys stimulate the tactile system through various textures, vibration, temperature or weight,” says Shelli Dry, ODT, a pediatric occupational therapist. “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.” Even those ubiquitous pop fidget toys have their purpose, offering a satisfying push-pull for kids with busy hands. 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.”
Lots of parents like to DIY their own sensory bins, filling them with things like dry pasta, rice, water beads or sand, along with toys and tools that kids can use to hide and dig through to find again. But if the DIY route isn’t your thing, these best sensory toys of 2022 are always at the ready, waiting to give kids a fun, tactile experience.
Many of these are favorites of the toy testing experts in the Good Housekeeping Institute Parenting Lab, and a few have even won Good Housekeeping‘s Best Toy Awards.
Watching the glitter, colors and other materials traverse these fidget tubes offers a calming experience for kids who need a minute to cool down. This set comes with four tubes, a glitter tube, a fidget tube, a reverse hourglass and a gravity spinner, but Hand2Mind also has tubes that focus on color-mixing or look like a cute cloud, among others. Ages 3+
You can create your own DIY sensory bins, filling them with different compounds, toys to hide in them and tools to dig and scoop them. Or you can buy this ready-made sensory bin, which offers a variety of sensations and textures. The ocean and sand bin has water beads, sand, ocean animals and tools for digging and scooping, but Creativity for Kids’ other bins, with themes like construction zone, dinosaur dig, gardens and critters, ice cream shop, mermaid lagoon, outer space and race track, have different compounds and toys in them.
The Dimpl Digits toy, a Good Housekeeping Best Toy Award winner, 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 1+