There are a few categories when it comes to baby gear: must-haves, nice-to-haves, and extras. Must-haves are essential items, like car seats and strollers, and extras are the products that make things a bit easier or more convenient that you can do without, like wipe warmers or a super-smart monitor with features that go above and beyond the basic video and sound feeds. The nice-to-haves are the middle-ground buys that your baby probably won’t miss but offer enough benefits that they’re usually worth the extra cost—and that’s the gray area where baby activity mats and play gyms live.
Babies crave exploration as their brains develop, and sensory play is a great way to encourage that curiosity. Sure, you can just put a blanket and a few toys on the ground to offer your little one some stimulation, but the benefit of play gyms and activity mats is that even the most basic designs are packed with developmentally appropriate sensory stimulation that’s perfect for keeping babies occupied during tummy time (which is recommended until a baby is at least 6 months old) and stationary play (most babies aren’t crawling until they are between 8-12 months old, and some don’t crawl at all).
Baby play gyms and activity mats come in so many enchanting and practical styles—some are pretty enough that you won’t mind them sitting out in the open, and others can be easily stowed away when they’re not in use. Plus, they’re available at a wide range of prices, so this nice-to-have item doesn’t necessarily require a financial splurge (though if your budget has some wiggle room, high-end options are available, too).
From playhouse and farmstand themes to fruit- and rainbow-inspired designs, we rounded up some of the most charming baby activity mats and play gyms for you to consider for your little sensory-seeking explorer.