Mother and Baby

Best baby play gyms and activity mats 2021

Section: Toys & Education
baby play gym

A baby gym or activity mat is a classic bit of baby gear that shows no sign of falling out of fashion any time soon. Nor should it, because having somewhere safe to pop your baby when you need your hands free can be a life-saver!

Back in the day, baby gyms all had much the same design, but no end of smart variations are now available. That said, most still have a soft, padded mat for your baby to lie on beneath an arch with hung toys. The idea is to occupy your baby, and present her with all sorts of stimulating objects, colours, textures and sounds, to encourage her to explore her senses and boost her development. They’re suitable from birth until your baby starts moving independently – after that, she’ll crawl off in search of other adventures!

Do you need one?

When it comes to must-have baby gear, a baby gym isn’t up there with a car seat or pushchair, but life is much easier with one. Having somewhere to put down your baby when you need to sign for a parcel from the postie or nip to the loo is so handy – and she’ll be safe, comfy and entertained! She’ll benefit physically and cognitively from having interesting things to focus on as her sight and colour recognition develops, and she’ll love kicking and batting at the toys overhead. A baby gym is also brilliant for helping tire out an active baby!

best baby play mats

How to choose a baby playmat

You need to choose a baby playmat that is very easy to use, to clean, is portable and can also be customized by hanging extra toys on it. Make sure your chosen baby playmat is colourful and bright to stimulate your baby even more.

There are many types of baby playmats, but choose a flat one as its better for your baby’s back. Also, you need to look for one that gives you space to hang many types of toys, with different textures, sounds, colours and shapes not only above your baby’s head but in all his/her surroundings.

What to look for in a baby play gym

Playmat: Some gyms have much bigger playmats than others, so think about how much floor space you have available, but also how big and active your baby is. Dribbles and leaks are unavoidable, so a detachable, machine-washable mat is essential.
Baby-safe mirror: A mirror is a must – looking at herself will encourage your baby’s face-recognition skills and boost her social and emotional development. Add one to the gym yourself if it doesn’t already have one.
Toy arch: Opt for lots of variety to hold your baby’s interest as she gets older. Black-and-white patterns might delight a newborn, but not a four-month-old.

Musical features: Babies love music, but check you can turn this function off because the tunes will eventually get on your nerves!

Extra toys: Some gyms are designed to allow you to attach other toys to the hanging bar to keep your baby’s interest. If your tot is inquisitive or easily bored, this is a great option.

Sensory activities: Many gyms have different sensory elements for your baby to explore, from peek-a-boo flaps, which can help boost fine-motor skills,to crinkly-textured toys. When you’re comparing gyms, think about whether the features will stimulate different senses.

Tummy-time pillow: Time spent lying on her front every day is important to help your baby strengthen the muscles she’ll eventually use for sitting, crawling and walking. Tummy-time features, or a dedicated pillow for extra support, are useful.

Which is the best baby play gym? 

With plenty of different options available, finding the best baby playmat for you and your baby can be difficult, so we've done some research to help you choose. 

2021 Gold Mother&Baby Awards Winner in the Best Baby Toy category.

Especially designed to support your baby's development from day one, the Black & White Gymini's contrasting colours and clever features encourage your baby's innate desire to explore. With 8 engaging features including a mirror for extended tummy time, a baby activated musical toy and a wind chime, this Gymini is great for parent/child bonding.The adjustable play arches and movable toys allow for an adaptable environment, whilst the stylish design is a lovely addition to any home.

Tested for the Mother&Baby 2021 awards, mum Gabriella Challis says: "I absolutely would recommend the Magical Tales Black & White Gymini to any other Mums. It is unisex with it's design, folds up easily if you want to store it away (we use it every day so we don't bother folding away as it's a beautiful design, it doesn't look like an eye sore in the front room!) We have washed the Magical Tales Black & White Gymini due to our baby having reflux and it has washed/dried out brilliantly."

Read our full review of the Tiny Love Magical Tales Black & White Gymini here. 

With adjustable, moving arches, this playmat will keep your little one entertained from day one. It encourages fine and gross motor skills, with a bird toy, lights, and music. You can record your own messages for your little one on it! 

The Dynamic Gymini was the bronze winner in the M&B Awards 2019 Best Baby Toy category

Our real-mum tester Nicola said: "I would definitely recommend this product. I loved how it folds away easily and how the little parts can be taken off and taken with you when going out. You can use it at home, in the car or take it out in the changing bag. The mat is washable which is a must with little babies and it is a quick-drying material which means you can wash it and be ready to use it the next day."

Read our full review of the Tiny Love Dynamic Gymini here. 

By far one of the most popular baby gyms on the market, this musical mat helps your baby through several developmental milestones including lay and play, tummy time and sitting up. The dangling toys help develop self-awareness and hand-eye coordination, whilst the mat also helps develop motor skills by kicking and reaching for the piano keys. The musical effects also help your baby understand cause and effect. 

Review: "Really well made and easy to assemble. Multiple functions and uses for various stages of development. Great for tummy time, general play and coordination plus baby loves the noises and flashing lights."

 

This adorable activity mat might be on the expensive side, but it sure has the reviews to prove its worth. Parents love how creative the gym is, with fireflies that light up upon touching and an adorable wigwam design that you won't mind leaving out in the nursery. It will aid your babies through all their major milestones from lay and play to sitting up with more than 17 developmental activities. Easily assembled and taken down for cleaning, it's a great gift to add to your baby wishlist. ​

Review: "I have to say it has been a fab purchase for us. My baby stares lovingly at the fox and owl and smiles and giggles at them. He is now 13 and a half weeks old and has learnt to swipe at the little cloud handle and can now grab it though it’ll take him longer to start pulling it. It’s great for tummy time as well as it drops down and will continue to entertain him when he can sit up. I have taken off the hedgehog and attached it to his bouncer so detachable toys are another plus."

A cute baby gym from a brand you can trust - Freddie the Firefly from Lamaze featured on our best baby toy list, and this mat is just as great. Packed with different features to aid your baby's development, the 3-in-1 gym is not only great for tummy time, it comes with three different toys that can easily be clipped off for on-the-go fun. We're huge fans of this bright baby gym, and our panel of mum testers loved the large discovery mirror. 

Review: "When this first arrived I wasn't impressed - but it turned out to be one of the best things I bought for my newborn. The frame detaches from the mat, and so I can put the frame free standing over the baby anywhere. Also the toys detach from the frame and are small enough and soft enough to carry in my pocket or purse for emergency distractions when out and about. It is just the handiest and uncumbersome design I have seen yet for these playmats. Definitely recommend."

Adjustable walls act as a barrier during playtime - a great option if you're worried about those balls flying all around the living room, or your baby moving too much during tummy time. It could even be used as a ball pit for a toddler, lasting you through many developmental years. This gym includes an electric toucan that plays over 20 minutes of melodies, a soft elephant and a monkey bead chaser. With jungle-themed toys and leaf-shaped teethers, this play gym has more than you can ever ask for.

Review: "I absolutely LOVE this play mat it's unisex and our little one LOVES it. We have had non stop compliments of the play mat from friends and family. This playmat seems like it's a lot of money but it's a bargain considering that it's 5 in 1 so will save money in the long term as your baby grows with the play mat as you can change it to different activities.As this playmat has lots of engaging playtime toys including bead chaser, plush musical toucan, baby-safe mirror, crinkle fabrics and much more couldn't be more happy with this purchase and would highly recommend to new parents."

Suitable from birth, your little one will love this activity mat. Designed to facilitate tummy time, the gently rotating octopus strengthens your baby's core while stimulating them with squeaky, crinkly toys. The spinner is removable, so the gym can be used once they can sit up too. This gym promotes more exercise than other play mats, making it a great help for physical development.

Review: "Our daughter was struggling with tummy time so we bought this to promote her using her arms to lift instead of having them straight by her side like an aeroplane. She got the hang of it but wasn’t able to tolerate it for too long. She isn’t a fan of tummy time full stop. She has grown out of the tummy time lady bird centre piece but continues to play on the play mat which she adores and is small enough to take out easily on days out. Great quality product but a bit pricey for what you get."

Shortlisted for 2021 Mother&Baby Awards for Best Baby Toy.

This play gym from Little Green Sheep is made from natural Birch wood and hand-finished with oil. If you want a sustainable, natural wooden playmat for your baby then this is a wonderful choice. The toys are detachable and made from organic cotton and wood, safe for your little one to bat away and chew. The baby gym pictured is the curved safari theme, but you can also get it with straight legs, and other themes include Ocean Whale, Bunny Love and Bear Love. You can hand wash the cotton charm toys and wipe clean the wooden ones. 

M&B tester Ruth Carmichael says: This product was a fantastic addition to our toy collection. our baby was so in love with it that she would play with it a lot longer than most of her other toys allowing us to do simple tasks around the house a lot easier like pop the dinner on, put a wash on, hoover the floor, we felt this product really did make life easier.

Read our full review of The Little Green Sheep Group Wooden Baby Play Gym.

This is a stylish, modern take on the traditional baby gym. It features bold patterns to appeal to younger babies, as well as bright blocks of colour to help stimulate your baby’s sight. The interactive arches play musical sounds along with innovative light displays, to help keep your baby entertained. It comes with four cute hanging toys and plays sounds when your baby bats at them.

M&B mum tester Jemma: "I love the bold, stylish design. Ada liked watching the lights track cross the gym, but we had to darken the room to get the best effect. A huge plus point is that you can adjust the sound levels, which is perfect if you get tired of hearing the repetitive music! There’s plenty of space for rolling about but it’s not so easy to put away, so we ended up leaving it permanently set up."

The Marmite of baby gyms, we think you’ll either love or hate this. There’s no denying that it’s a thing of beauty and if you’re in any way design minded you’ll probably be smitten – or if you love sustainable design and prefer wooden toys to plastic, this is for you. You’ve probably already got a comfy blanket to pop underneath it, but you might want to stock up on some extra hanging toys.

M&B tester Amie: "I’ve been admiring this for ages, so was thrilled to try it out. I love the minimal, Scandi-chic design and that it’s made with sustainable and recycled materials. It’s so minimal that my husband laughed and said Joni wouldn’t even look at it after playing with all the other gyms. Wrong! She hasn’t tired of this yet, so maybe babies don’t need all the lights and noise we think they do?!"

Crafted with natural materials, and sustainably sourced, FSC-certified wood, the Lovevery Play Gym was designed by child development experts. There are five sensory zones to help your baby through everything from tummy time to teething, including an organic cotton high contrast ball ideal for grasping and rolling, a batting ring, a cotton teether, a black and white card set and much more. We love the included play space cover which transforms the gym into a cosy hideaway.

Review: "The best gym ever! We bought it for our third child and we regret not having it for the other two. It is easy, versatile, looks great and our little one looks happy and focussed when playing on the mat."

Modern or traditional?

Baby gyms can completely divide parents. Some love the more minimalist, modern-looking gyms, while others felt they got much more bang for their buck from those with more interactive features. But even babies of the most discerning, style-conscious mums find it hard to resist noisy toys and flashing lights! Do consider your baby’s personality as well as your preferences – a more sensitive baby might find a bright and busy gym too stimulating and might play for longer with one that has a simpler design.

Do you need it to fold away?

You’ll use a baby gym several times a day for about six months, so choose one that you’ll be happy to keep assembled while it’s in regular use, or which you can easily pop away. If you’re short on space or prefer to reclaim the living room when your baby goes to bed, a gym that folds away quickly and isn’t fiddly to set up again the next day is useful. Factor in whether you’re likely to pop it in the car and take it with you when you’re visiting the grandparents, too

Why are playmats good for babies? 

  • Learning about 'cause and effect' - Activity mats can help your baby from when they are first born. At around six weeks, they will help your baby start to develop 'cause and effect' as they realise if they push the toys on the hanging mobile, they will move. 
  • Developing your baby's vision - Your baby is born with pretty blurred vision, meaning they can only see a few inches in front of their faces. As they grow, they'll start to take an interest in different shapes and colours, which means most playmats are designed with a variety of bright, eye-catching toys for your baby to focus on. 
  • Developing grasping skills - You'll already have noticed your baby's grasping skills - reflexively grabbing on to anything in their palms. As your baby grows up, you'll notice your little one reaching and grasping at the toys hanging on the mobile, even if they aren't interested in them when you first introduce the mat. 
  • Developing self-awareness - Another feature you'll spot on a lot of play gyms on this list is a small mirror. Your baby probably won't notice herself in the mirror until shes around four months old, when you might notice her starting to reach up at it. As she grows, your baby will interact more with her reflection in the mirror, making faces and smiling at herself. 
  • Developing motor skills - Stimulating toys from activity gyms are great for your baby's development, but also for use during tummy time. You should always use a playmat or blanket for tummy time, not a sofa or raised surface. Tummy time is important for helping your baby develop those all-important fine motor skills. Lie with your baby and encourage her to look up at you, or the toys hanging over the mat. 

Why trust us?

Mother&Baby product recommendations are independent and based on a combination of real-world testing from our army of mum testers, and the expertise of our experienced editorial team and product specialists. Whilst we may receive a commission for purchases made through our links, we never allow this to influence product selections. Any revenue earned helps us to fund more great content like this. Want to know more about how we work? Click here to read about our process, and why you can trust our product picks. 

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  • Author: Emily Thorpe Emily Thorpe
  • Job Title: Digital Writer

Having written for Mother&Baby magazine for four years where she wrote news, product pages, features and interviewed celebrities such as Paloma Faith and Fearne Cotton, Emily now works as Digital Writer for Mother&Baby online where she specialises in travel and product reviews. 

 

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