What Are Sensory Toys?

Verywell / Julie Bang

Anything that stimulates one or more of our senses can be a sensory toy. If that seems like a mushy definition, that’s because it is—sensory toys can be as complex as a busy board or as simple as silly putty. A swing-set is a sensory toy, but so is a bin of kinetic sand or dry rice. With all these options, how can parents know how to introduce sensory stimulation into their children’s lives? We’re here to break down the what, why, and how so that your kids can benefit from the richness that sensory toys can bring. 

First, let’s define the senses—all eight of them. They include the main five we all know (sight, touch, smell, taste, and hearing), as well as the sense of proprioception (information about our body’s position and state); the vestibular sense (information about how our body moves and balances); and the sense of interoception (information about our bodily needs and functions). We use all eight of our senses to transmit and analyze information about where we are and what we should be doing.

While these senses occur naturally in humans, they need to be honed just like anything else. Sensory toys are a fun way of helping our kids practice using their senses and integrating the information their developing brains receive. 

What Is Sensory Integration?

Simply put, sensory integration is the process of taking information received from our senses and processing it in a way that allows us to navigate and experience the world. For many Americans, sensory integration doesn't happen as smoothly as it should; sensory processing challenges are a common phenomenon. If a person’s brain lacks accurate data from their senses or mishandles the organization of that data, they may seek out more or less sensory input. This can look like restless leg syndrome or twirling one’s hair, or it can look like something more dire, such as skin-picking or a panic attack.

While anyone may struggle with sensory integration, this challenge is a hallmark symptom of attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD) and autism spectrum disorder (ASD). That said, while many people with ASD or ADHD will experience sensory processing disorder (SPD), not all will. A 2017 study published in European Psychiatry found that 43% of subjects with ADHD presented with hyper or hyposensitivity to sensory inputs. Nonetheless, Rachel Cavallaro, a psychologist with Thriveworks in Boston, is clear about the distinction. “Sensory processing disorder has unique symptoms that are not explained by other known disorders,” says Dr. Cavallaro, “Studies have found a significant difference between the physiology of children with SPD and children with ADHD."

For neurodiverse children (and adults), sensory toys may help promote the analysis of sensory inputs, resulting in less anxiety and overall strife. Dr. Anna Jean Ayres first pioneered methods of sensory integration therapy (SIT) beginning in the 1960s, and various forms of SIT are still in use by occupational therapists nationwide. Dr. Ayres posited that the ways in which we perceive and integrate sensations may inhibit our ability to participate in everyday activities.

By exposing children to sensations they found troubling in a repetitive, structured way, Ayres believed that it was possible to retrain the brain to integrate them. Ayres’ legacy is still profound among the community of occupational therapists, whether they are devotees of SIT or staunch refuseniks. Nonetheless, most therapists agree that patients with sensory processing challenges are aided by physical devices. One 2013 study, conducted by researchers from Temple University, found “significant positive changes in goal attainment scaling scores” among autistic children aged 6-12 who engaged with sensory integration (SI) techniques.

Which Sensory Toys Are the Most Beneficial for Kids?

Just like any other skill, we need to practice using our senses if we want to sharpen them. Consequently, sensory toys are constructed with the aim of awakening a particular sense in order to develop that skill-set. Bright, contrasting colors engage children’s visual sense, encouraging them to get better at recognizing patterns and other details. Textured blocks and kinetic sand are more difficult to grip and give more of a tactile input, urging a child to develop the muscles necessary for gripping and improve fine motor skills. Even something as simple as a spinning top is helping your child develop muscles and fine motor skills.

Sensory Toys as Aids for Neurodiverse Children

For kids with sensory integration difficulties, toys can be used in two ways: either as a means of mitigating the amount of information a child's brain is receiving by increasing or decreasing an input source, or as a way of practicing the use of a sense. For example, Dr. Cavallaro recommended swings or trampolines for those seeking vestibular or proprioceptive stimulation. Both aids allow a child to experience their body moving in space, which, in turn, means the brain has better idea of where the body is and how to know where it is at all times.

A soft bristled brush can help with a tactile aversion to certain textures, depending on the specific aversion. Brushes are also helpful for bringing a child back to their body by providing extra sensory input to the skin. Weighted blankets or weighted stuffed animals are great for calming anxiety and helping a child relax or sleep. Children who are hypersensitive to auditory or visual inputs may use earplugs, noise-canceling headphones, or sunglasses to mitigate loud or bright spaces that they experience as distressing or overwhelming.

“Children and adults [both] can be comforted by the same things from weighted blankets, chew toys, headphones, coloring books, sensory brushes, fidgets, or whatever calms the stimuli,” said Grichell Pelizzari, LMFT, a therapist at Thriveworks in Pflugerville, who works predominantly with neurodivergent children and young adults, “SPD is not a developmental complication; it’s a neurological one.” 

Sensory Toys as Developmental Tools for Neurotypical Children

For neurotypical kids, the best toys are the ones that encourage stimulation while keeping things fun. The Montessori Method is just one educational model that keeps sensory stimuli at the forefront of its value system. The American Montessori Society’s site states that the method “fosters rigorous, self-motivated growth for children and adolescents in all areas of their development—cognitive, emotional, social, and physical.” The self-motivated part leans heavily on sensory stimuli, all intended to pique a child’s interest and get the creative, sensory-rich juices flowing. 

There are plenty of “Montessori toys” that can be helpful in crafting an enriching environment. A climbing arc or wall develops a toddler’s proprioception and gross motor skills; a stacking tower is great for fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and visual awareness; a set of wooden drums or shakers provides physical sensory input and develops a child’s auditory sense; stepping “stones” are great for developing the vestibular and proprioceptive senses. 

All of these toys are open-ended, in that they allow a child to engage with them in multiple ways. And every time a child plays with the toy in a new way, they are developing new neurological circuits. They’re sharpening their valuable senses, gaining a greater idea of who they are, and learning how they interact with their environment. They’re growing wiser and more perceptive.

A Word From Verywell

Sensory toys provide a fun source of vital enrichment for neurotypical kids, encouraging them to engage with their environment in new ways. For neurodiverse kids with SPD, ADHD, or ASD, these toys can help regulate and integrate sensory inputs in crucial ways. Professional counselors and occupational therapists can help children with processing challenges find the right sensory toys for their individual needs. 

Sensory toys, sometimes known as “Montessori toys” can help your kids develop all eight of their senses and grow into sharper, more independent adults. These come in a variety of shapes and forms, from climbing gyms and indoor swings to sensory bins and stacking towers. As always, if you have questions or concerns about your child's development or response to sensory stimuli, please don't hesitate to reach out to their pediatrician or healthcare provider.

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Verywell Family uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
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By Mikhal Weiner
Mikhal Weiner is an essayist and journalist working and living in Brooklyn, NY. Her writing has been featured by Newsweek, Real Simple, Parents, Better Homes & Gardens, and Lilith, among other notable publications. With 70+ articles under her belt, she is proud to continue to share her insights on LGBTQIA+ rights, parenting, food justice, and more.