Play mats, also called play gyms or tummy mats, are designed for children from birth to 10 months of age. Play mats -- soft floor mats -- are typically covered with various textures, patterns and bright colors to stimulate babies. Some play mats feature plastic overhead arches that dangle interactive toys, while other products are covered with detachable toys. Older tots can use play mats, but they are intended for a younger audience. The more remedial toy options and design (parents lay babies flat on their tummies to encourage the development of neck and shoulder muscles or on their backs to sharpen their vision) are most effective for younger babies.
Like all activity centers, play mats are designed to promote a child's development. For example, an item's bright hues and flashing lights can sharpen a young child's sight, while textured toys can stimulate a baby's sense of touch. Reaching for and grasping these toys can promote the development of a child's gross and fine motor skills. One universal perk of play mats: Unlike seated or stand-up activity centers, they fold up nicely for convenient storage or travel.
After sifting through a slew of play-mat evaluations, we found hundreds of positive owner reviews for the Tiny Love Gymini Super Deluxe Lights and Music (*Est. $60). Recommended for newborns through 10 months of age, the Gymini play mat features flashing lights, bright colors and music, along with different textures, shapes and fabrics on a 32-by-32-inch soft mat. A mirror encourages babies to attempt to lift their heads when lying on their tummies, encouraging the development of stronger neck and shoulder muscles. Like most play mats, the Gymini is machine washable and folds flat for easy transport. It requires three AA batteries to power the music and lights features.
Parents say their little ones love the Gymini's animal-themed toys -- a monkey with accordion legs, a parrot with crackling wings, a giraffe that rattles and a vibrating elephant -- all dangling from two criss-crossing plastic overhead arches. This play mat gets amazing support from parents; on Amazon.com and ToysRUs.com, a combined 1,000 parents give it an average rating of 4.5 stars out of 5. Parents say it offers their children hours of entertainment and they like the fact that its toys are detachable to use on other items like strollers or car seats. The one consistent drawback is that several users say the Gymini's music stopped working after just a few weeks and that even when it's working, the sound quality isn't great. Otherwise, reviewers say this play mat is easy to set up, store and clean.
The Fisher-Price Rainforest Melodies & Lights Deluxe Gym (*Est. $60) also earns favorable reviews from hundreds of parents and caregivers. It offers a selection of four musical tunes or rainforest sounds -- such as frogs croaking and birds chirping -- and features a variety of toys, including a plush monkey, a toucan that jingles, an elephant with soft ears and a parrot with a spinning paddle. It also has an overhead minimobile on its 32.5-by-32.5-inch play mat. Toys are suspended from two criss-crossing overhead plastic arches that feature four colored flashing lights. Its plush mat features different textures, such as a soft tiger tail and a crinkly rainforest leaf, and its music can be set to play for 20 minutes, continuously, or in "baby-activated" mode, which plays music or sounds when it detects movement. The Rainforest Melodies & Lights Deluxe Gym requires three C batteries to power the sound and lights. In contrast to the music that comes with the Gymini play mat, parents don't seem as annoyed with the sound quality.
For less money, the Fisher-Price Ocean Wonders Kick & Crawl Gym (*Est. $30) also gets good reviews. This play mat converts from a play mat to a crawl-through tunnel with toys suspended inside to entertain older tots. The Fisher-Price Ocean Wonders Kick & Crawl Gym has three toys that hang from one of two overhead arches by Velcro straps, or they can be attached directly to the soft 21-by-19-inch mat for tummy-time entertainment. There are two versions of this play mat available in stores: the Kick & Crawl Gym and the Kick & Crawl Aquarium. We called the manufacturer, who told us that other than slight toy variations and a slightly different pattern on the mat itself (both still have an Ocean Wonders theme), the products are identical.
Carley Roney, editor-in-chief of TheBump.com, a website for moms-to-be, includes this item in her list of favorite activity centers, citing its affordability and versatility. However, owner-written reviews of the Fisher-Price Ocean Wonders Kick & Crawl Gym are mixed. It earns an average rating of only 2 stars out of 5 on ToysRUs.com in more than 30 reviews, and an average rating of 3 stars on Target.com based on 150 reviews. The main area of disagreement is with the toys; while some parents say they are engaging and interesting, others find them uninteresting, especially for newborns who can't yet manipulate objects.