The right activity center can be a busy parent's best friend. These toy-covered offerings can easily keep babies captivated for hours, while sharpening their newly developed muscles and senses. For instance, the bright, splashy colors and contrasting shapes typically featured on these products can help strengthen a baby's focus and vision, while repeatedly reaching and handling interactive toys can enhance a child's hand-eye coordination and fine motor skills (such as grasping and pinching).
The term "activity center" covers a lot of ground -- everything from play mats (also called play gyms or tummy mats) to upright seats surrounded by toys.
Because of the nature of their construction (parents lay babies flat on their tummies to encourage the development of neck and shoulder muscles, or on their backs to sharpen their vision), play mats are generally recommended for children from birth to only 10 months of age. Many experts say "tummy time" on a play mat can be a boon to a child's development. According to Dr. Henry Shapiro, the medical director of developmental and behavioral pediatrics at All Children's Hospital in St. Petersburg, Fla., (who was interviewed for an article on Parents.com), tummy time promotes good head and neck control while enabling a baby to practice pivoting, a key hip movement that is a precursor to crawling.
Stationary entertainers or seated play centers are a bit more sophisticated. These activity centers are designed for older babies (they cannot be used by infants) and come in one of two forms. Some models feature a centered, pivoting upright seat surrounded by toys, while others simply consist of a table with a seat on the outside that a child can walk around. Many stationary entertainers also offer adjustable heights, enabling parents to alter the unit as their child grows.
Experts say babies shouldn't be placed in these products for longer than 30 minutes because weaker back and leg muscles aren't used to maintaining upright positions for prolonged periods of time, and doing so may cause muscle strain and fatigue. Additionally, stationary entertainers shouldn't be used by babies who can stand or walk on their own, since they could make the unit unsteady and possibly cause it to tip over. Due to this, some manufacturers apply a weight or height limit, usually 30 pounds and 30 or 32 inches tall.
Parents should examine an activity center carefully prior to purchase, experts say, since this is the best way to test a product's stability and safety. Additionally, the seat of a stationary entertainer should look and feel comfy. Machine-washable seat covers are also a plus.
We found the most comprehensive coverage at ConsumerReports.org, which covers stationary activity centers but not play mats. Editors provide several articles, buying advice and background information but don't conduct formal testing or recommend specific products. Instead, the editors list major manufacturers in alphabetical order. The latest edition of the popular baby gear book "Baby Bargains," by consumer advocates Denise and Alan Fields, briefly touches on play mats.
We also found some discussion of activity centers on Tibesti.com, a general product-recommendation site; TheFamilyGroove.com, a parenting website; BabyGizmo.com, a baby products review site; and About.com. Reviews are conducted by parents or other individuals with a background in baby and parenting-related products. However, no formal testing is conducted at any of these websites and authors don't provide justification for their selections beyond mentioning the features of the products.
Consumer reviews are often the best source of information when it comes to toys; parents can attest to how well their children liked a particular product and how much use they got out of it. We found hundreds of owner-written reviews for stationary activity centers and play mats on Amazon.com, ToysRUs.com and Target.com.