The Best Playmat

If I were buying a baby playmat today, I’d choose the Tiny Love Gymini Sunny Day Activity Gym. This playmat offers great features for both parents and babies and comes at a very reasonable—dare I say cheap—price.

This article was originally published in September 2014. It has been updated to reflect current products and additional recommendations in October 2017.

A playmat is one of those baby purchases you may think you won’t need, but end up being glad you got one. It’s convenient for parents to have a safe and stimulating spot to put baby down for a few moments close at hand.

We researched the more than 100 baby playmat options on the market from 10 different manufacturers looking for the one that we could declare the most useful, affordable, and fun. We sought opinions from top pediatricians as well as seasoned moms. After more than 30 hours of research, the Tiny Love Gymini Sunny Day Activity Gym came out on top as our pick for the best playmat for babies.

who should buy a Baby playmat?

Playmats are designed for new babies up to 6 months of age. Playmats offer a handy spot to keep baby entertained without having to be held by mom or dad. However, we would be remiss to say that you need a playmat in your home or that baby needs one for development.

Honestly, the same result—a content, comfortable and entertained baby—can be accomplished with a fuzzy blanket and some toys arranged on the floor.

“There are no major developmental rules or advice that would suggest that babies should play with a playmat and that it will somehow be developmentally stimulating. They are convenient for parents to have a clean play space, so there’s that, but developmentally, not really a major advantage of one product over the other to keep a baby in a clean space and confine the drool,“ says Dr. Ari Brown, a board-certified pediatrician as well as the author of the book Baby 411.

The parents we spoke to during our research nearly unanimously said that they did use a baby playmat for their child, rather than use a blanket with toys. Louisiana mom-of-seven Rene LaForge says the playmats she has used that had lights and sounds really caught her babies’ attention. “I think music, lights, bright colors, and toys are all things that would appeal to them,” she says about shopping for playmats for her kids. Other features that the parents we interviewed liked? Mats that are easily transported and can be cleaned with little hassle topped the list.

Playmats are a pretty routine addition to a baby registry. But we don’t recommended spending a fortune on this particular piece of baby gear.

What to Look For in a baby playmat

A baby playmat, at its most basic, is a soft, lightweight, and portable mat that lies on the floor creating an independent play area off the hard (and maybe dirty) floor. Most baby playmats feature bright contrasting colors and attached toys. Some have bars that criss-cross over the top with dangling attachments. Still others have crinkly fabrics, blinking lights, or toys that play music when a baby swats them. A few transform into a toy developmentally appropriate for an older baby or toddler. Top of the line models feature all of the above. Cheaper models don’t have quite as much. The playmat that will work for most parents lies somewhere in between.

We think any good playmat must possess these features:

  • It should be safe. (Duh!) That means no reports of safety hazards or recalls. We also like for our products to be certified by the Juvenile Product Manufacturers Association. While the JPMA doesn’t offer product certifications in this particular category, spokesperson Julie Vallese says “As more and more parents and caregivers are learning and using best practices in safe sleep such as putting a baby to sleep on his or her back, playmats are a great way to practice “tummy time.” By using playmats infants get both visual and physical stimulation and are a great way to build neck and back control as they develop and grow.” And while tummy time has been touted as a required activity for healthy development, some experts are now suggesting to delay the practice until baby can roll over on his or her own.
  • It should be large enough for a baby to wiggle and roll around. While parents of newborns might not think this is important, babies start moving quickly and you’ll want ample space for baby to play.
  • Most importantly, a playmat needs to be washable. Babies are seriously messy. If you can’t wash the stink or stains out, you’ll trash it faster than you can say “blow-out.” And by wash, we mean machine-wash.

There are a few features that make some playmats better than others. The five moms we interviewed said playmats with lights, sounds and music seem to captivate their babies’ attention longer. We also like the versatility of playmats that come with a small pillow or wedge—to prop a baby up for tummy time.  While most playmats are pretty portable, it’s nice when one is designed to fold up with all of its parts contained inside itself or in a designated bag.

You want a mat that’s easy to keep clean, and “spot clean only” isn’t going to cut it.

For us, the crowning feature that puts a playmat above its competitors is its longevity—that is, playmats that have toys or other features that babies can continue to enjoy and play with past the newborn stage. (Who wants to spend more money on something that a baby will outgrow in the blink of an eye?)

What features you should avoid when shopping for a playmat? There are a few. As I mentioned above, safety is always number 1. Avoid any product that has been recalled or has reported safety issues (as companies are not always quick to recall products, even if there have been problems). You want a mat that’s easy to keep clean, and “spot clean only” isn’t going to cut it. Lastly, any playmat that wasn’t easy to put together, take apart, or felt flimsy was crossed off of our list.

The baby playmat market is saturated by big-name baby brands and smaller companies alike. Mats can run parents anywhere from $25 to $150. But there’s no need to drop a ridiculous amount of money to get a playmat with lots of bells and whistles. As is often the case with baby gear, the best product seems to fit right into the middle. A reasonable price range is $30 to $45, with $60 being the absolute max we’d drop on a playmat.

how we tested

We began our research just like any new parent would—by checking various Internet retailers and sources for products and reviews. It was overwhelming, at first, with what seemed like an endless selection of what seemed to be very similar products to choose from(at least 150 were considered).

Using our criteria for “good” and “great” playmats, we narrowed our search down to about 20 playmats and then ruled out several for various reasons, including lack of durability, ease of use, and safety issues. That left us with five mats we wanted to test out with real-life parents and babies:Infantino Twist and Fold Activity Gym, theFisher-Price Kick and Play Piano Gym, theSkipHop Treetop Friends Activity Gym, and theBaby Einstein Rhythm of the Reef Play Gym, and the mat that wound up being our pick, theTiny Love Gymini Sunny Day Activity Gym.

Then we got down and dirty with the playmats. We let an infant, an 18-month-old and a 6-year-old loose on them. We had each child lay on the mat and play with the toys. We even had our oldest kid try to break the parts. Then we soiled each mat and washed it (and washed it, and washed it), to see how easily they cleaned and held up in the laundry.

Our Pick For the best baby playmat

Specifications

  • Dimensions: 34.7 x 3 x 18 Inches
  • Weight: 1.3 Pounds
  • Batteries: 3, 9 Volt Batteries (Included)
  • Storage: Comes with a carry bag

After more than six weeks of testing, research, and hemming and hawing, we finally came to the conclusion that theTiny Love Gymini Sunny Day Activity Gym is the cream of the very crowded playmat crop. It won us over by meeting all of our must-have criteria (safe, sizeable, and washable) as well as a few features, such as a toy that has lights and music and portability, from our above-and-beyond list.

Firstly, we consider this mat a safe choice. It has never been recalled by the government or by the Tiny Love company. And our in-depth research didn’t turn up any reported safety concerns from parents either. In addition, we didn’t notice any safety concerns during our own testing.

Second, the mat is big enough for a baby to roll and play on. This playmat is just shy of 35” across. Maybe an odd comparison, but nearly all standard refrigerators are 36” across, so this playmat is about the width (not height!) of your refrigerator. In real life terms, that translated to our infant tester being able to roll over twice without rolling off, and our 1 ½-year-old tester able to comfortably lie on her back or belly on the mat and roll once.

The mat portion of the Tiny Love Gymini Sunny Day Activity Gym is also machine-washable. We threw it in the washer on a cold, normal cycle and air dried it (as is recommended by the manufacturer). It came out as good as new. While you could put this playmat in the dryer, we recommend air drying it so that the fabric doesn’t shrink or pucker. That said, we washed and dried the mat more than ten times and it held up well, with very little fading or wrinkling. We still suggest air-drying the mat to preserve the colors and potentially make the mat last longer, but if you need to throw it in the dryer occasionally it should be fine.

In addition to meeting our three basic criteria, the Tiny Love Gymini Sunny Day Activity Gym goes above and beyond in a few ways. The overhead arches are easily removed, and the whole contraption is easily contained within the sturdy carry bag that the mat came packaged in. The playmat also includes a sun-shaped toy that plays three different short songs, and another toy, a frog, has legs that when pulled, retract and vibrate, offering a neat lesson in cause and effect. We (and the baby tested) also loved the small ribbon tags attached to the edge of this playmat (similar to the Taggies brand of products).

who else likes it?

Out of 200 reviews on Amazon, 87 percent give this play mat 4 or 5 stars (out of five) and is among the Top 20 best-sellers in the gym and playmat category. This playmat gets similar reviews from users at Babies R Us.

One Amazon reviewer liked that the mat folds up for travel and feels sturdy. Several others noted that while the mat is machine washable, for small messes, it’s very easy to just wipe clean in between machine washes.

Also Great

Infantino Twist and Fold Activity Gym

Another great choice in the vast baby playmat arena is the Infantino Twist and Fold Activity Gym. The “Vintage Boy”-themed mat is the No. 1 best-seller in this category and has nearly perfect marks from hundreds of users. Diapers.com and Babies ‘R’ Us reviewers had similarly positive experiences. One reviewer even went so far as to say this playmat is the “best baby purchase we’ve made.” The mat meets all three of our basic criteria for a good playmat, but didn’t have quite as many features as our pick. The Tiny Love mat comes with a reusable carrying bag and toys that play music. The Infantino mat doesn’t. If those things aren’t a priority for you, then this is a strong choice.

A step up

Infantino Grow-With-Me Activity Gym and Ball Pit

We really want to mention another favorite pick from research and testing, the Infantino Grow-With-Me Activity Gym and Ball Pit. While some parents might want a “traditional” playmat that is just a soft mat and some toys, others may be looking for something that can be used a bit more long-term. Enter the Infantino Grow-with-me Activity Gym and Ball Pit. Not only does it meet all three of our basic criteria (safe, washable, and big enough for a baby to move around on). it transforms into a ball pit for older babies. The mat is shaped like a turtle, and the head holds the balls until baby is big enough to play with them. When baby’s ready, you raise the mesh sides to create the “pit” and release the balls. Although the the cost is higher than our top choices, you get a piece of baby gear that more versatile than other playmats, which are essentially a quilt on the floor with toys attached.

The Competition

We considered these alternatives from several manufacturers, but they didn’t make the cut.

  • Fisher-Price Discover ‘n Grow Kick and Play Piano Gym — While this playmat got rave reviews on Amazon, we couldn’t pick it because of its size. Sure the piano feature is cool and grows with baby, but there’s only enough room on the mat for baby to lay in one spot.
  • Lamaze Symphony Motion Gym — Lamaze has a good reputation for baby gear, but we couldn’t get past the complaints of cheap parts on this particular playmat. Some parents griped that when their baby wiggled, the toys moved out of reach. Also, the price tag is too rich for our blood.
  • Boppy Flying Circus Play Gym — Don’t be fooled the cute looks. This playmat has abysmal reviews ranging from “not durable” to “tough to clean,” which is a shame because it’s totally adorable and comes from a very reputable baby company.
  • Baby Einstein Baby Rhythm of the Reef Adventure Gym — This mat is a solid choice. The only thing that disqualified it for us is that it only has a few more features than our pick, but runs double the price.
  • Skip Hop Treetop Friends Activity Gym —  Initial research led us to believe that the Skip Hop Treetop Friends playmat was a ‘green’ or organic pick. Turns out, this is not the case. According to the manufacturer, it is safety-tested to meet or exceed ASTM, CPSIA, EN71 and applicable safety standards. It is a very cute playmat that is easy to wash and care for, comes with a tummy-time pillow, and has a neutral, animal-themed print. However, we couldn’t justify the cost, particularly because it doesn’t meet all of our above and beyond criteria (it doesn’t have any toys that have lights or sounds).

Care, Use, Maintenance, and Repair

Using and taking care of your baby playmat is fairly simple. Assemble the mat and toys as instructed by the manufacturer. If—rather when, let’s be real here—your playmat gets soiled, simply disassemble, throw the quilted part into the washing machine, and reassemble when dry. We recommend not putting your playmat in the dryer, instead, hang it up or lay it on a flat surface to dry.

The toys on the playmat are removable. Users are instructed to spot-clean only for the toys. But for really serious messes, we didn’t hesitate to throw the ones that do not have batteries into the washer on a delicate cycle. They came out no worse for the wear. A great way to keep them safe in the washer would be to put them in a lingerie bag or pillowcase, but it’s not necessary. Another option would be if you have a steam dryer, to give the toys a spin on the steam cycle.

And as always, your baby should always be under close adult supervision when using any playmat. While we feel confident that our pick is one of the safest choices, you can never be too careful.

Your Guide:

Maddie Heinen

Maddie Heinen is a (mostly) stay-at-home mom of an elementary aged son and a toddler daughter. She moonlights as a freelance writer, blogger, and owns a small jewelry company. She studied Communication at the University of Central Florida and enjoys reading, writing, and definitely not arithmetic. 

Sources

  1. ‘Tummy Time’ May Not be Needed, The New York Times ‘Well’, June 6, 2013
  2. Ari Brown, Interview, Pediatrician and author of Baby 411, May 19, 2014
  3. Rene LaForge, Interview, Mom of seven in Louisiana, May 19, 2014
  4. Julie Vallese, Interview, Juvenile Product Manufacturers Association, August 1, 2014
  5. Baby Gyms, BabyCentre UK, September 2011
  6. Irene Gutteridge, The Case Against Tummy Time, JanetIansbury.com, August 9th, 2011
  7. Tummy Time: Why It’s Important, WebMD.com
  8. Product Reviews, BabyGizmo.com
  9. Tiny Love Gymini Sunny Days Playmat, BabiesRUs.com, 11. Tiny Love Gymini Sunny Days Playmat, BabiesRUs.com
  10. Tiny Love Gymini Sunny Days Playmat, Amazon.com reviews
  11. Tom Page, IMG_1713, Flickr, October 26, 2013, Filtered and cropped

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