Baby gyms, floor gyms, activity gyms, play gyms, playmats… Are these just different ways of describing the same thing?
Well, the first four are all pretty much interchangeable. One manufacturer may prefer one phrase over another, but there’s nothing to really set a floor gym apart from an activity gym. Play mats, however, are something else. It’s generally fairly easy to tell a play mat from a play gym. That said, there are even some manufacturers who, perhaps deliberately, muddy the waters and use play gym to describe what is essentially a play mat. And vice versa. So what exactly is the difference?
A safe place for baby to play
Let’s start by recognizing that playmats and play gyms both meet the same basic need. They provide a clean, safe, soft surface for your baby to lie on or play on.
Playmats comes in two main forms. The padded fabric variety and the interlocking foam tiles type. Many are variations on a theme, but some really stand out as unique. One of these is the K’s Kids Big & Big Cushions and Playmat, which is a padded fabric mat with detachable sausage-shaped cushions that create a protective barrier around the edge of the mat. But overall, the key choice is between a fabric mat and a tiled play area.
Padded fabric mats
The padded playmat comes in a surprising range of designs. Rectangular, circular, square, oval… even elephant- and giraffe-shaped. Some are small enough to fold up and put in a bag. Others are as big as baby’s bed covers. Some play mats are nothing more than a patterned piece of cushioned fabric for baby to lie on. Others have strategically placed pads for support or add-ons for recreation, exploration and learning.
On the whole, fabric mats are most suited to young babies. But some are designed to adapt as baby grows. The K’s Kids Big & Big Cushions and Playmat does exactly that: the mat neatly converts into a mini sofa or obstacle course.
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Interlocking foam tiles
Foam tile play mats generally come in packs. You can buy as few as nine or you can cover an entire floor. You can move them from room to room or leave them in place indefinitely. And you can add to your collection as baby gets more mobile.
Foam tiles are all pretty similar in form but they come with all kinds of designs – numbers and letters are among the most popular. Some of the more sophisticated tiled mats have developmental toys and activities built in. Lights, textures, sounds, plenty of things to keep tiny hands and minds engaged.
So what’s a play gym? The main difference between a baby gym and a playmat is that the gym has dangling toys. That’s an oversimplication, but when you look at a mat next to a floor gym, you can see that a mat is flat but a gym has crossover arches with a number of hanging toys.
Manufacturers like to think that their gyms stimulate baby’s senses and encourage development. They may be right. But this kind of workout is probably not really a whole lot different from any other opportunity baby has to watch, listen and touch. That said, they are pretty cool and when my sister offered to buy one for me and our baby boy, I wasn’t going to say no.