In a play room full of colorful, noisy and over-stimulating options, my son always gravitated toward books — they were always his favorite “toys” and a source of comfort. When he became upset, simply listening to a book calmed him down without fail (he’s now five, and this remains true).
Based on this experience^^, I assumed that all babies must love books and grow into toddlers and preschoolers who love books. Wouldn’t that be convenient.
As much as my son naturally gravitated toward books, my daughter shied away from them (or used them to practice her ripping and tearing skills, which are truly first-rate). Yes, despite our best efforts — reading to her religiously and making sure she always has a diverse, fun spread of books to explore at the ready — she’s been mostly disinterested in books.
Most of us parents well know that reading to our kids is important and beneficial — even from the time they are infants. And familiarity with books is one way to help build pre-literacy skills, which lay the groundwork for a successful learning-to-read experience.
But what if your kid just isn’t that into books?
Sensory books incorporate not just pictures and words, but also different textures, sounds, sights, and sometimes even smells to tell a story. Not only do sensory books drum up interest and excitement in reading in general, they also offer children the opportunity to engage with books in a whole different way.
Young children use their senses to learn about the world (and to respond to it), so adding some sensory books to your child’s bookshelf is a great way to promote overall development and learning (even if they already love reading).
In addition, because sensory books offer a more interactive experience than “traditional” books (i.e. pet the puppy’s fur, tie the child’s shoelace, see yourself in the mirror, smell the sweet apple, etc.), they also serve as a wonderful resource for kids with additional needs and/or learning challenges.
Here are some of our favorite sensory books for toddlers and preschoolers:
TouchThinkLearn Series, Xavier Deneux
This sturdy board book series presents simple, thematic illustrations with raised shapes that fit into opposite cut-outs and are perfect for little fingers to trace. Choose from Farm, Vehicles, Wild Animals, Numbers, Shapes, Colors, and many more.
TouchThinkLearn ABC, Xavier Deneux
This creative alphabet book features crisp, fun etchings to walk through letters. It’s a SOLID, big book that can last through plenty of wear and tear; for older kids, the whimsical illustrations make for great conversation starters. (What do you think the owl can see at the top of the mountain?)
Where’s the Giraffe, Ingela P. Arrhenius
This was a fave series in Charlene’s family — she says her boys loved lifting the bright felt flaps to uncover the animals. (We love the fact that they’re felt, because paper ones always seem to disappear/get torn, don’t they?) The colors are vibrant, and overall this is just a very engaging book for littles.
You can customize your own “quiet” sensory book from this Etsy retailer — it’s truly a beautifully crafted work of art that packs in a lot of play on every page. It’s $$$, but if you take care of it it could easily be a sort of heirloom “baby thing.” It also makes for a fantastic and thoughtful gift.
Touch and Explore the Ocean, Stephanie Babin, illus. Nathalie Choux
This book mixes different touchable textures with nerdy ocean facts about a whole host of marine animals. Kids can feel turtle shells, fish scales, and barnacles growing on a whale. This is an especially great pick for older pre-readers, and as a nonfiction title, it’s a rare find in the sensory book department. (My favorite “complaint” about this book: a marine biologist noted on Amazon that it uses the terms “starfish” and “jellyfish” instead of sea star and sea jelly. 😂)
Press Here, Herve Tullet
This book is so engaging and playful — parents love it, and kids love it. Putting kids in the driver’s seat, this book functions more like a game than a cut-and-dried story. It helps teach kids about colors and counting, following instructions and being cooperative, and is such a creativity spark. Parents write that older kids love it, too (one mom even “played” it with her 20-year-old son!).
Guion the Lion, Rebecca Wilson Macsovits
What this book lacks in strictly tactile elements it makes up for in bright, gorgeous colors. Guion the Lion features beautiful, vivid watercolor illustrations that appeal to children of all ages. My kids were obsessed with the imagery in this book, and it ends with a set of prompts featuring talking points (open-ended questions about the book, sensations, and feelings) and activities.
A cool note about the backstory on this one: “Macsovits developed the book to help others open up and have conversations about the beauty and significance of being different. It also teaches children that appreciating individual differences and embracing others’ ideas can lead to unimaginable adventures and endless fun. This is the universal message of the book, and one of particular importance today.”
Mix it Up, Herve Tullet
Another winner from the creator of Press Here (above), this book introduces kids to the color palette sans the mess that comes with painting: kids can “mix” paint splotches to see and learn what hues and designs different colors and combinations produce. Kids LOVE this one.
Off to the Beach, Cocoretto
This touch-and-feel book lets kids explore all things beach-related using their senses. They can feel a towel, see sparkling sand, and scratch-and-sniff an orange-flavored popsicle. This book also features braille print and embossed page numbers. If you like this one, see more similar styles from Cocoretto.
The Touch Book, Nicola Edwards, illus. Thomas Elliott
This book of textures is Montessori-inspired and oh-so-educational without being formally didactic. Every page is packed with diverse textures to explore and prompts kids to think about categories, feelings, and the world around them in a more interactive way. A great curiosity booster!
Tacos!: An Interactive Recipe Book, Lotta Neiminen
This is a fun and interactive recipe book designed specifically for young children — its contents are simplified but still accurate, and the book is filled with engaging, sensory components. The “Cook in a Book” series also has titles for pizza, pancakes, and cookies, yum!
My kids LOVE these musical books. If you have a young child who responds to music and audio, these are a great option for cultivating a love of books. Push a button on each page for a song, and turn to the next. I like that these “push-and-play” books aren’t crappy, loud plastic toys — they deliver the tactile experience of a “real book” — and that they’re not “baby-ized” — the classical music pick plays actual Beethoven and Mozart, for example.
I also like that you can purchase titles in different languages and across a wide range of categories (rhymes, reggae, rock’n’roll, counting, holiday and cultural themes, etc.). I don’t love that each book is relatively short (~6 pages/songs) and each song is rather brief (up to 15 seconds) — but nonetheless they’ve kept my two kiddos happy and busy for long stretches of time.
Welcome to the Symphony, Carolyn Sloan, illus. James Williamson
This book teaches children about all the elements of the symphony (instruments, music fundamentals, orchestral sections and the theater…) and features music performed by the New York Youth Symphony (!). Musicians love it, and we agree — it’s great for toddlers on up through early-school-aged children. Also see the Jazz version by the same creators.
World of Eric Carle: Around the Farm Animal Sounds Book, Mark Rader, illus. Eric Carle
This cute Eric Carle book features thirty animal sounds with matching illustrations. It’s a fun one for younger toddlers who are learning animal sounds, and we like that each animal’s icon is clearly depicted so little hands can find the right button to press on their own.
Discovery: Rumble with the Dinosaurs!, Thea Feldman
For the dino-obsessed child… this book has ten sounds and is full of fun facts about different kinds of dinosaurs. The sounds are SHORT, just so you know, but kids who love dinosaurs really get a kick out of it. Also, if your kiddo is into some other category of interest, Discovery also makes separate titles on baby animals, construction, zoo animals, farm animals, cars and trucks, and more.
Poppy and the Brass Band, Magali Le Huche
This cute book about a puppy at the circus has sixteen instrumental sounds (which actually aren’t all brass… go figure). Each page has a new sound, and the book slowly builds up to all the instruments playing together to see the final product. The sound quality in this book is *top-notch, and children also love the other titles in this same series, Poppy and Mozart, Poppy and the Orchestra, and Poppy and Vivaldi.
These readers are a fun intro to the world of audio books — each one comes with eight hard-copy books and matching audio. Children can press which story they want to listen to, and push a new button on every page (there’s a cue for when to turn) based on the matching symbol. It’s not the highest quality product in general, but this thing can seriously keep kids BUSY. It’s a nice “no parent needed” book experience that simultaneously teaches kids a lot about how reading “works.”