When it comes to kids toys, you can’t get more simple or wholesome as a Play Tunnel. These lightweight, expandable tubes provide a fun, active way for younger kids to get to know their own motor skills, while at the same time enjoy the universal joy of having their very own fort.
The best play tunnels are not just cheaply made tubes … they are innovative portable toys with thoughtful features such as sewn-in padding and exciting printed graphics. They offer a valuable way to teach fine locomotion skills, and perhaps best of all, they are one of the most affordable ways to turn your toddler’s afternoon into a session of unique fun and quality exercise.
After thoroughly examining dozens of the most popular play tunnels online, we’re ready to narrow it down to the top ten:
Here we have a 4-way nylon play tunnel that is about as awesome as it gets when it comes to pop-up fort toys. With multicolored tunnel segments and a center opening, this thing can entertain a whole gaggle of 1, 2, 3, or even 4 year olds as they make their way through its durable passages.
The real standout feature here is the pop-up construction, and more specifically, how easy it is to fold the entire thing down into a single small ring of metal hoops and fabric. It only takes a few minutes, and what you have at the end is a secure and well-packed toy that only weighs a couple of pounds. This makes it delightfully portable, so you can easily bring it along on that next trip to Grandpa’s house or even to daycare for an afternoon of group fun.
Each of the four tunnel segments can be tied off against the center compartment in the case that you can’t fit the whole thing with fully extended, or, if you are trying to connect it to multiple tunnel sets for an ultimate maze-like adventure that is sure to keep the little ones busy all afternoon long.
The interior wires will start to wear through the outer fabric in time, especially with extended and repeated use, but for the price it isn’t that big of an issue.
What We Like: A 4-way tunnel that is remarkably easily to collapse & carry
What We Don’t: Internal wire frame will wear through the fabric over time
Well there is certainly no denying that this is just about the cutest play tunnel that we have ever seen, and if our reaction is any indication, then it’s a good bit that your kid is going to “bug out” over the Big Mouth Caterpillar Tent by the folks over at Poco Divo.
The main portion of this tent is a four-panel rectangular chamber that is shapes as the caterpillar’s head. The door is the mouth (adorable) and a red tongue provides an entryway over a 5” lip that allows this to double as a ball pit.
Off the side of the head chamber extends a long play tunnel with eight brightly colored caterpillar legs along the outside. One cool thing is that this tunnel can be used entirely separately from the main chamber. All in all, it’s a complete creature-friend that your child is going to make immediate friends with.
Buyers of the Poco Divo should be aware that the internal wire frame is of a pretty narrow gauge. The result is that these wires will bend pretty easily, for instance, if something big falls across the play tunnel.
What We Like: A remarkably charming caterpillar-shaped play tunnel & tent
What We Don’t: Internal wire frame is somewhat prone to bending, but can be bent back into shape in most cases
What he have here is much more than just a play tunnel, but is rather a deluxe, fully-immersive 5-piece play set that has everything you need to entertain a whole bunch of babies or toddlers for hours at a time. The one-of-a-kind design and baby-certified construction has quickly made the Playz 5-Piece Set one of the best-selling play tents on Amazon, and it doesn’t look like sales are going to be slowing down anytime soon.
The set is entirely modular, which means each piece can be used separately and on its own, as well as in conjunction with other play tents and play tunnels. A unique open-top ball pit fits at one end of the play set, and can be filled with plastic play balls. It also provides a handy way to both deposit and withdraw your child from the play set as needed, as opposed to being forced to crawl in after them.
If we had to come up with one complaint, we might say that the connection between the “pool” segment and the adjoining play tunnel is a little loose, and the result is that some of the play balls can fall out between the seams. Overall it is not much more than a minor nuisance.
What We Like: A deluxe, full-featured playset that works great with pit balls
What We Don’t: There are some small gaps where the tunnels meet the tents
From what we have been able to discern thus far, Pacific Play Tents is one of the more reliable manufacturers when it comes to providing durable tent fabric that is actually going to last through more than a single weekend of play. We can confirm that the fabric is indeed thicker, making this play tunnel even more suited for outdoor play than some of the other toy tunnels on our review.
Other than the increased durability, there is not much that is particularly unique about the Find Me tunnel. It is simply a well-made play tunnel that delivers on all counts, providing a simple & portable toy that is appropriate for even babies. Sometimes it is this kind of simplicity that makes a toy great, which is certainly the case here.
The internal metal coil that is used to give the tunnel its shape is capped on each end by a small plastic connector piece. Unfortunately, this piece comes off a little too easily which can expose the somewhat sharp wire beneath. We might recommend gluing the piece on if you are going to be connecting this tunnel to other play sets with any kind of frequency.
What We Like: A very simple but very well-made play tunnel with durable 70D polyester fabric
What We Don’t: Connector caps at each end come loose every now and then … might need to be glued on
The Safari Fun Dome is an adventure waiting to happen, right out of the box. With a detailed yet friendly safari-themed print, your kid will have no problem pretending that they are on their own journey through a wild territory rife with elephants, monkeys, and tall trees. It is only a bonus then that it is made by the toy-crafters at Pacific Play, which has become one of our favorite companies when it comes to this kind of thing.
The basic design of the Fun Dome is pretty simple, and not unlike what you would see in other pay tents of this size. There is a small double-pole four sided play tent with two zipper openings. One of these openings serves as the front door while the other fits a 5’ long play tunnel that extends out to the size. While it isn’t the largest play tent on our list, it is still big enough for several children to play inside at once.
Interior padding that is sewn in along the metal spiral is a nice touch that actually helps cut down on tears and worn-down fabric. It also makes it simply more comfortable to the touch, so crawling through it doesn’t cause any discomfort.
What We Like: A super fun jungle safari awaits, right out of the box
What We Don’t: We wish the tunnel has a better connecting mechanism where it meets the tent
Every princess deserves free reign over her very own kingdom. And you, Lord of the Realm, can give it to her for less than fifty bucks with the Princess Fairy Tale Castle by Playz. What we have here is a full 3-piece play set that includes a castle tower, a pool-style ball pit, and a mesh-top play tunnel that connects them both together. If that isn’t enough, the princess’ chambers are decorated with all manner of friendly forest creature and calming vine-pattern, giving this the feel of a real house of royalty.
The tent portion of this kit is assembled by inserting fiberglass rods into the interior of the main fabric. This can be somewhat time consuming, and unfortunately the rods themselves are not particularly secure in there … the curious child will be able to pull them out if they wanted to. Still, when the whole thing is up and assembled, it has a nice height to it and you can tell that it is sturdy enough for indoor play.
The ball pool is much easier to setup, which makes it possible to set up quickly on its own for some quick ball play without having to take the time to set up the castle portion.
What We Like: Ball pool goes up in seconds and can be used without the other components
What We Don’t: Interior rods are not super secure, so this play tunnel kit is really better for indoors only
Because “monkeying around” is an essential part of a child’s early development, you might want to consider getting them a play tunnel that is playful as it is durable. The Hide and Seek Monkey Tunnel is not only adorable from the get go, but also utilizes well-made polyester fabric and internally padded metal coils to become one of the more durable play tunnels on our list.
The cute little monkey face can be added or removed from one end of the tunnel with a few simple snaps, allowing it to convert easily from cave to tunnel and back again depending on your child’s play preference. Or, remove the face panel altogether and use this 6 foot tunnel as an extension of a play set that you already have.
One of the drawbacks of this kind of polyester is that there can be some significant off-gassing that occurs while the product is inside its plastic packaging. The result can be a powerful plastic-like smell that will need to be aired out for a while before it totally goes away.
What We Like: Look at that adorable monkey face!
What We Don’t: Some off gassing occurs during packaging … best to let this tunnel air out in the yard for a day or two to let the smell go away
The Sunny Patch series of ply tunnels and tents by the wizard toy makers at Melissa & Doug offers a versatile and highly customizable way for your child to interact with their own private space. The Butterfly Crawl Through Tunnel is only one of several great add-ons that has been designed to work with this series, though in actuality most play tunnels can connect to play sets from different manufacturers without much issue.
We could go on telling you about how well constructed this tunnel is, but it might be more effective to tell you that every single toy that is made by Melissa & Doug is covered by their 100% Happiness Guarantee, something that no other toy maker has been able to offer as far as we can tell. That means that if for any reason your child is not totally happy with the product, you can simply send it back for a full refund.
Having said that, we do think that the 18” tunnel diameter is a bit small compared to the other tunnels that we looked at. For this reason it is perhaps more suitable for 1 and 2 year olds than older toddlers and children.
What We Like: The Melissa & Doug 100% Happiness Guarantee
What We Don’t: The 18” tunnel diameter is perhaps too small for older kids (4 & up)
This is the first “D-style” play tunnel on our list, but as you might be able to tell from the picture, it isn’t as complicated as you might think. It might be helpful to think of it as a sort of hybrid between play tents and play tunnels, as it is both significantly taller than most play tunnels but is open on both ends. It works with four fiberglass hoops holding up a fitted piece of polyester fabric, which, if set on its side, would resemble the letter D.
Both ends of the school bus have fitted front and back panels that display either the front or the back of the bus. The rear panel even has a realistic translucent window.
The height of this play tunnel is its greatest asset. You can get quite a few kids in here at once, and the brightly colored school-bus pattern provides a great jumping off point for whatever the next educational adventure may be.
What We Like: Unique & roomy D-style construction makes for educational adventures that multiple kids can enjoy at once
What We Don’t: On the more expensive end of the scale for play tents and tunnels
The latest release in their wildly popular Sunny Patch series of play tents and tunnels, the Happy Giddy Crawl Through Tunnel is just as durable, brightly colored, and kid-friendly as any other product that they make, and believe us when we say that this means a lot. Not only do Melissa & Doug offer that awesome Happiness Guarantee that we are always talking about, but they also have a firm dedication to making toys that are free from toxic materials. It is no surprise then that NBC News called them “the gold standard in early childhood play.”
The cute bug-like face is actually a flap door that opens easily with your child’s passage, though it can be easily removed with the unsnapping of a few buttons. An 18.5” crawl through opening is only slightly larger than the Butterfly Crawl Through that also appears on this list. In fact the Melissa & Doug play tunnels can be just a bit small for the more standard play tunnel apertures of 20” or more.
We could probably go for a little more padding along the inside of the metal coil, but other than that we think this is one of the more well-constructed tunnels on the review.
What We Like: Melissa & Doug Happiness Guarantee is unmatched in the industry
What We Don’t: It could use a bit more padding along the internal frame wire
Play Tunnels & Play Tent Sets for Kids: A Complete Buyer’s Guide
If someone really wanted to sell a lot of play tents and tunnels, they might consider opening a sort of indoor play place where each tent and tunnel is already setup and ready for play, alongside the dozens and dozens of other competing products. Chances are your kid would be able to tell you which one was the best without any hassle.
Unfortunately, there is no testing ground for play tunnels. Shopping for these kinds of things online can sometimes feel like you’re flying blind, but it certainly doesn’t have to be that way. There is a light at the end of the play tunnel, so to speak.
Next, we’re exploring some of the criteria that we used to make our selections for the Best Play Tunnels of the Year so you can start shopping with confidence. After that, we will reveal our top picks.
Primer: Why Tunnel Play And Imaginative Play Are Essential For Your Child
Before we start the buyer’s guide, we’d like to take a moment to provide you with the basic rundown of why these play tunnels are much more than just toys, and how they actually serve more direct purposes in your child’s development than just a fun way to pass the time.
- Basic Motor Skills are benefited greatly by tunnel play, because the tunnels force the kid to crawl on their hands and knees, engaging their entire body. In the process they become more adept users of their own body, and the added exercise & bilateral coordination skills certainly doesn’t hurt either.
- Social Skills are the expected result of play tunnels and sets like these where multiple children are encouraged to engage with the same system at the same time. Learning how to share space with other children, even at the young age of 1 or 2, is a necessary part of developing healthy communication skills that will be required for their formative years.
Anatomy Of A Play Tunnel
While the products that appear on this list vary in complexity and size, almost all of them utilize the same structural design.
As far as the simple tunnels are concerned, they are little more than a long, coiled spring. A cylindrical length of fabric is sewed around the coiled spring, forming the outer shell of the tube. When you press the sides of the tube together, the spring condenses and the whole tube becomes no thicker than a couple of inches. It is this effective portability that has helped make this kind of toy so popular.
Play Tents & Kits: How It All Fits Together
You have no doubt noticed that our play tent roundup is by no means restricted to simple play tents, but instead includes a number of more complete, full-featured play tent sets that go beyond the simple tunnel. These include 3, 4, & 5 piece sets with play tents and attached pop-up ball pits.
There is no question that a full play set can accommodate more children, but one of the more immediate benefits is that they tend to be enclosed enough to allow a whole bunch of plastic play balls to be dumped along the floor. This ball-pit adaptability is fun for parties, but also a great way to get your toddler their much needed exercise on a rainy day.
One of the cooler things about the products on our list is that it is possible to attach them to one another in many cases, or at the very least insert one company’s play tunnel into another company’s play tent. This allows parents and teachers to create more wildly exciting configurations, especially for situations where there are more than just a few kids.
Tunnel Length and Diameter
There is not a whole lot of variance in neither length nor diameter when it comes to play tunnels. The large majority of them are 5 feet long and between 18” and 20” inches wide. Of course much larger versions exist, such as the much roomier D-shaped School Bus Tunnel by Pacific Play.
If you don’t have an idea of how big 18” is, we can tell you that it isn’t that big. Unless you’re a real twig of a thing, you likely are not going to be able to follow your young one through the play tunnel without a little bit of discomfort. This is of course one of the most appealing parts of play tunnels for kids … they come to know that it is a space that only they can escape into, which gives them one of the first real tastes of external control in their bidding lives.
Windows & Ventilation
Almost all of the play tunnels and play castles that we reviewed have some sort of window built in, and many in fact have more than one. These are usually made out of see-through mesh that is small enough to prevent pugs from getting in but big enough to allow for the free passage of air.
Because these play sets are often used outside, they can become quite hot inside as the interior air is warmed by the summer sun. Making sure that your play tent has big mesh windows is one way to keep it from getting too hot from your kid.
The other benefit of multiple windows is that it provides the parent or teacher a way to see what is going on inside of the tunnel, for instance, if they want to check up on their kid without bending down to look inside the tunnel.
The most impressive aspect of the modern play-tunnel’s design is how easily it folds in upon itself for both storage and travel. Because these tunnels are made with widely curved steel springs, it is possible to push both ends of the tunnel together to create a flattened hoop that is no more than 2 or 3 inches wide. From there, it only takes a few simple snaps to hold it in place, so you can store it easily on a shelf or in the back of the car.
Remember, the more pieces your play tent set has, the more space it is going to take up. Tent segments that are included in play sets tend to take up more room than tunnels, even when packed down into a smaller size.
Frequently Asked Questions (F.A.Q.)
Q: Are Play Tunnels Safe For Babies?
A: Because these toy tunnels are designed to encourage movement and crawling, they are not really designed for young babies. However, those who are old enough to crawl might get a kick out of making their way down one of these brightly colored tunnels.
The most important thing to keep in mind when allowing very young kids to use play tunnels it so simply keep a close eye on them and remember that the temperature inside the tunnels can get a bit warmer, so they might not want to stay in there for too long.
Q: Are These Play Tunnels Machine Washable?
A: Because of the way the fabric of a play tunnel is sewn around the metal spring, they are not machine washable. While some play teepees have removable canvas covers that can go into the wash, play tunnels are a bit different. Fortunately, cleaning them is as easy giving them a quick wipe down with warm water and just a small amount of soap.
Q: Are Play Tents And Tunnels Coated With Dangerous Flame Retardant Chemicals?
A: Some parents might be old enough to remember when the scourge of cheaply-made tent fabric used in the fabrication of kids’ play tents overwhelmed the market, only for consumers to find out that they had been coated in flame retardant chemicals that were somewhat hazardous to kids’ health.
Today, parents can rest assured that there are no toxic chemicals on the polyester fibers that these tents are made of. While polyester is not in itself flame resistant, it is far less likely to burn than some of the cheaper fabrics that they used to use.
End of the Tunnel: The Best Play Tunnels in 2020
Before we close things up, we should mention that it was somewhat difficult to get a really good feel for how these play tunnels work, seeing as how we are all, like, way too big to fit inside one of them. Alas- it seems that the true joys of expandable toy tunnels are reserved for the children in our lives … and how lucky they are!
So what’s our top pick? When it comes to the simple play tunnel, as in just the tunnel and no extra structures, then we are going to have to go with the Pacific Play Tents Multi-Color Tunnel. This is a great example of a properly executed construction of a simple yet reliable design. It’s great for younger children, and it closes down to the width of a pancake.
And yet, we can’t seem to take our eyes off the Playz 5-Piece Pop Up Play Tent. This is much more than just a tunnel, offering a real pop-up ball pit and a 5’ tent segment for the full mega-fort experience. It is a few bucks more than the tunnels on their own, but is a surefire way to make sure that your kid’s next birthday party is an absolute hit!
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