Monday, October 15, 2012

Frugal Baby Activity Gym Tutorial

Perhaps one of the most over-priced baby accessories I've seen are activity gyms -- I've seen a few for $25, but the average price is $50! Considering that most of them are garishly colored, gender specific, and made of plastic and polyester, I've never felt tempted to shell out that kind of money for an accessory with such a limited span of usefulness. I've seen one or two at thrift stores and garage sales for $5 or so, but the cartoonish designs are enough to quell any temptation in that direction.

But that doesn't mean the concept wouldn't come in handy for the baby-on-the-way. I'd like to have a soft place for my little one to play, with colorful toys to look at and touch. To get what I wanted, though, I knew I'd have to make my own. Which works, because I like handmade and homemade better, anyway. I actually tried making an activity gym for Little Man, many moons ago. Let's just say that cutting a Dollar Tree pool noodle in half and trying to wrap it into a cylinder with duct tape doesn't work. Really doesn't work.

This time, I was determined to succeed. The play mat part is easy (um, hello, it's just a quilt!), but the lightweight-but-still-supportive arches had me stumped. As it turns out, I was in the right place before (the Dollar Tree), just in the wrong department.

Updated February 2015: Here's my newest rendition of the activity gym, this time using a 30" square mat instead of a round mat.

What You'll Need:

  • Two Dollar Tree Hula Hoops (mine were about 30" wide -- the biggest size available)
  • 1 yard of fabric for top (or you can make a pieced top)
  • 1 yard of backing fabric
  • 1 yard of interlining (batting, fleece, an old blanket, a few layers of flannel -- this is the "cushy" layer, so use whatever you want.)
  • 2 3/4 yards of bias binding (if making your own, cut strips that are 2" wide)
  • Two strips of fabric to cover the hula hoops, 2 1/2" wide by 56" (for a hula hoop with a 1/2" diameter hoop); you can "piece" the strips lengthwise if you don't have a continuous 56" fabric strip, or want a patchwork look for your gym arches.
  • Four 2 1/2" diameter circles of fabric that matches your hula hoop fabric.
  • Four 4" square pieces of fabric that matches your mat.
  • 68 inches (about 2 yards) of 1/2" ribbon -- Eight 4 1/4" pieces, and one 23" piece (your ribbon width can vary slightly)
  • Four size 20 diapering Snaps (these are sold at JoAnn Fabrics, along with the Snap press -- use a coupon to get a great deal). If you don't want to buy a snap press, I'd suggest using some heavy duty snaps -- not the sew-on kind.
  • 8 toys to hang from the gym, either homemade or purchased.
I had most of these supplies on hand, so I only had to pay $2 for the hula hoops. I'm guessing that I spent about $6 total for all of the supplies (excluding the snap press).

NOTE: I haven't had a chance to try this gym out yet, since our baby is still on-the-way, but my attempts to shake/pull on the gym have left me satisfied that it will be sturdy enough. It's very lightweight, so I'm not concerned about safety, but please use your own discretion. I would not recommend very heavy toys, but I wouldn't recommend them even for store-bought gyms (who wants to risk a heavy object falling on baby's face?).

How To Make It:

1. Cutting Out the Mat

If you don't have time/desire to make your own mat, you could use a pre-existing or storebought quilt for the mat. In this case, skip to step 4. Note that you will have to adjust many of the measurements I provide if your mat/quilt is not the same size as mine.

Be sure to pre-wash any fabrics that are likely to shrink.

To make the mat, you'll need a fabric top, fabric backing, and interlining. You'll need a circle with a 30" diameter cut from each layer. Update 2/2015: You can also use a 30" square for the mat. The process would be the same as below!

My backing is the same flannel that I used in the mat top. I traced about an inch outside my hula hoop with a fabric pen to get a circular shape for my mat. I cut out my backing and used that as a guide for cutting the top and interlining. Another way to get a circle is to create a makeshift compass with a 15" string tied to a marking pen. You could certainly make your mat square, if desired, but you're on your own for measurements!

Here's my hula hoop laid out on my backing fabric. This is an 
easy way to achieve a perfect circle! I traced slightly outside 
the hula hoop to get a 30" diameter circle.

My top was made from stash flannel and a cotton velvet skirt from the thrift store, cut into diamonds and pieced together. This added a bit of time to the project, but I like the result. If you're piecing a top, you may want to consider including little loops of ribbon in your seams to attach toys to. You could easily use a plain piece of fabric yardage as your top! Or take it a step further and embroider or applique to your heart's content.

For the interlining, I used a stash piece of fleece (it's bright blue with monkeys and bananas!). It's thick enough to make a very soft mat, while still easy to sew.

2. Assembling the Mat

Next, lay out your three layers in the proper order:
  • Backing, right side down
  • Interlining
  • Top, right side up
Smooth out your layers and pin generously from the center outwards. Don't worry if the edges are a bit uneven, they'll be trimmed later on. 

Sew the layer together using a long machine stitch around the perimeter of the mat, about 1/4" to 1/2" from the edge. Trim any unevenness on the edges.

The assembled mat, with one edge folded over to
show the backing. My piecing is not extremely precise,
so there's a bit of "bubbling," but it worked out okay!

I would recommend "quilting" your mat to keep the layers from shifting, especially if you used cotton batting as your interlining. There are several ways to do this -- Since my top was pieced, I simply machine stitched back and forth a few times at the point of each diamond. You could, of course, actually hand or machine quilt your mat, or you could try a simpler method like tying it

3. Binding the Mat

To give the mat a nice, finished edge, you'll want to bind the edge. You can buy double-fold bias tape, but I prefer to make my own binding -- that way both color and texture match perfectly, and I can make it exactly the size I want. Plus, it's considerably cheaper (depending on what kind of fabric you use).

To make your own binding, cut 2" fabric strips on a 45 degree angle to the grain of the fabric (usually you can get away with just making sure it's somewhat diagonal to the grain, but since this is a circle, I recommend exactly 45 degrees to get as much stretch as possible). You may have to stitch several strips together to get the necessary 2 3/4 yds. of binding (be sure to adjust that amount if you're doing a different sized mat). Update 2/2015: If you're making a square mat, you don't need to cut the binding on the bias.

There's a fantastic tutorial on making your own binding on the Sewtropolis blog (including an interesting folding method which I'm really interested to try). For the purposes of this project, stop right before the instructions tell you to press your binding.

Pin your binding right-sides-together to the TOP of your mat, 1/4" away from the outer edge. Stitch 1/2" from the edge of the mat.

Notice that the binding doesn't line up with the edge of the mat. This is
intentional, since it naturally reduces the bulk of the seam without requiring
trimming (and requires less binding fabric).

Trim any excess off the edge of the mat, if necessary.

Fold your binding over the edge of the mat, tucking the raw edge under and pinning. I hand-stitched my binding to the underside of the mat, but you could machine stitch on the right side of the mat if you want.

Here's the back of the mat with the binding pinned down. I hand-stitched the binding using little "invisible" stitches, 
pulling the binding just past the machine stitching line.

4. Preparing the Hula Hoops

Time to disassemble the hula hoops! First, locate the "seam" on your hula hoop. This was really easy on my cheapo Dollar Tree hoops, because they're just secured with clear packing tape.

Cut the tape with a knife and pull the sections apart. My hula hoop had a little plug that held the hoop together. It came out with no difficulty.

Ever wonder what makes that classic hula hoop rattle? I was expecting at least beads, but instead a few chunks of gravel came spilling out into my hand!

You'll want to strip all that shiny wrapping off your hula hoop. Rather than unwinding it bit by bit, I basically slid it off the hoop. Really, any method you use is fine. Just get it gone.

Using a box cutter/cutting implement, (carefully) trim your hula hoops -- one will be 53" long, the other 53 1/2". If you're not following this tutorial exactly, those measurements may vary depending on the size of your mat and how high you want your arches. Regardless of your desired length, make sure one is slightly longer than the other, since one will need to cross over the other. My hula hoops are about 1/2" wide, hence the 1/2" difference in length.

Here's my mat (still unbound in this picture) with my two hula "arches" cut
to size. If you're uncertain of how big to make your arches, cut a little off your
hula hoops at a time and hold them in place to check the fit. They bend quite
easily. If you do cut off too much (which I did), use your hula hoop "plug" to
increase the length of your arch. No sweat! Wrap the seam with a piece of tape 

to keep it secure.

5. Covering the Hula Arches

Fold your two fabric strips (2 1/2" by 56") in half lengthwise to find the center of each strip.

Mark the center with a pin, and then mark 5" and 10" away from the center on each side. These markings will be the placement for ribbon loops to hold toys (8 toys in all). Again, you can adjust those measurements depending on the size of your gym and how many toys you want to hang (or be able to hang) from the gym.

Hopefully you can see the center pin (on the far left) and the two pins at 5" and 10." You'll repeat this on the other
side of the center pin.

Take your eight 4 1/4" lengths of ribbon and fold them in half. Pin one folded ribbon piece to each 5" and 10" mark on your fabric strips, placing the raw ribbon edges against one long edge of the strip. Do not place a ribbon at the center markings of the strips. There will be four ribbon loops per fabric strip. Also, make sure you pin your ribbons to the right side of the fabric.

Ribbon loops pinned in place

Fold your fabric strips in half widthwise and sew along the long raw edges, 5/8" away from the edge. Leave the short ends open. This will form a long tube out of each strip. Be sure to sew the ribbon into the seam (you can sew back and forth over the ribbons if you want added stability), but don't catch the rest of the ribbon loop in your stitching.

The raw edges of the tube are on the right -- be sure to leave the short edges

Before you turn the fabric tubes right side out, you may want to stick a piece of hula hoop in the end of each tube, to test the fit. Different fabrics have different "stretch," so if your fabric tubes are too snug (or too loose-- but remember you'll have a bit of fabric from the seam allowance when you turn the tube), now is the time to adjust the width of your seam. Once the fit is correct, trim your seam down to about 1/4". Turn your fabric tubes right side out (officially my least favorite part of this project!).

Time to insert your hula pieces into your fabric tubes! Make sure the seam and ribbon loops stay on the inner curve of the hoop (which will be facing down).

The plastic tube should be pretty easy to feed in, even though your tube is
quite snug.

Center your fabric tube by making sure you have the same amount of fabric on each end of the hula hoop. Pull the fabric taut along the tube, and push the excess fabric inside the tube.

This part's actually pretty fun! Just stuff that excess inside the tube.

And now you have two arches, almost finished! In the next step we'll connect the arches and the mat.

Starting to take shape...

6. Connecting the Mat and the Arches

Using snaps to connect your arches to your mat not only allows you to disassemble the gym easily for storage or transport, but also allows you to use the mat without the arches. I like versatility!


Cut out four (approximately) 2 1/2" diameter circles from your "arch" fabric -- I used a jar lid to trace mine.

Size is not crucial here, so just find something round that's about the right size

I also cut four small squares slightly larger than my snaps. When I attached my snaps, I simply arranged the squares in the center back of each circle -- this provide a little extra stability to the snap.

I used Diapering Snaps and a Snap press from the JoAnn's Babyville collection (which I originally purchased to replace the Aplix on my diaper covers). The snap press gets some pretty bad reviews on the JoAnn website -- while I'm sure it's not as good as the KAM presses, I've found it perfectly adequate. I only paid $8 for mine after a 60% off coupon, so I'm very satisfied with my press for that price!

End of rabbit trail...

If you don't have a snap press, I would use a heavy duty snap that is NOT sewn on -- I don't think sewn-on snaps would have the "oomph" for this project, though I could be wrong. They also wouldn't look quite right, in my opinion. You might be able to use those nifty magnetic snaps...

Whatever snap you use, make sure the prong (AKA sticky-outy-side) of the snap is what you attach to your fabric circles. The prong goes on the right side of the fabric, and the back of the snap goes on the back of the fabric. See the picture below if that's a bit confusing...

Note the prongs on the RIGHT side of the fabric, and the smooth back side of the snap on the WRONG side.

Now, to attach your snaps to your arches!

Fold the fabric around the back of each snap, like this:

Then insert your fabric "plug" inside the hula hoop. Hand-stitch around the edge, connecting your hula-hoop fabric tube with your fabric plug (again, see the picture below for some visual assistance).

Here's my best attempt to show tiny stitches around the edge of your snap "plug", connecting to the hula hoop. It's
really quite simple and intuitive.

Okay, here's a little side note. My snaps were just the right size for my hula hoop -- they didn't stick out, and they didn't recess into the hoop. If your snaps are a little large, it's no big deal. If your snaps are a little smaller than the inside circumference of your hoop, they'll slip inside the hula hoop and you will not be able to attach the arches to the mat properly. Find an object the same size as the outer circumference of your hula hoop (a button, a coin, etc.), and place this inside your snap "plug", right next to the snap. Rewrap the fabric circle around your filler object, and stuff the plug back into the hula hoop. Sew as directed above.


In order to attach the arches to the mat, we need to add snaps to the mat. There's no way you'll be able to get a snap to go through the thick layers of fabric in the mat, so we're going to make "tabs" that attach to the mat, instead. You need four 4" square pieces of fabric.

Press two opposite sides of each square under 1/4".

This is me being too lazy to get my ironing board out, so I finger pressed and
pinned my fabric.

To find the center of your tab, fold your tab in half by bringing the two raw edge together. Mark the center fold with pins.

Open up your tab. Now bring the raw edges close to the center pins (see below). Press.

The pins sticking out of each end are the "center pins". The other four pins are holding the tab sides down.
Leave a little space between your two raw edges when you fold them in.
Almost there! Now fold your tab in half one more time along the center line, making a long, narrow tab (if you fold the wrong way you'd end up with a sort of square shape). See the picture below for clarification.

Stitch around the perimeter of your tabs, as close to the edge as possible. 

Add the other side of the snap (the recessed half) to each tab, about 1/2" from the end of each tab:

Four tabs, ready to go! In case you're wondering, we used the recessed part of the snap on the tabs, because if you
decide to use the mat without the arches, stepping on/rolling over the prong part of the snap would be rather painful.
The recessed half of the snap is much lower profile, and consequently less painful!

Now it's time to position the tabs on the mat. You need to decide how to position your arches -- you can have a perfect "X" (one arch leg at even intervals around the mat), or any other configuration you choose. My arches are not a perfect X. Instead, I used the design of my pieced top to figure out my tab placement. I think this will make it a bit easier to place baby on the mat.

For the perfect X configuration, fold your mat in half and in half again (making a quarter circle). Mark the four folds with pins. When you reopen your mat, you'll have pins placed evenly around the mat.

 Once you figure out where your arches will go, slip your tabs underneath the mat and pin them in place. The snap should be sticking out from the edge (see below). 

Here's the view from the top of the mat. 

On the backside of the mat, stitch the tab to the mat (don't stitch the binding edge; see the pictures above and below for clarification). I stitched a simple rectangle to attach the tab -- you could sew an "X" in the rectangle for added stability, but there's really not a lot of stress on the tab. And I'm lazy like that.

Here's the back view of the mat once the tab is stitched down.

We're ready to put the whole thing together now!

7. Assembling the Activity Gym

Your activity gym is now ready for use! Snap your arches to opposite tabs, making sure the longer arch goes over the shorter arch. 

I chose to use a ribbon to keep my arches in place. You could sew up some fancy velcro thingy to hold them together, but the ribbon (when tied correctly) seems to hold them together quite nicely. Hopefully the pictures below will clearly show my ribbon tying technique.

Loop your remaining 34" piece of ribbon under the arches.

Cross the ribbon and bring it back down, making an "X" over the arches. 

The ribbon is crossed the way you would do it on the bottom of a present.

Cross the ribbon again and bring it back up. Tie securely in a bow.

Congratulations! Your activity gym is finished!

8. Decorating the Gym

Of course, what's an activity gym without lovely things for baby to look at? The fun part is decorating the gym with a variety of colorful toys. I went with a woodland theme for our gym, because I like birds and hedgehogs and  mushrooms. Ooh, can you imagine an aquarium themed gym? I'm having visions of crinkly satin fish and be-ribboned jellyfish... Thank goodness I don't have the time, because these are too inexpensive for the cost to keep me from making another one!

Making the toys turned out to be rather time consuming, but very rewarding. I tried to use a variety of colors and textures (calico, sateen, felt, velvet, jersey, ribbon, velvet). Also, I attached ribbon loops to the toys in places where the animal/plant would be looking down at the baby. If I had placed the loops at the exact center top of each item, baby's view would be considerably less interesting!

A wee little hedgehog with ribbon feet and ruffled jersey "prickles"

A calico mushroom with a linen stalk -- I know buttons are controversial, but
these are sewn on quite securely. There are few jingle bells stuffed inside.  The
other mushroom has a red corduroy cap with a white silk stalk and little
translucent buttons. 

Two songbirds -- the blue has jingle bells inside, and the red has a bit of crinkle in the wings and belly.

A little owlie with jingle bells inside, sitting atop two velvet crinkle leaves
(empty cereal bags make great crinkle material).

Here's a list of the patterns/tutorials I used for the toys, and any changes I made:

Birds: Lollychops free pattern  (drafted my own wings and added a felt beak)

Owl: My own pattern, (heavily) inspired by Jen Talbot's sweet little owls: here, here, and here.

Mushrooms: The Little House By the Sea free pattern (modified the stem shape slightly, used buttons instead of felt spots, and skipped the embroidery)

Leaves: My own template

Hedgehog: Katie Steuernagle's Marie Antoinette Hedgehog pattern (added ribbon feet and an extra ruffle on the top -- also, I used jersey strips for the ruffles, so I didn't have to fold the raw edges under)

Well, there you have it! 
I hope you and your little one enjoy 
your one-of-a-kind activity gym!

Please remember that this tutorial is intended for personal use only. 


  1. You always amaze me with your tutorials, but I think this is the most fantastic one yet! My baby is 12 weeks old and is starting to take a great interest in the plastic toy gym someone gave her at her baby shower. The activity gym sits quite low, though, so the toys almost dangle in her face. Once she gets a bit larger I don't think she'll be able to use it anymore. I am now going to have to make a customized activity gym for her based on your wonderful tutorial! Thank you so much - hula hoops! Who would have thought?! Brilliant!

  2. That's amazing, Shannon! Your activity gym is super-cute and very frugal! I'm sure Baby #2 will love it!

  3. Hello Shannon,
    It has been a while since I have commented but Lauren and I consistently enjoy your blog. We are so delighted by your creative projects not to mention how beautiful everything turns out. It has been so nice to follow your blog as the Lord has grown your little family. May He continue to bless you and give you His peace. Looking forward to hearing of the arrival of your new little one.
    Mrs. Hope
    Lauren Hope

  4. Shannon,
    This.Is.Incredible! Thank you so much for this tutorial! I too have been reluctant to dole out the money for a baby gym for my 4-month-old. However, with my limited sewing skills, maybe I will have one made by the time Baby #2 comes along. Thanks again, I really enjoy your blog.


  5. This is so adorable and creative!!!
    I love the little creatures and their faces are whimsical and sweet. Great job!


  6. I just foundd your blog today. I love the activity gym! I want to make one. Now I just need to find some one who is expecting so I can make one or convice my neice it is time for a baby!
    LOL she may have other plans.

    Blessings, Loree

  7. This is sooi cuteee... Wanna make this for my baby tooo....

  8. This is so great! I used an old pair of pants for the underside fabric (pieced together, the material won't stretch out of shape...denim would be fun to try), then I used an old towel to pad the inside and a thin fleece blanket for the top and to cover the hoop. I paid $3.50 for my hoop and $4 for my snaps...that makes my play gym for only $7.50!!
    Thanks so much for the idea!

    1. I'm so glad you were able to use the tutorial! It's so satisfying to get so much for so little, isn't it? Great idea to use pieced pants for underside!


  9. Excellent and Thank you.
    I am trying to make 2 play gyms for my twins daughters. But stuck up on how to bend the pipes. hula hoops !!


  10. Thanks for the tutorial! You created a fabulous play gym.

  11. Thank you so much for this wonderful and clever tutorial Shannon! I'm a quilter and so had some very cute animal flannel to use for the mat. I was able to "fussy" cut the animals to make little animal toys to hang on this. This will be a surprise for our new grandson! Thank you again!

    1. Thank you for your kind words! What a great idea to use the animals on your fabric as the hanging toys! I hope your grandson enjoys it -- what a special gift to receive from his grandma. :-)


  12. I just finished my play gym!

    Sewing is not my forte so I crocheted everything. Did you have any issues with the hula hoops over time? Sometimes I feel they are strong enough but other times I feel that they are just going to bend.

    Thanks for the tutorial!

    1. Psycholark,

      That is amazing! Wow, I am so impressed by both your crocheting and creativity! What a fun place for your brother's baby to hang out. :-)

      As for the hula hoops, when I remade my activity gym I re-used the hula hoops (i.e., they've been used for two babies so far. I haven't had any issues with them bending, fortunately! I've only suspended very light toys from the arches, so that could be part of it, but so far they seem quite resilient.

      Thank you for sharing your version of the activity gym -- it's marvelous!


  13. I absolutely love this idea and stray away from any tutorials that involve sewing b/c
    1) I do not own a sewing machine and 2) it scares me
    BUT, I really want to attempt making this for my one on the way. To make it easier on myself, I am just going to use an existing quilt. Would the measurements for the arches be very different if I used a 30" square quilt like in your updated pic?

    1. An existing quilt is a great idea! I actually re-used the same arches from my original mat, so the measurements should be pretty much the same -- you could always try cutting the hoops a few inches longer, just to check (they're pretty easy to trim down if you need to).

      Good luck, and I'm so happy that the tutorial will (hopefully :-) be helpful!


  14. Hi, ı loved your detailed tutorial. I made one arch, kept the fabric longer and sewed the ends. And ı tied the arch to my baby's crib's sides by pieces of ribbon. I hanged a couple of amigurumi animals which I've crocheted previously and a music box from my older child's baby mobile. It turned out really cute and cheap. Many thanks for the tutorial :)

    1. I'm so glad to hear that it worked out for you! I love that you altered it to fit your needs (it sounds adorable :-). Hope your little one enjoys it -- and thank you for taking the time to share your success!


  15. So now that you've taken all that TIME to make a beautifully finished activity gym, if you were to sell it, what would the cost of your labor be? This is clearly a $50-$100 project, should You actually want to be paid well for the TIME and materials. I guess it makes sense that buying a new one would be so "expensive", right?

  16. Yes, I've actually been asked once or twice if I would make one and have to decline -- I am more than happy to spend the time on my own project (as a stay-at-home mom I have "more" time than money :-), but factoring in an hourly wage would drive up the cost of a home-made gym. Granted, I could have spent much less time if I hadn't pieced the top or made the toys myself -- those were both things that I wanted to do for the fun of it! Usually I'm looking for an excuse to tone my creative muscles, and if I can save money in the process (even if I have to invest time)... well, it's a win-win to me!


  17. What foot did you use for your machine? I'm a novice but I feel like the layers wouldn't go through my regular foot. A walking foot?

    1. I do have a walking foot, but I can't recall if I used it for this project -- I do know that my regular machine foot could handle it (it's not much good at "full" quilting, but just tacking the layers in a few places works out well).



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