Montessori style tray activities for toddlers: starting out

Easter holidays are almost over and it’s time to get back into the swing of things. The twins are old enough to start Montessori tray activities so I thought I’d post today about some of the activities I’ve used for my beginners in the past.

The first thing you need to think about when you are setting out tray activities for the first time is how you will store and present them. They do take up a bit of space so a small bookshelf or shelved cupboard is ideal to place open trays, bowls and baskets in. If you don’t have enough space for this, perhaps you will need to use a system of shoe-boxes or similar so that they can be stacked away when not in use. They are not ideal as the toddler cannot see the contents easily, however they are better than nothing.

The tray or container itself is the next step. True Montessori style places a big emphasis on beautiful natural materials; everything being wood, metal, stone, glass etc and avoiding plastic and the like. While commercial Montessori materials are truly beautiful, the reality for me is that they are expensive and I am making my own, so I have to work with what I have. I initially visited a bunch of swap-meets, op shops, second-hand shops, discount variety stores and the like and bought a stack of wooden bowls, wooden trays, glass dishes, metal baskets and anything else that fitted into the natural and aesthetically pleasing category.

The trays were another matter. Wooden trays look great but cost too much and I couldn’t find any secondhand so I ended up using the flat plastic lids from small plastic storage crates I already had around the house. A roll of non-stick drawer liner cut to size for each tray stops the dishes and smaller items from slipping around.

The next step was to find a bunch of attractive materials to use for practical life activities. (See materials and storage ideas here)

To make it workable for me, I choose a selection of categories for my activities and have one tray for each kind. For example, one tray is for tong and spoon transfer, one tray for counting, one tray for colour matching and sorting, one for pegging and clipping, one for matching etc. Once I have my chosen categories set up, I use the same tray and containers for the whole term and only change the material that is presented.

This means that once my toddler is familiar with the tonging activity (I have presented it and demonstrated what to do) they are able to approach each new material without me having to re-explain what to do. They see a pair of tongs (different each week or two) with a new material to transfer but the same two containers to transfer back and forth from.  Eventually I change the containers too, but to begin with I keep it very similar so that they feel confidant in what they need to do.

On the first day the shelves are empty apart from 3 or 4 tray activities. I sit down and present each new activity which I demonstrate first before the toddler takes a turn. Depending on their attention span, I will introduce all 4 trays and stop for the day. Part of this process is showing them how to carry the tray to their work area (a carpet mat), complete the activity, place all materials back in their places and return the tray to the shelf.

The following day the child chooses which activities they would like to work on and completes them independently. If necessary, I will sit down and demonstrate the activities again. Once I can see that they understand what to do with the 4 that are already out I introduce just one new tray a day until I have built up to having all the categories in circulation.

Once they are confidently using one of each type of activity, I can change the materials without changing how it is presented (as explained above) and usually do not have to spend time explaining what to do as the concept is already familiar to them. (The next post will give you a photographic example of what I mean.)

Other posts you may like:

Mega marble transfer

An introduction to sorting

Teaching toddlers to cut

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