Montessori inspired practical life: dry pouring tray activities for toddlers

If you are looking for inspiration for toddler tray activities, dry pouring is a great place to start. It is a practical life skill that is easily introduced in a simplified form and can be gradually made more challenging as your toddler progresses. Learning to pour liquids carefully and accurately is difficult for young children, so starting with a dry material is a more forgiving and easily mastered beginning. Giving children cups and containers to pour water in the bath develops the skill in a non-messy environment and dry pouring activities are great for mat time, highchair time or table time.

This is the first dry pouring experience I give my toddlers. Tipping the jewels out of the cup into a baking tin and collecting them up again is surprisingly absorbing and makes a satisfying racket as they do it. If you prefer a quieter option, try pompoms (see below), however I can guarantee the children will enjoy the jewels, beads, rocks or other noisy versions more!

Pouring from one container to another is the next step. Choose 2 containers of the same size, without handles. A set of straight-sided small tumbler type cups is best; something that is easily gripped in a toddler’s hand. Add small objects such as dried beans to pour from one to the other and change the containers and material to pour every so often to keep interest high.

Rice is one of the last materials to introduce. If you colour it, it is very attractive but it is almost guaranteed to spill and is not quite as easy to clean up. Toddlers need to be taught how to collect the spilt rice in one corner of the tray and carefully pour it back into the container.

I was able to find a cute mini dustpan and broom which I include with my rice pouring activities to clean up the spills which is a practical life skill in itself. Tape a square shape with masking tape in the centre of the tray and teach the children how to first sweep the rice into a little pile within the tape boundary before sweeping it into the dustpan.

Adding funnels to a dry pouring activity adds yet another dimension and when I have had simple pouring activities available for quite a while, I set up a combined scooping, pouring and funnelling tray for a  more complicated experience. After I have changed this around for a while, I then add teddies and other small animals or toys and turn it into more of a pretend play type activity. This allows a broader scope of play and promotes longer engagement by older toddlers and preschoolers.

Make your own baby and toddler toys

There comes an awkward age somewhere between 12 months and two years where it becomes more difficult to keep babies and young toddlers interested in their toys. They are no longer content to just shake and slobber on something that feels and look appealing, toys now need to DO something.

To complicate matters further, children generally do not develop imaginative play skills until around the age of 2. New toys are appealing but often lose that appeal quickly once they have been explored a few times and are too expensive to be constantly purchased. You can swap with friends, join a toy library or simply make your own. For me, the make your own option is the easiest, the possibilities are almost endless and they often turn out to be the long-term favourites. Here are some of my home-made baby toys that I use for mat time, highchair time, playpen time, table time and room time.

Find a bunch of small flat-bottomed toys, blocks, shapes, plastic figures or suitable objects and a base to stick them to; piece of smooth wood, plastic lid, small tray etc. Use self-adhesive velcro to attach each piece to the base so that children can stick them on and take them off again, enjoying that satisfying ripping sound as they do so. If you have enough, it is better to cover the base with the velcro so that objects can be stuck anywhere rather than only on a small matching dot. Older toddlers like this too if small people, animals or other figures are used and enjoy manipulating the pieces to play-act and tell stories.

Use an old baby wipes container and any flat objects that are slim enough to fit through the slot and not so small as to pose a choking hazard. Old credit cards, large plastic construction pieces, dominoes, poker chips, Jenga blocks  or anything similar will do. When interest wanes, simply change the material to post.

Wooden dolly pegs have dozens of uses. Young children find it challenging to slide them on and off objects and enjoy the sound of plunking them into tins and containers. My youngest loved to take them off the sides of containers like the ones above but not to put them back on again. They only did that part once – when they packed the activity away! Posting bottles and tissue box posting are other ways to use dolly pegs.

Formula tins have a large number of uses. They are great as rattle cans for crawlers to push about and with a hole, slot or cross-shaped cut in the top, act as posting tins for any number of small objects. Pegs, popsticks, dominoes, wooden shapes, milk bottle lids or whatever you have will do.

Toddlers are fascinated with Mum’s purse although most of us will agree that it is not a toy and it is unwise to allow toddlers to access it in that way. Because of that, some parents feel that even providing a similar option is not a good idea, fearing that children will not know the difference and think it is ok to touch Mum and Dad’s. I wondered about this too but in my experience have found that by the time they are able to manipulate cards and photos in and out of a purse or wallet, they are old enough to tell the difference between the play version and the real thing.  Find a bunch of old family photos, some fake credit cards (the display version that comes in junk mail trying to get you to sign your life away) and any other small objects that will slide in.  An old handbag is another version that toddlers love. Pick one up from an op-shop with as many zippers, pockets, divisions and press-studs as you can find and fill it with a bunch of small items. This works great for mat time on the go and can be re-stocked with different items on a regular basis to keep interest high.

For more toddler and baby activities, click on the “toddlers and babies” or “workjobs and Montessori activities…” categories on the left hand side bar.

Homeschooling activities for toddlers: Pasta play

Cleaner than water and sand – but just as much fun – pasta play is a great activity for busy toddlers. Useful for mat time and any time that you need to keep little ones happily occupied. If you have trained your toddlers to stay on a designated area for blanket time (mat time) then they will happily spend time tipping, pouring, filling, scooping, posting and otherwise manipulating pasta shapes.

All you need is a couple of bags of dry pasta, a variety of containers and a bunch of scoops and ladles and you are all set. Spread a sheet out on the floor to catch the dropped pasta and clean-up is a breeze. Simply collect up all the accessories into a container or tub of some sort, flick the pasta onto the sheet and pick it up by the four corners. If you will be using it regularly then find a container big enough to put the sheet bundle straight into (rather than tipping the pasta off the sheet) and you are all picked up in seconds. Of course, teaching little ones to help pack up is an important skill and if everything is being tossed into an open container then it is an easy matter for them to help you clean up.

Yes, they will probably have a bit of a chew as well, but it is just pasta! Keep an eye on them as always because  pasta could pose a choking hazard for toddlers but all in all, this is a very easy activity to set up and by simply changing the containers and accessories you put with it you can renew interest and keep the activity fresh.

It works well as a sensory table activity and can be adapted and set up as a Montessori tray activity for practical life posting, scooping, sweeping, pouring etc. The photo above shows pasta play set up at my sensory table in two plastic crates, however for toddlers I prefer the sheet method as they tend to spread it far and wide around the sensory table.