Montessori style hands-on tray activities for toddlers and preschoolers

Activities for young children are cheap and easy to put together and the peace they will bring to your daily routine is priceless! Teaching your little ones to sit and concentrate for extended periods is one of the key skills every parent should be working on in the early years and one that will pay dividends in the future. Choose a variety of attractive materials that will stimulate their interest and be prepared to change them fairly regularly. It is important that the activity is not too difficult nor too easy. A little bit of a challenge will keep them interested – too challenging and they will be unable to succeed. If you present a tray that is too difficult, simply remove it and put it away for the future. Chances are they will love it in just a few short months.

I have written several posts detailing how to train your children to sit in their highchair, mat or playpen and the practicalities of when and how to change activities. Getting started takes a little extra time, but once you have built “tray time” into your day, it will become something your child looks forward to. Place them somewhere near you so you can chat and interact while you are cooking or doing some other task that enables you to encourage them in what they are doing when they need it and keep an eye on those smaller objects that they may find tempting to put in their mouths. Here are several ideas for the 2 to 5 age-range (approximately) that I have used in the past with my own children.

Sliding oversized paperclips onto matching coloured cardboard squares.

Matching clips to coloured popsticks. Great pincer-grip training for later writing. Make sure the clips you get have long enough handles and are not too stiff to open. These clips have one short and one long side and the children were not able to grip them properly.

Sorting popsticks by colour.

Tong transfer combined with colour sorting. The flowers came from a cheap plastic Hawaiian lei.

Duplo colour sort.

Tong transfer combined with bead colour or shape sort.

Golf tee hammering by colour. A piece of foam salvaged from packaging and a light wooden hammer from a Tap Tap game.

Colour and shape match combined with pincer grip practise while pegging.

Shape puzzle. This is a commercial set of attribute blocks. I remove all bar one set of the same colour and thickness and use it as a simple shape puzzle. Once they master this, I add other colours and thicknesses back in.

Pattern blocks are lots of fun. Leave them out on a small table and even your older children will not be able to resist putting a bunch together to make a picture. Young children enjoy the matching cards you can purchase to go with them.

Geoboard matching. Little ones just experiment with elastic bands but older children can do a variety of extension activities. Matching and copying geometric shapes is one.

Shape matching cards. You could use them for basic card games as well.

Good quality wooden puzzles are always attractive for children.

Chunky, simple puzzles are a good start for younger kids.

The concepts of heavier, lighter, full, empty etc. can be developed while playing with a set of balance scales.

Stacking and nesting objects develops the concept of size seriation; in this case, measuring cups.

This is a cardboard stacking box set that does the same as the Montessori pink tower. Not as nice but a lot cheaper!

Graduated wooden rings.

Picture to picture matching.

Matching picture halves is a good introduction to puzzles for those who get overwhelmed with too many pieces. Start with just a few pairs and work up.

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Montessori multiplication trays: Hands-on mathematics

multiplication board

Wooden peg-board (the kind you use to hang tools from in the garage) is a cheap and simple alternative to purchasing a multiplication board.

Continuing on with my mathematics tray ideas this week (introduction and addition trays here, subtraction trays here), here are some multiplication ideas for learning times tables. We made our own homemade Montessori multiplication board using pegboard wood for a cheap alternative. For another easier method using a rubber bath mat, see this post. While the Montessori multiplication boards are an excellent idea, my children found it quite tedious placing the beads into each little hole every time, preferring to use the blocks from our Math-U-See sets, MAB’s or other manipulatives instead.

Whichever way you choose to present multiplication, make it visual, tactile and concrete to begin with, before moving to abstract concepts. The following tray ideas are for children who already understand the concept of multiplication and simply need some more practise of their basic facts (their times tables) in order to commit them to memory.

times table popstick start finish game

Threading beads onto pipe cleaners (bend the ends to keep the beads from slipping off) is a home-made alternative to the Montessori bead materials. They become the manipulatives, with the multiplication problems written on popsicle sticks. The popsticks are laid out, making sure that the word “start” and all the answer sides are upright. The child turns over the “start” stick and uses the bead strings to solve the problem on the other side. They find the answer to that problem on the next stick and turn it over to reveal a new sum on the other side and continue on in the same way until they reach the “finish” stick. If at any time they turn over the finish stick before they have completed all the other sticks, it indicates they have made an error along the way.

mab multiplication

Wooden MAB’s (multi-based arithmetic blocks) are the “old fashioned” mathematics manipulative that I grew up with. They can be used in place of bead chains for many math concepts. Here they are set out for learning the 10 times table (multiplying by 10’s.) The sum is on the left and the small circles show a running total, with the large circle answer at the end of the chain. A small pad is included for recording the answers.

count by 10s MABs

These plates are actually set up for skip counting in the photograph, however with the addition of some multiplication problems, lend themselves very well to practising times tables.

icecream lid popstick 9 times table

Popsicle sticks with answers are matched to multiplication problems on an icecream container lid.

egg carton 8 times table

Popsicle sticks with the problem are slid into slots with matching answers on the egg carton.

multiplication times table puzzle

A cheap (yet difficult) puzzle was a fun way to practise. Answers are written on the back board to match the puzzle piece with the corresponding problem. The puzzle must be difficult enough that the child cannot easily cheat by just following the picture, rather than working out the sums. (Not that any of your children would ever do that!!)

white ball to iceblock tray match 1 to 10

Plastic balls with problems are matched to the answers in an iceblock tray.

wood peg on cont 7 table

Pegs with problems are pegged on to the answer segment on the container, which doubles as a storage place.

mixed operation bingo

Dice are thrown (you need 3) to create any combination of addition, subtraction or multiplication problem and the answer is covered on the board. The idea is to continue until all answer squares have been covered. This is for children who already have a fairly good mastery of their basic number facts and tables.

4 times table multipication jewel cont

Each square container holds 4 little plastic shot glasses for practising the 4 times table. Jewels are counted into each glass and totalled to find the answers.

pattipan in box 4 times tables

A plastic lunchbox filled with pattipan answers to match problems on circle.

castle flag multiplication

The correct number of flags are inserted into the castles, with the castles showing how many groups.

pink plate plastic pegs 6 times

Pegs are slid on to the matching answers on the paper plates. A manipulative is needed for working out the problems unless the child is able to complete them mentally.

ping pong ball egg tray 5 times table

Ping pong ball problems are matched to the answers in an egg holder from the fridge.

Montessori addition trays: hands-on mathematics

add tray C using IMG_8374A strong foundation in basic mathematical skills will set children up for later success. Too many children learn how to complete math problems by following a formula or method that they simply do not understand. They pass the tests, but when the difficulty of the problems increases, or they are presented in a different format than the one they are used to, the child flounders.

Teaching children using concrete materials (items that can be seen and handled) before moving to abstract concepts (problems worked out on paper) is absolutely vital to make sure they understand the connection between the methods they are using and how and why they work.

The Montessori method for mathematics is brilliant, especially for young children. It is very systematic and progresses from skill to skill in small steps, with each stage building on the one before to ensure understanding and mastery is gained before moving to the next step in the ladder. Concepts that are not covered in your standard state school math book are intentionally introduced and explained in a way that can easily be grasped by even very young children.

Many children seem to simply absorb these small skills along the way, almost accidentally, but the children who struggle with maths are usually the ones who never intuitively grasped the shortcuts, mental methods and other little tricks and understandings that their more successful peers just seemed to somehow “get” without direct instruction.

One of the foundational skills that later math problems build on is adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing small numbers. Many children will make mistakes when solving a more advanced problem, simply because they make a basic error with one of these simple calculations. Spending time in the early years ensuring that children master their basic maths facts is a must for success and speed later on.

Here is a Montessori addition tray and some other Montessori inspired ideas for teaching young children to add small numbers, mastering their addition facts as they complete them.adding tray jewels IMG_8361This is how our addition tray looks on the shelf. Only one child at a time is using it, so it is set up in such a way as to mark their individual progress. Every week or so I “test” their mastery of the addition facts and those problems that they are able to solve mentally (without thinking time) are placed into the screw-top container. They are pulled out for occasional review, but no longer need daily practise. This provides some intrinsic motivation as they see the pile in the dish growing smaller and smaller and the container getting fuller and fuller. They love it when we exclaim over how many they know now.

Initially, I split the facts into sets; plus 1, plus 2, plus 3  and so on and only have 1 set out at a time.  Once they know the sets fairly well individually, we combine the lot, taking out the ones they have mastered and working on what is left. Obviously, learning all the plus 0, plus, 1 plus 2 and plus 10 facts is very easy, so starting with these gives the child a boost of confidence as they quickly plow through the first sets, filling that jar almost immediately.

adding tray set out IMG_8362The activity is set out in the child’s workspace like this. The correct number of jewels are counted into the first and second dish, before both sets are scooped together into the final dish for them to find the answer by counting. It provides a very clear visual display of what happens when you add two numbers together.

Because some children will take a long time to recall all of the addition facts, I give them lots of different kinds of materials to count and present the problems in different ways. Here are some of the Montessori inspired, hands-on workjobs  that I have used with both my own children as we homeschool and in a classroom situation when I was a teacher.

peg & pompom paper plate addition to 10These pegs are labelled with the addition facts and the pompoms serve as the counting material. Once the child has found the answer, the peg is clipped onto the correct segment of the paper plate. It is self-checking as there is only one peg for each segment – any double-ups means that they need to redo those pegs to discover the correct answer. The holder for the pegs is the centre from a used roll of masking tape.cutlery noodle additionThis was a favourite with my children. As always, making up a funny story to go with the activity turned it into something really fun. Those greedy restaurant patrons were at it again and the children had to figure out who’s cutlery was whose and put it into the correct cup. Only one knife, spoon and fork should be in each cup, so again, any double-up means that the child needs to redo the problem. The noodles serve as the counting material.sticker addition red sort trayThis activity is very quick to make. The sticker cards are the manipulatives with problems written onto card strips. Once solved, each strip is placed into the segmented dip tray in top of it’s answer. peg addition black 4 hole trayNumber stickers on the base of the 4 segment tray determine where each problem card is placed. The pegs are slipped onto the sides to count and solve the problem.gold & silver start additionThe silver stars have the problem and the gold stars hold the answers. The child counts the jewels to solve the addition sum and matches the silver star to it’s mate.

Presenting attractive materials and a variety of experiences will make learning these basic skills enjoyable for your child and set them up for success in the future.

Other posts you may find useful:

Montessori tray activities for toddlers

Montessori counting trays 1 to 5

Homeschooling with toddlers and preschoolers

Teaching children to read – where to begin?

 

 

 

Homeschooling with toddlers and preschoolers

Twin's tot school activities

Whether you like to call them Montessori tray activities, tot school, preschool, workboxes, workjobs, shoebox tasks or Ziploc bag activities, providing younger siblings with engaging, educational and worthwhile tasks to do while you homeschool older siblings is vital for a smooth day with well occupied children.

While you can get some schooling done while little ones are napping, I prefer to get the bulk of our formal schooling completed as early in the day as possible when the children (and I) are freshest. Last year we had around an hour while the younger ones were in room time (playpen time for littlies) and we could also use mat time (or blanket time.) Now that we have older children though, this is not long enough to complete all of their workload and the twins are turning 3 so a new era has dawned!

The twins will be “starting school” with the big kids. They will now be included in our morning circle time, followed by table activities before they go off to room time. The list of possible table activity ideas is almost endless but our “school” trays will be more Montessori in style.

As I have done in the past, I have chosen a list of categories for each tray and put one example of each category out on the shelf. When it comes time to update the trays in a couple of weeks as interest declines, I will simply swap out the materials but keep the type of activity the same. (See starting out.) This term our trays are gluing, cutting, stickers and drawing, tong transfer, spooning/teddy play, scooping/teddy play, threading. Duplo copying and water pouring. 

The best thing about this year’s preparation is that in the past I have taken photographs of all our tray activities along the way. This meant that I could simply hand the older children a couple each and ask them to go and get everything in the photo and assemble the activity. I pointed out that this was an opportunity to bless their little brother and sister. They quite enjoyed doing it, especially as I gave them latitude to change the activities a little with different pretty pots and equipment to suit their own tastes. In about an hour we had a whole term worth of trays set up and ready to go. (Plus the extra half hour to put away all the mess that the children created as they were collecting the gear but I wont mention that!)

Scooping tray activities for toddlers and preschoolers

Scooping is one of the easiest Montessori style tray activities for toddlers and can be introduced at the same time as they are perfecting their spooning skills during meal times – giving them a little extra practise when spills are not so difficult to clean up!

Start with large, non-slippery objects that fit easily into a scoop (see mega marbles) and move to more fiddly materials like the popcorn or rice examples below. All you need is two containers (one to  to scoop from and one to scoop into), something to scoop with (spoon, scoop, ladle, etc.) and something to scoop (pompoms, noodles, rice, jewels, marbles, beads, dried beans, pasta etc.)

Have a look through your art and craft supplies, kitchen cupboards and junk drawers and you will be surprised at what you can put together in just a few minutes.

These pompoms are scooped into a plastic chocolate container insert with depressions in it. The scoop comes from a washing powder container.

This is a piece of packing foam that has indentations all over it; perfect for filling with marbles. The scoop is a pasta spoon from a child’s cooking set.

Dry popcorn kernels in espresso coffee cups with a 1/2 teaspoon measuring spoon.

Montessori trays are traditionally presented with the material to be scooped on the left hand side to help with left to right directionality for later reading and writing skills.

Green split peas are scooped from bowl to bowl.

Coloured rice is a very attractive scooping material.

When my toddlers were older and no longer finding simple scooping activities very interesting, I gave them this tray with a variety of containers to scoop, pour and tip with. They loved it.

Activities to make for babies and young toddlers

Trying to find interesting activities to keep older babies and young toddlers interested and focussed for any length of time can be a battle, but it is one that is worth persevering with. If you spend the time training your young children to sit, focus and concentrate and extend this time as they grow, you will be teaching them the self-control that is vital for all learning later. Not to mention the fact that you can go out to a friend’s house, to a restaurant, a school assembly or any other public event and take your child along, with the peace of mind of knowing that you will be able to enjoy some uninterrupted time in an adult situation. Toddlers need to be taught hand, voice and body control and this can begin at a very young age.

Here are a few ideas for home-made or readily available activities you can give to an older baby or young toddler during times where they are required to stay in a set boundary and play with the toys you have supplied (e.g. mat time (blanket time), room time, playpen time, highchair time and table time.)

Even quite young babies will enjoy pulling these dolly pegs out of the holes in the tissue box and carefully inserting them back in again. If they are pushed all the way in, the hole on the bottom of the box allows the child to pull the peg out from underneath. Posting and small spaces activities are great for developing fine motor control.

Stacking and unstacking objects is fascinating for toddlers. I was given these melamine plates for Christmas and my twins used them over and over again.

Cooking like Mummy is always popular. Go through your play food and cooking equipment and make up little sets. Don’t forget your kitchen junk drawer, pots and pans and any other smaller kitchen equipment that toddlers can safely use. Add small dolls and teddies for toddlers to feed.

My plastics are stored in a crate which I can plop out on the floor for little ones to unload and sort through. Stacking and unstacking, trying on lids and just exploring it’s contents is very absorbing. Perhaps you have a suitable cupboard that you can designate for young children to access while you are working in the kitchen.

I had trouble finding reasonably priced magnets that very young children could easily grasp. The flat, flexible style of magnet are not good for babies because they have trouble getting them off and end up peeling the edges back. I went to a $2 shop and bought 4 wooden jigsaw puzzles and a packet of strong round magnets. I glued the magnets on the back of the puzzle pieces and got a great, economical set of animals for the fridge, whiteboard, or metal biscuit try.

This very large bottle is a great posting container. Pegs, popsticks or any other thin object can be pushed through the lid hole and pulled back out through the open slot in the front. The edges are taped where they were cut to cover the sharp edges. I originally saw this used as a water pouring activity with a funnel in the spout and a large flat tray underneath to catch spills. The children were scooping the water out from the large front hole and tipping it back into the funnel at the top.

These oversized popsticks are placed into slots in the lid of the icecream container and can be pulled out and pushed back in.

A set of plastic chopsticks has been used in many different ways over the years in my house. Another small spaces activity; poking them into the holes in the side of this tissue box

I glued a bunch of cardboard tubes together for the little ones to put the chopsticks in and out of.

This quoits set amused the babies for quite a while as they took the rings on and off.

This Velcro fruit makes a great ripping sound as you pull it apart and stick it back together. Include the wooden knife for older toddlers to practise their early cutting skills.

I used some polystyrene foam covered in wide weaved fabric (burlap I think?) for this early hammering activity. (The foam has a tendency to crumble with use and I didn’t want any of the young children being able to get it into their mouths.) Golf tees and a selection of washers to bang into the foam have been well used by all of our children.

Developing Fine-Motor Skills in Toddlers and Young Children

Self-control, concentration, following instructions and fine motor skills are very important foundational skills for all children. Teaching your young child to sit and focus on an activity and see it through until completion will go a long way towards preparing them for later learning – whether that be in the homeschool or traditional school environment. Some children seem to be naturally better able to do this, others need training and practise to do it. Children who do not develop these skills early will find it much harder to learn and you will find it more difficult to teach them!

Here are several Montessori style tray activities for toddlers and preschoolers that will help to develop their fine motor skills. Many parents of young children say that their children will not sit still long enough to attempt, let alone complete an activity like these and that may be the case right now. It is however most certainly possible to train them in this skill so that sitting and focussing becomes something they readily cope with, both at home and when out.

Putting a flexible routine into place and teaching your child to stay where you want them to stay will be an important first step. Introducing playpen or room time, highchair time or table time, mat time and other periods of planned activity to your child’s day will reap the rewards of a child who is able to sit and focus and learn from the materials available to them. Self-control will begin to grow and the benefit will spill over into all parts of their lives. Time for some free play with age-appropriate choice making is also important, however if a toddler’s whole day is unstructured and contains many choices you will be seeing many “sticky patches” as Mel Hayde terms them in her book “Terrific Toddlers.”

Start with very basic activities like the first couple below that do not take very long to do and are not too challenging to complete. Help the child to learn the process first: take the tray out, sit in the designated place, complete the activity in the same way you have demonstrated it, place everything in the same place on the tray as it was found before returning the tray to where it belongs.

You may like to attempt only one tray to begin with so as to finish on a positive note. Praise your child for their attentiveness, perseverance etc. Five minutes for a toddler who is not used to this kind of task is a beginning. Work up from there until they can sit for an extended block of time. My twins at 2 1/2 years can sit for 20-30 minutes with activities that change every 5 to 10 minutes, depending on what it is. My other three children would have spent 30 to 45 minutes working on these at the same age and even up to an hour at times.

Threading and removing large wooden beads from these giant pipecleaners can be extended to pattern making for an older child. (Yes they are giant {about 40cms long} you just can’t tell from the photo!)

The chopstick is placed into the neck of the spice jar and large beads threaded onto the end.

sdsd

Toothpick flags are stabbed into the oasis. (Florist’s foam.)
Small beads are threaded onto the pipecleaners which are then put into the holes in the lid of the spice bottle. (These smaller beads require a higher level of fine motor control and accuracy to thread.)
It takes quite a bit of coordination to operate an eyedropper. Transferring liquid from one small container to another is a challenge for many toddlers. Perhaps use uncoloured water to begin with and provide a sponge for spills.
Yes, they will probably taste the angel hair pasta as they feed it into the small holes in this spice bottle but it’s only pasta after all!
This is a piece of polystyrene packaging with a loose weave hessian cover. You could include a set of numbers and have an older child set out the correct number of birthday candles.
Another spice jar with toothpicks – don’t throw out those old spice shakers!
Stretching hair elastics over a jar is surprisingly difficult for young children but they enjoy it anyway.