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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Toddler busy boxes

b and J using animal busy box IMG_8561

Toddler busy boxes are part of our flexible daily routine. They help me to homeschool  older children or get some chores done while my toddlers and preschoolers are well occupied on a worthwhile task.

busy box cupboard IMG_8556Our busy boxes (and ziploc bag activities, tot school, workjobs, shoebox tasks, preschool or Montessori style tray activities) are only available at certain times in the day to keep them fresh and interesting and to stop them getting spread throughout the house. We use them during school time in the morning and for table activities while I am getting dinner on the table in the evening. That way I do not need to change them too often because the children’s interest stays high and I can also keep some degree of supervision over the messier trays to avoid major pack up sessions afterwards.

They are also excellent to use for buddy time when an older child is assigned to play with a younger sibling. This is useful for example when the younger children have already finished playpen or room time and I just need an extra 20 minutes or so to finish working with one of the older children to complete their school activities. Turning toddlers loose to wander unattended throughout the house is bound to end in trouble, so some time with an older sister or brother gives the older children a break from their school work and builds good sibling relationships at the same time. The older children enjoy the responsibility because they do not get asked to do it all the time or for very long periods of time. It also gives them an excuse to play with all those attractive tubs as well!

This set of busy boxes is for my 3 year old twins, but many could be adapted to suit toddlers and older babies too. There are heaps of ideas on my other posts for the younger age group.blocks and animals IMG_8554Plastic animals and wooden blocks for building corals, zoos, farms and houses. Jenga blocks work well too.

counting Duplo blocks IMG_8550

The 3 year olds have been learning how to recognise the numerals 1 to 5 and count small items. Combining building with Duplo as well makes this counting tray attractive, particularly to boys.geoboards IMG_8547Geoboards are a commercially produced mathematics tool. Great for exploring geometric shapes, perimeter, fractions or just for making pictures with elastic bands.dry erase board IMG_8546Personal dry erase boards (whiteboards) with pens and an eraser. sewing cards IMG_8543Sewing and lacing cards. These have a shape drawn for the children to copy. There are plenty of sewing and lacing shapes around to buy or make your own by punching holes around a cardboard picture using a hole punch.button sorting IMG_8542Sorting buttons into muffin trays is a hit with all ages. There is just something about handling all those different shapes and textures. The twins haven’t even gotten their hands on these yet – the 6, 8 and 10 year olds have been monopolizing them! cutting box IMG_8540Teaching toddlers to cut provides them with an absorbing activity that is great for their fine motor skills. The twins have had experience with all the materials in this box so this is just an assortment to chop up any old way they like. Paper streamers, card strips, beads, straws and other oddments such as tinsel or curling ribbon could be included. We let the bits fall back into the box and they can eventually be used for collage later on. The cutting box with free printable patterns I prepared a little while back was too advanced for them so I have put it away to use later on. wood puzzle IMG_8536A collection of good quality wooden puzzles is a good investment. This one came with a variety of patterns for the children to copy, making it much more  long-lasting.gluing IMG_8534Teaching toddlers to glue is another open-ended activity that they will love. Using a glue stick makes it a lot less messy to begin with. A selection of coloured card pieces and diecut shapes from a Kmart scrapbooking assortment pack made this very easy to prepare.rice box IMG_8531Sensory tubs have so many applications. Finding puzzles pieces hidden in rice is pictured above. See here for many more ideas.do a dot IMG_8530Do-a-dot pictures are great for fine motor skills. Bingo dot markers can be used to dot inside the circles or provide small stickers to peel and stick into the dots.  There are tonnes of free printable do-a-dot pictures around if you do a quick google search. teddies IMG_8528Imaginative cooking and doll/teddy play is always a hit. Small teddies, mini pillows, sheets and blankets, along with marbles, jewels and wooden button food makes an interesting selection. Bottle top plates and an old polly pocket toy as well as some screw-top jars finish it off.beads IMG_8526Pony beads and pipecleaners are great for threading and can be made into bracelets or tipped off and re-used next time. dinosaurs IMG_8523Our dinosaur tub includes play dough, plastic dinosaurs, popsicle sticks and popstick fences, a rolling-pin and plastic knife and some artificial leaves for plants and trees. The green bowl has been used to make a pond, cave and home for them as well.

Make sure you choose activities that are age appropriate, can be used independently, include attractive materials, are easily accessible, and easy to pack away. Being able to throw everything back into a robust plastic tub makes it easy for children to keep the activities together and tidy up after themselves.

The key to using these kinds of activities with your young children successfully though is training. No amount of pretty materials will keep a fidgety toddler with the attention span of a flea sitting in one spot for any length of time on a day-to-day basis. As soon as the novelty wears off they will be up and off again.

Take the time to train your children to stay in a designated area. (See mat time/blanket time and highchair time.) Introducing young babies to playpen time that transitions to room time later on is an excellent way to begin (see starting late) and the highchair and table make excellent places to sit a child with an engaging activity while you are nearby. Some children will naturally sit still for longer than others, but all can be trained to do so for a reasonable length of time.

If you are too busy to train your children to sit and concentrate then you are too busy!! Give up some of those good things you do and take on the better thing of training your children. They will need these focussing and concentrating skills in later life, especially at school and your home and others will be blessed by a self-controlled toddler.

For a list of toddler table activities, see here. For preschool ideas see here. For many more ideas for children of all ages, have a look around! For some more sensory tubs, try here.

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!)

Multiplication: Learning your times tables

Most of us will remember the days of practising our times tables over and over again until they came without a  second thought. As much as children often detest learning this skill it is nonetheless a very important mathematical foundation that will underlay so many of the more difficult maths concepts later on. If these simple multiplication equations are not mastered it will slow progress and make maths just that little bit harder.

With his in mind, here are some activities to drill the times tables that make it just a little bit more fun and will be especially helpful to those kinesthetic learners who need the hands-on experience to really lock these facts into their memories. They can be used as workjobs, shoebox tasks, Montessori style tray activities, work stations or simply as part of your every day maths programme.

This is an egg holding tray from my refrigerator with a cheap set of plastic ping-pong balls from the $2 shop. The multiplication problem is written on each ball with the answers in each circle on a piece of card taped to the back. The balls are simply matched up to the correct answer. (Children usually have no problem with 0, 1 or 10 times any number, so if there are not enough spaces I leave these equations out of the set.)

A paper plate has the answers written around the edge with multiplication problems slid into the end of plastic pegs. Children work out the sum and slide the peg on to the correct place.

The 7 times table is written onto wooden pegs with the answers on coloured contact stuck around the edge of a plastic container. Pegs are stored in the container when the activity is complete.

Small slots are cut into the top of each egg carton segment with the answers to the 8 times table written on each. Fat shaped popsticks (paddle-pops) have the sums written on each and are poked into the corresponding hole. The last segment has a larger hole to place al the sticks when the activity is complete.

Popsticks with answers are matched to the 9 times table written on an icecream container lid.

An empty container (lunchbox etc.) plus some pattipans and card circles are all that is needed for this activity. The patti-pans have the answers and the card circles have the 4 times table written on them.

Materials and storage for workjobs and Montessori tray activities

Plastic Chinese food containers fit neatly into my drawers and are a cheap and easy storage system for the items I use to make home-made workjobs and Montessori tray activities.

If you are setting yourself up for workjobs  or Montessori style tray activities for the first time there are unlimited numbers of materials that you could buy. Commercial Montessori products are beautiful but very expensive and particularly for the toddler and preschool ages it is relatively easy to make your own activities  for a fraction of the cost.

I generally source my materials secondhand form op shops, swap-meets and markets and buy the rest cheaply from discount variety stores or gather them from around the house. Each tray activity or workjob usually costs no more than $4.00 and many of the items can be re-used and presented with a different combination to make other “new” and interesting activities.

Some useful items to collect include the following:

Materials to count, transfer or manipulate:

  • Feathers
  • Buttons
  • Spools & film canisters
  • Jar & milk bottle lids
  • Pasta, macaroni, dried beans & rice
  • Corks
  • Sea shells
  • Popsicle sticks (popsticks)
  • Jewels & beads
  • Rocks, stones & pebbles
  • Straws
  • Fancy toothpicks
  • Golf tees
  • Stirring or cocktail sticks
  • Costume jewelry, bangles & strings of beads
  • Pipe cleaners
  • Rubber bands
  • String, twine, yarn, wool,shoe laces & cottons
  • Oversized metal or plastic needles
  • Paper bags, plates & cups
  • Plastic cutlery
  • Ribbon & bows
  • Hair clips & lackies
  • Magnets
  • Pompoms
  • Wedding favours eg. fake rings, mini doves, glass slippers etc.
  • Plastic & wooden pegs & dolly pegs
  • Dog clips, over-sized paperclips & other fasteners
  • Cardboard shapes
  • Number and letter tiles, cards & pieces from old board games
Materials for storage or presentation of trays and workjobs:
  • Glass, metal, china, cane & wooden bowls, trays, baskets & containers
  • Plastic tubs & lids
  • Cardboard tubes, boxes, egg cartons & food containers
  • Plastic containers & lids
  • Material/fabric scraps
  • Wood scraps
  • Shoe boxes
  • Ice-cube trays, dip trays & other divided containers
  • Plastic & glass jars
Utensils & tools for manipulating materials:
  • small hammers
  • Tongs, scoops, spoons & ladles
  • Tweezers
  • Measuring cups & funnels
Stationery:
  • Pens, pencils, textas, scissors & crayons
  • Glue, staplers, masking tape, sticky tape
  • Rulers, stencils, fasteners
If you have other ideas, please let me know and I will add them to the list.

Other posts you may like:

Montessori style tray activities; starting out

Montessori overview

Workjobs & learning styles