What’s the Big Deal About Tot Trays?

Have I shared with you my love for Montessori?  If I haven’t, I apologize.  I am completely engrossed in the entire idea and have started implementing and modeling our environment after these very principles.  So where do I get my inspiration and ideas for Montessori activities for my 3 year old son?  From three very wonderful resources, one of which has been featured a couple of times here on the Village of Moms, one I am introducing to you today, and the other will be featured here next month.

The first of my resources is Carisa, a former Kindergarten teacher and current homeschooling mom to three adorable children.  If you are a mother of a youngster, you might have stumbled upon one of her several blogs (How does she find the time?):  1+1+1=1 and Totally Tots, which she leads along with Jolanthe and a team of wonderful ladies.

In the following post, Carisa explains Tot Trays and gives you a few simple themes to follow with plenty of photos (I have added a few more photos at the end of a few simple adaptations we have done in the past).  You can expand from there or if you are creatively-challenged (like I am), you’ll want further detail.  For these explanations, printables, and a whole host of ideas you can’t even begin to fathom from her and the wonderful ladies with whom she teamed up, just visit her two fantastically useful sites.  Without further ado…

Tot Trays are just my simple twist on Montessori-inspired activities.  I use these activity trays to expose early learning skills, and to simply engage my tot’s curiosity and wonder.  The trays are rotated often, using the same materials in different ways and with different twists.

Once you have created a storage space, collected a few items, and decided on a few ideas, you’re ready to begin creating trays for your tot to enjoy and learn with!  Below you will see many different categories of trays along with photos and ideas underneath to get you thinking about how to make them unique for YOUR tot.

Remember EVERY TOT IS DIFFERENT, and not everything will work.  Also remember to always supervise your tot during these times, as many materials are choking hazards or breakable.  Your tot needs to learn how to handle these items with care, while under your close guidance!

Most importantly, HAVE FUN!
Don’t force a certain skill on your tot,
but delight in the ones s/he enjoys!

Think: Different sized pitchers, interesting and different cups/bowls to pour into-even adding a funnel at times, and different materials to be poured (small beads, rice, beans, etc.).  Finally graduating to REAL water at some point!!!

Think: Different sized tongs/tweezers, different bottles/containers to get the item out of at first, different transfer items (pom poms, etc.), and different things to transfer into (paint trays, ice-cube trays, etc.).

Think: Different and unique beads, different items to string beads onto.

Think: Different and unique spoons of all differing sizes and lengths, different containers to hold the items to be spooned, different spoon-able items (glass jewels, gems, rocks, etc.), different containers to spoon items into (tea light holders, small bowls, etc.).

Think: Hide-N-Seek items in Pasta, lacing pasta, driving vehicles over pasta in a tub, sorting colored pasta, pounding pasta with a toy hammer or pushing with fingers into cardboard boxes (with pre-made holes) etc.

Think: Simple objects that can be sorted, by size, color, type, etc.  Give your tot 2 different sorting options as to not overwhelm them at first.  Provide a sorting tray with 2 compartments (or more if s/he progresses).  Model how to sort the objects and then let your tot do it independently!

Think: Make your own matching boards by creating a sheet of photos or objects.  Print 2 and cut one up for matching!

Think: Skinny objects (spaghetti, straws, stirring sticks, popsicle sticks, etc.) to put into small spaces (tops of water bottles, Parmesan cheese containers, etc.).

Think: Small objects (lids, jewels, tiny erasers, etc.) to count 1:1, which means the child touches the object and says 1, then touches the next object and says 2.  Lay out number cards to aid in 1:1, and also number recognition.  Start with 1-2-3, and add as your tot progresses.  Change out items to count to keep it interesting!

Think: Child friendly “training” scissors, (we have these), along with strips of paper for cutting practice.  Change up the paper by color, theme, etc.

Think: Glue practice time!  Teach the use of a glue stick, white glue, etc.  Provide different items to glue and to glue on!  In the early stages remember you can use little cups (Dixie or craft cups) to put a small amount of glue into and then have your tot use a Q-tip or even a small paint brush to apply the glue.

Think: Easy Art/Craft ideas you find that can be put on a tray for your to to complete independently (mostly).  These would be mostly open-ended types of crafts-not the kinds requiring a lot of adult help.  Ideas are Play-Doh with themed cookie cutters, stamping sets, drawing with different materials, or a mini project.

Think: Clothespins, different types of clips, anything that encourages your tot to really use those tiny hand muscles!  You can incorporate other ideas (matching is an easy one) into this area also.  Just remember regular clothespins are very frustrating for some tots, so be on the lookout for easier to open items, and wait until your child is ready for certain clips! Fingers hurt when pinched if your tot is too young for this!

Think: Provide your tot with different types of stickers and different colors and types of paper to stick them onto.  This is easily changed up daily and most tots love stickers, especially when they learn to master them on their own!

Here are a few activities we have done in our own home in the past (inspired by my resources).  Very simple, some a little modified to include what we had on hand.  You won’t believe how much you can do with so little (or with the things you already have).  The possibilities are endless, and the benefits are wonderful.  Remember to stop by 1+1+1=1 and Totally Tots for more ideas.

Umbrella Pushing



Sorting red and blue beads

Sensory tub

This tub above (bells, pom poms, foam pieces, etc.) started out with more items in it, but we adjusted it later to the items that my son liked the best.  I found him taking out the ones he didn’t want and playing with the others.  So, I modified, which is perfectly acceptable!  Like Carisa said, every child is different and we can make each activity as unique as our own child.

Spinny Speller

This is a great tool for those learning to spell.  It’s also good for in the car or church!

Alphabet Box

This alphabet box is actually one of those hardware organization boxes with drawers for your nuts and bolts that you find in the tool section.  In each, I have the corresponding letters and any small objects and pictures of things starting with that particular sound.  My third source (to be revealed next month) has brilliant ideas on how to further use this activity.


  1. 1

    What great ideas! I love the versatility of Montessori trays! And the benefits for preschoolers who develop concentration, coordination, and independence are amazing. Thanks for putting so many wonderful ideas in one post!

  2. 2

    Love these idea. Especially love how it shows that it doesn’t have to cost money. I think we naturally feel we have to buy all the bells and whistles to teach our children. We don’t.

  3. 3

    Carisa is the BEST! I too have been incredibly inspired by her blogs and the ideas she share with all of us. :)

  4. 4
    Jennifer Reyer Young says:

    I LOVE all of these ideas! I am also a huge lover of the Montessori beliefs. My 2 year old will be going to a Montessori preschool next year and I couldn’t be happier, thanks for giving me more ideas to try at home as well!

  5. 5

    can you suggest a place to get trays? i really would like to find some! thanks in advance!

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