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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. 

Many of you will wonder what ages these activities are appropriate for and I will say YOU ARE THE BEST judge!  Since many activities use small items, you must stay with and watch your young child at all times.  Many ideas you try will fail, and that will teach you your child's abilities.  In most of these photos below, my son was 2 1/2-3 years old.  Many kids younger than him would be able to do these ideas just fine, and there are some older kids who would really struggle with some of them.  every child is different.  Just give something a try and see how it works.  If it isn't fun...STOP!
I find many of my ideas for our trays online. I finally came up with a way to organize my ideas, since I obviously can't make/create them all while I am blog-surfing!  Here's my idea sheet, where I record the idea, and the name of the website/blog where I found it.  I also bookmark it in my favorites, in a folder entitled: "tools to make..." so I can easily go back to it when I am ready to have a creating day!  There is also a second sheet for "Items to Buy/Find"

You can click on the image to download a PDF of the forms.
Here's a great bead set, if you need some!
Dollar Tree
(or other Dollar Store)
seasonal items
kitchen type items
small containers
pipe cleaners
pom poms
AC Moore
Michaels, etc
paint trays
pom poms
pipe cleaners
seasonal items
small jars
small pitchers
storage solutions
tea light holders
shaped ice-cube trays
Oriental Trading
small erasers
pipe cleaners
pom poms
paint trays
seasonal items
the trays I have

Part of creating Tot Trays is collecting the items that make the process easier.  This is a list to get you started.  It is in NO way an exhaustive list, and I will add to it as I think of new items!  Use it as a starting point and add to it yourself! You can click on the image to download a PDF of the form.

Below are a few stores that are great for finding items inexpensively to grow your collection.  Just be sure to come up with a manageable storage solution BEFORE you start collecting, it will get overwhelming fast and you'll probably give up!

The best place to get supplies online is Oriental Trading, I set up a page showcasing some of their best items here!
Every home is unique and you have to find what works for YOU.  I recommend creating your storage space early on, so the collection of items doesn't get overwhelming!  Above you will see images of how I have chosen to store our items.  They are located in a different room than we actually use the trays in.  For me it was easier to keep little hands out of the storage area that way and keep it neat.  The kids aren't allowed in this area :).

If you like my idea, I got the shoe holder thing and the boxes that go inside of it at Ikea.  It utilizes space well, since it can hang in a closet or on a bar!  I also LOVE that the boxes are longer for things like pipe cleaners, tongs, straws, etc.
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!
Click the image if you'd like to see a PDF of my actual labels. I print them on cardstock and hung them with key type rings onto the boxes.
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 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 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 premade 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!  Or use these pre made ideas below:

On the Farm
This site is great and I linked to the preschool matching boards they have, you can put them in a folder, or use them just as boards.

Once your tot can match items on the board, you can cut up both sets.  You can also use other materials for matching.  Remember start simple, get more complex as matching skills develop.

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!

We got our plastic colored trays from Oriental Trading,
although they are out of stock most of the time.

Here is a blog post sharing alternatives!
See more information in my Behind the Scenes post about Tot Trays.  Wondering why I choose to use trays?  You'll find my answers there!