Learning Trays

I am in love with our Learning Trays.  Some call them tot trays and some call them Montessori activity trays...but my boys aren't exactly tots anymore and the activities aren't all Montessori.
So I call them Learning Trays.  :)  
**I have added pictures of all of our learning trays at the bottom of the page, and I will continue to update them. 

What is a Learning Tray?  Basically, it is an educational/skill-building activity that is contained on a tray.  The tray serves as a boundary for the activity and helps to contain the mess (spilled water, paint, beans, etc).    The activities chosen are ones that children can do independently once you have shown them how to "play" and given directions.  A bonus is the fact that most of the activities involve high concentration and focus...resulting in quiet, hard working kiddos.  ;)

I bought trays from Oriental Trading (called craft trays), but they are basically cafeteria-style trays.  While we were waiting for these trays to come in, you'll notice that in some of the pictures below we used shallow drawers from a rolling cart I already had.  So lots of different options will work.  
6 Plastic Cool Craft Trays

How and when do I use Learning Trays?  Most people use tray activities for younger preschool children during homeschooling hours...as part of their education and also to allow time to work with older kids.  This really didn't apply to us as Memphis Belle goes to 1/2 day church preschool during the week.  But I was still drawn to the idea, and I decided to use them in the afternoon with all of my kids...ages 6, 4, and 2.  I researched ideas for activities that would be appropriate for all ages and began gathering supplies.  I gathered pretty much every item from Dollar Tree.  That was a FUN shopping time!!  Click here to find an awesome shopping list for the Dollar Tree.   

I keep all of the materials for the learning trays in one closet.  Having everything in one location makes it easy to create the trays...as I'm not running around looking for beans or a tray or a spoon.  I also wanted to make sure I had room to keep the trays (with materials on them) set out in the closet.  I will keep the same activities for about a week and then exchange them for another idea.  I usually have about 5-6 learning trays out at a time.  Side note:  Some people have one special bookshelf that all the trays are kept on.  It is low enough for children to reach and trays are kept out all of the time and played with during school time.  This didn't work for me, however.  So I just adapted it to our needs.  Hey, isn't that what homeschooling is all about?  :)  So I keep the trays in the closet, pull them out and place them all on the kitchen table.  The kids all work on the trays...exchanging and trading one for another after they have completed each one. 

My closet with puzzles and manipulatives stored on the top shelf.  Room for prepared trays on the middle and bottom shelf.  I added storage bins at the bottom to hold kitchen items, craft items, beans, rice, pasta, etc.

What are some activities to put on a Learning Tray?  I had so much fun looking for these ideas.  There are many blogs and websites that graciously share their activities.  
Here are a few of the ones I really enjoyed:

Most of our activities all fall under these categories and some activities can include multiple categories : 
Practical Life

So here are our Learning Trays!! 
(and I'll continually add to this list)

*Practical Life*
These activities help to develop coordination, concentration,  grace, and courtesy. 

Sweeping beans together in a pile, and then using a dust pan to collect beans.

Opening Band-aids and sticking them on paper.

Using scissors to cut strips of paper.

Stringing beads onto a string.

Soaking a sponge in water, then placing the sponge in a lemon juicer, and squeezing the water into a measuring cup.

Working latches and locks on a puzzle.

These activities encourage skills needed for reading and writing.

Using Q-tips to paint and trace over letters.  This is one activity that can easily be adapted to other ages...sight words, practicing phonics, etc.

I hid foam letters in a container of rice.  They used a spoon to scoop the letters out and place them into the correct spot on the puzzle.  All ages enjoyed this.  Memphis Belle scooped, Crazy Horse named letters as he pulled them out, and Old Crow took it a step further and tried to find them all in alphabetical order.

These activities help build math concepts.

For my 6 and 4 year olds, I used cards with different measurement amounts and had the boys scoop beans into the measuring cup to match the measurement on the card.  For Memphis Belle (2 yrs.) she just enjoyed scooping and transferring the materials.

Matching the beads to the correctly colored pipecleaner and then stringing the bead onto the pipecleaner.

Using tongs to transfer pom poms into the correctly colored dish.

Pattern blocks and a pattern block mat.

These activities expose children to history, science, nature, music, and art.

I cut pictures of animals out of magazines and had the kids draw the animal in its habitat.

Old Crow enjoyed putting together a dinosaur floor puzzle.

Using Bendaroos to create different animals.

A tray filled with baking soda and dropping colored vinegar into the pan.  Can discuss chemical reactions, 5 senses, and practice fine motor skills.  Here is the blog post about this activity.

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