What are tot trays?

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Lately, I’ve been on a wild ride. One that I’ve created. See, when I get excited about something new – I focus on that one thing exclusively for weeks with giddy anticipation for the creation of whatever I’m doing. It started last summer, with DIY sensory boards and a spaghetti sensory bin because – I was on maternity leave, and why not, it would be cute to watch. Then it took off from there. I found myself reading about sensory bins, learning towers, and skills that teach toddlers independence. B, throughout his tantrums, took a liking to all of those things and I realized, we have the need in my house. The same old toys and free play all day won’t work for them, especially B. He needs stimulation, he needs a variety of experiences, and he needs to do things on his own. I found myself drawn to toys that let the twins explore on their own and figure out concepts independently, like our treasure baskets and sensory bottles, rather than those toys that did all that for them.

Then my blog took a turn, focusing on activities and crafts, because that’s my life at home right now – that’s what the twins do. I don’t know what direction this blog will go in the future but it’s my hobby and I enjoy it. And whatever the twins are interested in, I’m interested in. I made buckle pillows and zipper boards (posts coming soon!). I got a sewing machine for Christmas. I got so pumped about all these little things I couldn’t sleep at night. I even got my husband into it, as he’s still making those learning towers (they won’t be done until spring, unfortunately!). And then, I stumbled upon the Montessori Method. I’m not the kind of person who throws all the eggs into one basket – there are many correct ways to do things. HOWEVER. I knew nothing about Montessori, except that it was an expensive preschool. I still don’t know much about it, so this post isn’t about that. But what I have found is that everything B needs, everything that my husband and I believe in (independence at a young age, discovery, problem-solving, etc)….matches the Montessori method, almost to a T. We had no idea. As I read more about it, I’m really in agreement with so many of the Montessori concepts. My twins are only 19 months; they aren’t going to preschool for quite a while. So I wanted to implement something at home that resembled “preschool learning” because the twins love to learn new things.

Since I’m focusing mainly on cheap, simple toys (which typically do fit within a Montessori-type activity), I hosted a Busy Bag Exchange back in December (another future post). The bags were great but I wanted more.

So just recently, through a Montessori lens, I discovered tot trays. And fell madly in love with them. As far as I can tell, “Tot Trays” were coined by Carisa at 1+1+1=1. Her website is loaded with ideas – more than I could ever search through in one night. But the idea is quite simple, and very much like a busy bag. Basically, the child does an activity; a simple, cheap, educational activity on a tray. I just bought trays but when I tried tot trays for the first time, I didn’t have them and used a cookie sheet instead. The activities are not meant to last hours and hours (though bonus points if they do!) – they are short activities that reinforce skills – everything from math or language arts skills to practical life skills (like practicing pouring water into a cup, or picking up things with tongs, or scooping with spoons). It can be anything really, so long as it fits on a tray. It’s not complicated and it doesn’t need to be over-thought. Many people do tot tray activities without knowing they have a name. The idea with the tray is that the child will be responsible for it. As soon as they are able, they will carry the tray with the activity on it over to the floor or a table and return it when the activity is over. From a practical standpoint, trays have raised edges, and raised edges keep messes from going everywhere! I just adore them.

A few weeks ago when it was (shocker) snowing again, we needed something different and quick after nap. I decided to implement our first two tot trays, back to back. First, we started with a color matching tot tray. I printed out the color sorting mat from here, grabbed an old cookie sheet and the large sized pompoms I already had. After realizing I only had one cookie sheet, I ended up giving the babies their coloring mats on the table with a container of pompoms for each of them. Their only job was to take the pompoms and match them to the corresponding colors on the mat.

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They did it in about two seconds. I don’t know if that’s good or bad! That’s the thing with tot trays – I mean, I obviously started them with one that was not a challenge for them, which made the activity short. I would imagine the goal is to challenge them at least a little bit. I love the many skills being applied here – knowing the colors, but also identifying letters, feeling textures, and the fine motor skills necessary to place pompoms on a small circle. B was especially into this tot tray, and kept trying to get the pompoms to stick to the paper. (I added pink, white and black pompoms at first because I knew they knew those colors – but when your mat doesn’t have those colors on it? Yeah – don’t do that. Lesson learned!) B practiced saying the colors a few times.

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And that was it for our first tot tray! Luckily, I had one more planned. I grabbed two sheets of plain paper and as this was around Valentine’s Day, I drew a big heart on each paper. Then, on the “tray”, I gave the babies a sheet of heart stickers and two Dollar Tree crayons. So simple and so cheap! My kind of activity!

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I tried to get the twins to put the stickers “inside the heart”. That didn’t work out exactly, but that’s okay. C was especially into this tray. She is madly in love with stickers right now – they both are. I had to peel them off for her but she stuck every one down and then went to town with the coloring.

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She couldn’t stop smiling through the multiple sheets of stickers she went through! She really had to work her fine motor skills around pulling stickers off my fingers and then sticking them onto paper.

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This tot tray lasted much longer than the first one, which was nice. When they were done, we hung them up on the slider with our other heart crafts. My first introduction to tot trays was a success. I’m not sure how I’m going to post about them and organize them here on this blog, but I plan to do many more tot trays with them in the future. Next up – learning to carry a tray!

On a side note, I won’t have a blog post about this one but my nanny made amazingly adorable weather sensory bottles.

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This picture is not my best work, but the bottles demonstrate “snowy”, “windy”, “rainy”, “sunny”, and “cloudy”. I’ve just set up a Facebook page and there you can find the link where my nanny found the idea!

DIY sensory boards

 

*This post was originally written in May of 2014, when the twins were 9 months old. It has just been updated (20 months old) to reflect the multitude of ages that can enjoy a sensory board! 

I find a lot of enjoyment in creating things for the babies to use, such as toys. I’ve started an adorable felt letters project but I barely carve out the time to work on it, so when it’s done, I’ll be happy to share. (Yeah, still haven’t finished that one.) Up until now, I’ve spent just a few minutes of time creating sensory bottles and treasure baskets for the babies. We still use both of those things every day. And then Pinterest gave my husband and I the idea of sensory boards.

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My major influence for this project was this.I loved how both the preschooler and the baby got a ton of use out of the same board – going to show that they can get years of use. Here’s another example of simpler textured items, specifically for babies. Anyway, I just thought they were the coolest thing and a great toy that will last for a very long time.

My husband was excited to make them. (I apologize that I can’t give you a tutorial of this project. When my husband made the boards, I was a very different blogger than I am today!) I don’t know the exact amount of money he spent in all, but we got most of the items at Home Depot, including free carpet samples and dollar items if we could. He did choose to sand and stain the board, but you wouldn’t necessarily have to do that. I imagine extra money was spent in the quality of the board, the sanding and the staining. After doing that, he screwed the individual components onto the boards. What you add to a sensory board would be completely up to you and the ages of your children. We wanted pieces that would be fun for both babies and toddlers.  It took him a few days to complete, so the stain could dry. He made two sensory boards (with items you would find also on a latch board), and here are the finished products (updated to show mounting on wall):

 

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So today being their first day of use, we had these boards on the ground lying flat. But my intention, especially as the babies get older and can stand, is to secure them into the wall of the upstairs playroom. I found out today that the board on the right is a little better for the babies at their current age, 9 months, than the board on the left. I mean, I obviously knew the twins couldn’t hook some of those items on the left but they do like to slide and flick whatever they can. It can definitely be used. But I decided to save the second board for a few months from now and just use the board on the right. It’s hard to see, but it’s got the end of a brush, a mirror, a front door knocker, a spinny wheel that I’m sure has a more sophisticated name, a carpet square, a push light, a piece of textured…rubbery thing I got at the dollar store, a door stop, and a mini door. That came from C’s desire to open and shut our cabinets, so we bought the knob for $1 and my husband cut a little piece of wood and made it into a mini door for them to open and shut. I thought it went swimmingly well today, and the boards will have many more days and months, and possibly years, of use. And obviously at this age, this is a toy that I need to be sitting with them for them to play with, as these items aren’t exactly toys for the mouth. As they get older, I won’t be as concerned (at 20 months, I am not concerned at all. It’s a very safe toy for toddlers!).

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The door stopper was a huge hit, so we might add a second to the board. It makes a great noise and is fun to flick.

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B enjoys the texture of the carpet.

 

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Just checking out her reflection. I didn’t add the blurry picture of her bending down to kiss herself in the mirror – so cute!

Updated: The toddlers still enjoy using these sensory boards on a daily basis. I am glad we put a variety of components onto the boards, because their interests and ability levels have obviously changed in the last year. Now, the mirror and door stop are less of a hit (though still fun!). Instead, C uses her fine motor skills to slide the lock.

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B still enjoys spinning the wheel as well as feeling the texture of the broom.

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These boards are super durable and will hopefully be passed down through a few generations of children!

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