Tot Trays, Simplified

I adore Tot Trays. If you have never set them up for your children, they may seem like a lot of work from the outside. They could be, but they can also be incredibly simple. You can usually find a mix of super low-prep and moderate-prep trays on my shelf at any given time. Here are the two main reasons I love having Tot Trays as part of our schooling.

They encourage independent learning.

I typically introduce each tray to my children by sitting with them to complete it until I can tell that they understand. Typically after one or two demonstrations, I don’t use the trays in a scheduled teaching time. From them on, they are available at my children’s level to take off the shelf and interact with on their own. Sometimes they ask me to to work with them and other times my two preschoolers work together with each other. I do not push them to explore any one tray. However, our homeschool shelf which holds all of our trays is in the living room where we spend most of our day. Throughout the day I frequently see them each go over to the shelf and pull something off to explore.

They require one-time prep for lots of repeat learning experiences.

Have you ever spent forever preparing a preschool activity to have your child reluctantly half-complete it and then toss it to the side? A few experiences like that is enough to make you want to stop home educating all together. I love Tot Trays because what my child might have zero interest in on Monday, they may love by Friday. Usually, I rotate our trays out every weekend, but some stick around longer if they are getting a lot of use.

There are endless amounts of ideas online for setting up tot trays. I use light-weight trays, baskets, and small bowls. Sometimes, even a cookie sheet. Whatever you have that your child can pick up and carry. We have an open shelf in our living room that my husband built specifically for this purpose, but any shelf at your child’s level will do. When preparing to set mine up I look for a few key things. I want them to be realistic in prep time, not require constant supervision (not messy or dangerous), and the activity should reach the perfect balance of my child’s abilities and a challenge. My shelf usually has at least one sensory tray such as beans with small bowls and Helping Hands tools. I also always have a tray with our current letter’s 3-part cards, which I offer as a free printable. The rest of the trays are usually activities to practice counting, matching, and fine motor skills. Sometimes they correlate with a book we are reading or a theme we are studying.

Here are some examples of recent trays I have set up:

Supplies used:

Cookie tray | Mini broom & dustpan | Little bowls | Black beans

Supplies used:

Tweezers | Pom-poms | Trays | Construction paper

Supplies used:

Basket | Preschool scissors | Construction paper

Supplies used:

Tray | Small bowls | Sticks | Toilet paper roll | About Birds

Supplies used:

Tray | Construction paper | Single hole punch

Supplies used:

Basket | Small bowls | Illustrated 3-part cards | Real Life 3-part cards

My favorite Tot Tray Supplies not pictured:

Homeschool Preschool Supplies

Below I have a comprehensive list of items I find the most useful to have on hand year-round. If you are just starting out, don’t let this list overwhelm you – you don’t need to buy it all at once. When I first began homeschooling, I made an Amazon Homeschool Wishlist and added everything to my list. When a lesson popped up that required an item, I would buy it until eventually I was fully stocked. You can click each item and it will take you to the exact item on Amazon that we use. Sometimes I buy supplies at local stores, but I have included affiliate links for everything if you prefer to shop online.

LESSON PREPARATION

The first three items are for for organizing the printable curriculum. We are currently using The Peaceful Preschool curriculum, and you can read more about how I build off of it here. After much research, I decided on the printer listed above, and it has been perfect. I also use my laminator weekly. If you don’t have a laminator, the one listed here is inexpensive and gets the job done. Scissors will do for cutting out laminated cards, but having a paper cutter for this task makes prep so much faster. Lastly, the trays, baskets, little bowls, and little pitchers are used for our Tot Trays.

ARTS & CRAFTS

Each unit has theme-specific arts and crafts activities. The materials listed here are ones we use time and time again. Additional supplies may come up for certain projects, but the ones above are the staples. If you have never introduced Dot Markers to your child, they will love them! The acrylic and watercolor paints I listed are bigger investments up front but they last a year or longer, even with as much as we use them. I love the Twistable Crayons because they don’t break and little fingers are getting extra fine motor practice when they twist them up.

LETTER RECOGNITION & FORMATION

I use a variety of sensory methods to introduce letters and to invite my children to practice letter formation. You can read more about the multiple activities I use to teach letter formation and recognition here.

TOGETHER TIME

Each morning we sit together in the living room for what I call “Together Time.” This is a time we read stories, sing songs, do fingerplays, play group games, and introduce new Tot Trays. I’ll be writing a more detailed post about our Together Time soon.

SENSORY & FINE MOTOR SUPPLIES

Sensory learning and fine motor practice are essential to our learning. The Helping Hands Tools and the Tweezer Set are two of the best purchases I have made to help my son’s pencil grip. We use the Tunnel and the Hopper Ball in moments that my children need to get their bodies moving and some wiggles out before moving on to the next activity. Sometimes I just let them freely play with them, but usually I incorporate them into a lesson.

Top 10 Screen-Free Road Trip Activities

Top 10 Screen-Free Roadtrip Tips

My son was asked to be the ring bearer in my close friend’s wedding, so we took the 11 hour trip to Florida on Thursday, stayed two days for wedding festivities, and drove 11 hours back on Sunday. I am not utterly against screen-time, as my children occasionally watch movies we get from the library or hand-picked shows. But I am against starting a terrible habit of endless screen time, show after show, for hours on end. In the past that is what having access to a DVD player in our van for trips turned into. The meltdowns when the shows were turned off were out of control. Every time we got into the car for a couple of weeks after the trip the kids were asking for shows to be turned on.

A few months ago we took a 4 hour trip and discovered that the DVD player was broken. We considered getting it fixed, but I decided I would challenge myself and the kids on this trip instead. So I planned out a few simple ideas, bought a few hand-held activities, and loaded up on library resources. I was amazed at how well they did. Here are my top 10 screen-free road trip wins. Tested and tried with my two preschoolers.

1. Melissa and Doug Water Wow Activity Pads – These were by far the most popular activity. I actually only bought one pad before our trip, as we had never used them before and ended up ordering a 3-pack to be sent to Florida in preparation for the long ride back. The water in the pens lasts a while, and the variety in the different books kept my kids busy for literally hours. I must share this tip because it would be downright mean not to: use a straw and your fingertip to collect water out of a water bottle to put into the water pen, rather than trying to pour it while riding down the road. Speaking from experience.

2. Cookie Sheet Magnet Lapboard – I got two inexpensive cookie sheets and gathered a bunch of magnets that we had around the house. Some of our favorite magnets are gear magnets and these animal magnets. I also brought our Fridge Phonics which both of my kids really like and worked well on the cookie sheet too. The kids arranged and rearranged magnets over and over. I also used small refrigerator magnets to hold the corner of pieces of paper down for coloring.

3. Lacing Activities – My 2 year old daughter loves to lace things, so I brought a few options of things for her to lace. She ended up working hard on every lacing activity. I stored the materials in zipper bags and scooped out a small cupful at a time for her to hold while she laced. That way if they spilled it wasn’t a huge mess, and I could give her more as needed.

  • Rigatoni pasta and thick jute – Try wrapping the tip of the jute with clear packing tape to avoid fraying and tying a knot at the end so they don’t fall off.

  • Pony beads and pipecleaners – I made a knot on one end and when she was finished, formed it into a bracelet by wrapping one end around the other.

  • O- Cereal and pipecleaners – We had cereal for road trip snacks anyway, so it only made sense to add this to our lacing stash. After making it, she ate it all off.

4. Books and Audiobooks – We loaded up on library books for them to thumb through before we went. I propped up a basket between the carseats with all of their books so they were easily accessible throughout the entire ride. My son especially loved reading along with books that came with the audio version. We must’ve heard Caps For Sale over fifty times. For Christmas last year my son got the audiobook The Cat in the Hat and Other Dr. Suess Favorites, so we checked out the 11 correlating stories from the library for the trip.

5. Magnetic Drawing Board – Any magnetic drawing board will be a big hit for toddlers and preschoolers, but they really liked the animal magnets on this one, as well as the soft back for their laps.

6. Stickers and Paper – I got a few pads of stickers from the dollar store and brought some construction paper. My daughter decorated the papers, her arms, legs and her clothes time and time again. If the mess doesn’t bother you, this was a huge hit.

7. Gluestick and Paper – I handed her a full sheet of construction paper, some ripped up paper in a cup, and the glue stick and let her go to town. She used the cookie sheet as her “table” for this activity.

8. Latch Puzzle Boards – Both of my kids love the farm one that we own and it’s an easy one-piece activity to bring along. Both of these would be perfect for little hands on a long car ride.

9. Clip Cards and Clothespins – You can find links to free printables of these all over Pinterest. I just used ones I had previously printed, cut and laminated for lessons in the past.

10. Clear Pouches and White Erase Markers – We use these clear pouches all the time. You could put a variety of worksheets inside and give your child a low odor dry erase marker to complete the sheet. There is something about writing with a marker that kids love. My two year old just drew pictures and scribbles on it, then washed it off with a wipe, and drew again. My 3 year old son traced letters on his. Both of them used their cookie sheets as their “table top” and little magnets to hold it down.

That wraps up my top 10 Screen-Free Road Trip Wins! I hope this inspires you to think outside the box when planning for your next long car trip or even doctor office wait. Do you have more ideas and resources for road trip activities? Comment below!