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!

Our Daily Rhythm

I am a huge believer that every family dynamic is unique and that each family has to discover what works for their household as a whole. A family’s rhythm with infants or older children will look different than a family with only preschoolers in the house. I also have experienced that nothing is set in stone. There is always room for shifting as your family’s needs and interests change. So I share our current daily rhythm only as a starting point to get you thinking about what would work best in your home.

I am strongly passionate about giving children structure, as well as room to explore and play with no strings attached. We say “no” a lot and have zero regrets about that. Fridays are reserved for Auditory Verbal Therapy and time at my mom’s house or a field trip that relates to what we are learning. We guard our dinner times and weekend mornings for family togetherness. Sundays are reserved for worship and extended family meals and playtime with cousins. I am equally passionate about giving myself rest by creating margins in our routine for nature, reading, and sipping coffee.

I wanted to share with you our entire school day schedule, not just the school part because I want you to see it in light of the big picture, in hopes of helping you discover what works best for your family.

Here is a look into our school day rhythm. Scroll down to read each section in more detail.

7:00-8:30am Morning Routine

8:30-9:30am Together Time

9:30-10:30am Preschool Activities

10:30-12:30pm Snack, Intentional Play

12:30-3:00pm Lunch/ Rest Time

3:00-5:30pm Free Play

5:30-7:30pm Dinner/ Night Time Routine

7:30pm Children’s Bed Time

Now I will go into detail about each segment of our day.

MORNING ROUTINE

My husband and I are awake an hour or two before the children wake up. We spend that time reading, journaling, praying, preparing for the day, working out, or just sitting and sipping coffee. At 7:00 I begin to make breakfast as the children come out of their rooms. They look at books, color, play in our sensory space, or work with the trays on our Tray Shelf. We get dressed, eat breakfast together, and send my husband off to work. I clean up breakfast and set up for our school time while the children go back to their playing until I call us together for Together Time.

TOGETHER TIME

This is my favorite part of our day. Titus and Josie grab their floor mats from our homeschool shelf and unroll them onto the living room rug to sit on. This gives them a reminder of personal space boundaries and keeps them from getting in front of each other while I am reading a story or leading them in a song. We start with prayer, inviting God to come into our day and to open our minds to learn and understand. We thank Him for anything that comes to mind and pray for any needs going on around us. The children usually take turns praying aloud after I do. It’s often a jumbled mix of sweet words repeating some line I prayed, but it is a priority and habit I want to instill in them. Then we sing a few songs that correlate with our theme. Usually our songs include hand/ body motions, visuals, and/or instruments and rhythm sticks. If I have a felt board activity or story, I will do it then and let them take turns retelling it after me. At this point we often move to the cozy reading chair, and we read our books for the day. If they want to continue reading other books that are not part of the weekly theme, we do that as well. We transition to our other activities by pulling out some of the Trays for the week and working with them on the living room floor. We wrap this time up based on their interest and involvement.

PRESCHOOL ACTIVITIES

Sometimes one of the children is still engaged with books, Tot Trays, and Felt Board activities and the other is ready for something else. I usually follow their lead and invite them onto the next planned activities when they are ready. Sometimes that means I am bouncing back and forth between them. These activities include Arts and Crafts, Sensory Play, Letter Recognition & Formation, and Basic Math Skills. We typically do these activities at the kitchen table, but sometimes they require movement, cooking, or adventuring which causes us to take our lesson elsewhere. I do not force any activity on them, but I do encourage them to try each thing at least one time. My son is often resistant to anything he has never tried before, so having learning invitations available to him all throughout the day and following his lead is the key to success.

SNACK/ INTENTIONAL PLAY

The children typically will have their snack outside on the patio and listen to some audiobooks while I clean up from schooling. From then until Rest Time, I try to schedule things ahead of time that foster relationship and exploration. Sometimes that means we all go outside and make mudpies. Other days we walk a trail or have a picnic. Often we have playdates with friends, at our home or meet up at a park. One day a week my sister-in-law and niece come over and we all bake a treat together that correlates with what we are learning. Another day each week we go to the library to get the next unit’s books and attend Preschool Storytime.

LUNCH/ REST TIME

We often pack a picnic lunch for our morning adventure or eat outside if it is a nice day. Around 1:00 both of my children go into their rooms for Rest Time. They don’t always sleep, but they play quietly in their rooms until around 3:00. They usually ask to take books in their room or for me to get down some blocks or puzzles from their closets. During this time, I do household chores, lesson planning, and dinner prep.

FREE PLAY

This time is typically spent outside in our backyard. We have a trampoline, slide, swings, and a playhouse. But usually you can find them playing with sticks, mud, and rocks. Sometimes they want to stay inside and continue exploring something we did that morning in school time, so sometimes afternoons are filled with more painting or sensory play. We have basic arts and crafts supplies out for them to use anytime they would like. They also often ask for me to read to them again or sing some of the songs from the morning. Around 5:00 I typically allow them to watch a show while I prep dinner.

DINNER / NIGHTTIME ROUTINE

After dinner, my husband usually bathes them while I clean up and then we play or read books together in the living room until their bedtime around 7 or 7:30, depending on how worn out they are or if they napped or not.

Our days are both full and calm. It took a lot of trial and error to get to this place, and my hope for you is that you can glean from this to create the rhythm that suits your family’s unique needs and desires.

Curriculum

One of the first questions you may ask when you decide to school at home is “What do I look for in curriculum?” I strongly believe that the answer to this question does not come in a neat and tidy package. There are many teaching styles, and it is important that you choose a plan that is sustainable and life-giving to you as the teacher, as well as your children. I think we often neglect this side of the equation. Each child in your family has a unique learning style and distinct needs. It is our job to study them and create a plan around how they learn best to discover what makes them fall in love with learning.

For our homeschool preschool, I have been using a beautiful curriculum as my foundation, and I build off of it based on my children’s interests and needs. The curriculum I am using is The Peaceful Preschool, developed by the seasoned homeschool moms of The Peaceful Press. It is simple to follow and beautifully laid out. It comes with a weekly plan for each letter of the alphabet along with a book list. The curriculum also includes activities for fine motor skills, counting skills, practical life skills, large motor skills, and art skills. I have taken their 26-week curriculum and am turning it into a year-long curriculum. I extend each letter unit to two weeks instead of one. For the first week of each letter, I loosely follow The Peaceful Preschool’s themes, suggested books, and most of the activities. I say loosely because I change, remove, or add things based on the skill levels of my children as we go. For the second week, I choose another theme and books that correlate with the letter that were not covered in the first week. For example, for the letter “A”, The Peaceful Preschool focused on apples during Week 1. For Week 2 of the letter A, our family planned activities around the themes of alligators and airplanes. I typically choose what themes and books we will be using a couple weeks ahead of time, based on what I think my children will find interesting.

We add in a lot of extra sensory play, life skills, and fine motor skill practice because these are areas that my son needs extra work in right now. Our family reads a lot, so if there is a book that my kids are really interested in, even if it does not correlate with the current theme, I will run with it and use that as a launching ground for activities and things to study.