One of the key things I like to include in my weekly or daily environment set ups are ‘activity trays’… also sometimes referred to as ‘interest tables’, ‘discovery trays’ or ‘sensory bins’.
It’s essentially a hodge podge of various bits and pieces, thoughtfully curated and arranged in a way to generate interest in children to explore and discover.
I like them because they often add a pop of colour or an interesting corner to the general play area. Plus if they hit the right spots, they can captivate and engage a child for ages on end.
Sometimes I set them up around a particular theme or area of interest we happen to be focusing on. Other times I keep it a bit more simple, featuring a particular toy, game or a collection of materials for the children to explore or incorporate into their general play.
To churn out these activity trays on a regular basis, I keep a modest collection of ‘loose parts’ which I organise in clear containers to rotate around. Coloured pebbles, gumnuts, seashells, bean bags, bottle tops, coloured pasta, pegs, pompoms, popsicle sticks, small blocks and so on. Basically a neatly organised hoard of ‘rubbish’.
It’s often tempting to dress the tray up to make it aesthetically pleasing to the adult eye. But one thing I’ve learnt is that what looks appealing to adults do not necessarily capture children’s interest in the same way.
And if I attach too many preconceived ideas on how the objects are meant to be played with, I end up getting stressed out when the entire tray is completely disassembled and deconstructed. So now I’ve learnt, once I’ve put it out there, I must be prepared to “let it go”.
With ‘themed’ trays, it’s important to remember that they may not necessarily generate the expected response you hope for from younger children.
Older children should be able to grasp the concept or idea behind themed activity trays fairly easily. However younger children or toddlers will likely be more interested in the individual objects or materials on their own.
The important thing is that the set up is capturing the child’s interest and imagination, and channeling their boundless energy in a productive way.
And even if the interest in the set up does not turn out as expected, I take in on board as a learning on what works well and what doesn’t, to incorporate into future set ups.
Favourite new addition to our loose parts collection: colourful sponges (which I cut into various shapes and sizes). Apart from being used as play sponges for pretend cleaning, they’ve been used as pretend cakes and food, stacking as soft building blocks, arranging together as puzzle pieces, and tiny beds for small toys. I bought two packs at two dollars each and they’ve squeezed out every cents worth and more.
And always keep an open mind. Children may surprise you with new and novel ways of playing with the activity tray.
If you enjoyed this post, you can check out our
other activities and play and learning ideas.