How Tray Plays Can Transform Playtime (and Save Your Sanity)

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I’m going to be honest, this hack was born out of laziness — i.e., me being too lazy to clean up play stations every day. But it honestly doesn’t matter how this started, just trust me that it’s genius.

I thought I was a legit parenting ninja when I developed this system. Then, one day I noticed that my daughter’s Montessori preschool is all about tray plays. Oops.

No need to invent the wheel here, folks. Check out some ideas to incorporate simple tray plays (with easy clean-up!) into your playtime routine.

What are tray plays?

There is probably a fancy definition out there from a respected developmental child psychologist.

This is not that article.

This is me, wanting to have a few activities for my kids available, that were contained, easy to store, and quick to pull out in a pinch.

In our house, a tray play is simply a collection of items that I keep on a tray (or in a bin). I store the play items on a bookshelf (or, more often, on top of the dryer in the laundry room), and I bring out the tray whenever I need a few minutes of quiet. When the kids are done, I just scoop everything back onto the tray and tuck them away until next time.

Easter Sensory Bin
Put messy sensory activities into a bin with a lid so they can be easily saved for next time

Why do tray plays work?

The effectiveness of a tray play is based on a couple of simple childhood truths:

  • Toys that are attractively displayed are more likely to be played with
  • Toys that are contained and easy to tidy up are less likely to get broken or lost
  • Toys that easily meet the above two criteria are less likely to get tossed during my ruthless pre-move declutter sprees (which happen every two years on average)

What does a tray play look like?

No need to get fancy, ya’ll. Here are the tray plays currently in rotation at our house:

  • A set of desk bells from Music Prodigies, which is our homeschool music curriculum
  • A small puppet theater with magnetic dress-up dolls, from KiwiCrate
  • Mad Mattr sand and a few farm animals
  • An Easter-themed sensory bin full of rice, plastic eggs, an egg carton, and bunny counters from an old Mother Goose Time theme

Do I need a special tray?

Mad Mattr Tray Play With Farm Animals
Even messy sand play is easier when confined to a tray

The desk bells and the puppet theater are currently on a pair of large plastic serving trays that I often use for entertaining.

The sensory bin is in a large plastic tub from Target, and it has a lid. I can just throw the lid on in between play sessions and stash it in the garage when it’s not in use.

The Mad Mattr sand is in an aluminum foil pan from the grocery store. The kids used these to excavate fossil dinosaur eggs back in April, and we now have a huge stack that are perfect for small messy play.

I also have a wooden tray that I keep in rotation for daily art projects or small parts play.

This sounds like a lot of work.

IT’S NOT.

Seriously, you will save so much time and sanity by having a few of these prepped and ready. And there’s no need to spend a fortune or a ton of time getting these set up, either.

I made the Easter bin in about five minutes, when I stumbled across the bunny counters in the bottom of our math manipulatives box. Pour counters into empty bin, add a bag of rice and some easter eggs that were missing the other half, and BOOM — sensory bin.

The Mad Mattr tray happened when my daughter found the bag of sand tucked in the craft closet. I was too lazy to scoop it back into the bag after the third time she’d played with it, so now it lives on a shelf in the laundry room, ready to go. Every so often I switch out the farm animals for dinosaurs, or seashells, or plastic flowers.

Musical Prodigies Bells Tray Play
Easiest clean-up ever: throw bells on tray, stash tray on bookshelf

The bells are used frequently as part of our music education, but keeping them on a tray makes them SO easy to stash in our homeschool bookshelf in between play sessions. In between lessons, the kids love to explore the bells.

In other words, if there is a good sensory activity that your child is enjoying, try storing it in a tray or a bin rather than fully cleaning up afterward. See how many times you can re-introduce the material before it goes stale.

How often do you have to make new trays?

If I notice a particular tray play isn’t really engaging their attention after multiple introductions, then I’ll cycle it out of rotation.

Honestly, not that often. The Easter bin is still alive and kicking six weeks later. The bells are a semi-permanent part of our homeschool bookshelf. The Mad Mattr will last until too much of it scatters around my kitchen floor to be worth saving.

How to make tray plays work for you:

Here are a few ideas with items you likely have in your house already:

Keep it simple!

  • pipe cleaners and an empty soda bottle (perfect threading activity for little hands)
  • small animal figurines + some sort of base material: rice, beans, pasta, instant potato flakes, lentils, or even just water
  • stickers and paper
  • a half-dozen paper cups and a handful of cheerios
  • tangrams
  • small blocks
  • paper towel tubes and dried beans
  • ribbon, stick-on sequins, and old headbands
  • washi tape and construction paper
  • plastic dolls, cars, or action figures, a bucket, a washcloth, and some soapy water (pour out the water between playtimes, obvi)
Koala Crate Puppet Show Tray Play
The tray keeps small pieces semi-contained

You can get fancy and do themed trays, but also trust the beauty of an open-ended, unstructured tray. There is a lot of research into the value of loose parts play, and how it can stimulate creativity in your kids. That said, I adore some of the themed sensory bins from Asia Citro’s book, 150+ Screen-Free Activities for Kids.

Final tips

My rule of thumb when it comes to toys, strewing, and any kind of messy play is this:

Never put out more toys than you want to clean up.

Seriously. You’re the parent, and you get to decide how many toys you have to nag your kids into tidying up at the end of the day. I can handle one or two messy-play sensory bins in rotation, but that’s it. And we never have more than 6-8 toys out in our play area at any one time. And I still think it’s way too many, but that’s a post for another day.

Do you use tray plays in your home? Share your tips and ideas in the comments!


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