A Guide to Using Toddler Trays

A Guide to Using Toddler Trays

A Guide to Using Toddler Trays

Toddler trays are a fun way to intentionally expose my toddler to all sorts of early learning skills. Our toddler trays are another way to engage my toddler in the joy of learning, as well as give him an opportunity to explore different materials in new and fresh ways.

We’ve been using the toddler tray idea since my son was about 15 months old (before that we were using busy bags). At that age, we were choosing the trays for him. Often I would prop him up in his high chair with his tray items for him to explore (mostly while I cooked dinner!).

Now (at 2.5 years old) I put the trays out for him in his play room and he explores to his heart’s content. It has been so fun to watch him grow into his toddler trays and even look forward to seeing what is there each week.

How I Use Toddler Trays

toddler trays

I try to keep five to six trays in rotation (as you can see above, this was a week I only did 5!). Sometimes I trade them out each week. Other times I forget and he has the same trays for three weeks in a row. We just do what works for us in each season. Toddler trays are a tool for me to help expose my toddler to skill sets that will be beneficial in the long run, but I give myself grace in seasons where the thought of changing out the tray exhausts me!

I choose my trays based on the skills I want to encourage in my toddler, what theme we’re working on in our intentional toddler time, and what I think my son will find fun and interesting. There was a time I tried to make sure I had something for each skill he needed to learn on each tray each and every week. This was terrible for me. My son didn’t care for pouring and soon tired of transferring. He hasn’t beaded a single thing as hard I’ve tried to get him to. I was growing frustrated that I couldn’t get all the skill sets he needed into each of the six trays each week. So I finally (FINALLY) grew a bit wiser and said, “I’m going to change out my trays based on MY CHILD’S interest for the time being.” Some weeks are heavy on the fine motor skills. Other weeks I might have all six trays loaded with counting activities. I just go with it and say, “It is good.” Over time he is exposed to everything he needs and Mama is more relaxed (all good things).

How I Display My Toddler Trays

toddler trays

Ideally, I would use actual trays for these activities and have a beautiful storage unit for my trays to be displayed in aesthetically pleasing ways. But I use what I have, and it works well for our family.

Right now I use an old beat up WalMart shelf (that I tried to giveaway several times and no one would take it!) and some extra Ikea bins I had on hand. Lucky me, I can fit six trays on the shelf with no problem. I guess technically I should call these toddler bins instead of trays, but whatever. Honestly, I really like this set up because it’s very easy for my son to pull the bins on and off the shelf while still being able to glance at the shelf to see what he has to choose from.

Where I Get My Ideas for Toddler Trays


Toddler Tray Pinterest Board


I gather my ideas for toddler trays from the one and only Pinterest. I created a board just for toddler trays so I can round up my ideas all in one place. You can follow my toddler tray board here.

I will literally pin the same post using a different picture so I can see at a glance all of my ideas. I don’t want to have to go back and dig through a post to find an idea that works. So by pinning each picture of the interesting toddler tray idea, my Pinterest board keeps my ideas organized in a way that I can quickly see my options to choose from.

Where I Store My Toddler Tray Materials

closet storage

I store all of my toddler tray options in our closet in the play room. I also store our rotated learning toys in there as well. I have plans to move a lot of this to the basement so I have more space (I hate being crammed into a small space…not.my.style.) I want to quickly be able to grab what I need. But for now this is working for us.

Other manipulatives are stores on a shelf (from Ikea) where I can see them, and they sort of pose as decorations for us.

ikea storage for manipulatives

Where I Get My Toddler Tray Materials

I collect toddler tray materials from anywhere and everywhere, but mostly on clearance! Great places to shop for toddler tray manipulatives is the Dollar Tree, Target (dollar aisle), and WalMart (clearance racks). Some other places to find great materials is craft stores like Michael’s and JoAnn’s. I’ve even found great items at Hobby Lobby.

Unfortunately, we moved to a resort town that doesn’t believe in chain retail stores of any kind, so now I keep my eye out on Zulilly, Oriental Trading, and even Amazon for good deals on manipulatives my child might enjoy.

When we make it to the big city, I always hit up the thrift stores too for great toddler tray ideas and learning toys. I rarely set out to buy anything for toddler trays. I just keep my eyes peeled when I’m out to see if anything catches my eye or sparks an idea.

If you want a list of materials to keep on hand, check out Carisa’s Tot Trays post. I used her post as a guide when I was just getting started.

Toddler trays are one of my favorite ways to interact with my toddler. There are days I just get so tired of playing trucks and chu-chus. This is when I will encourage the toddler trays because it’s something DIFFERENT! He enjoys them just as much and he loves spending time with Mommy.

Do you do toddler trays? What suggestions would you add?

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  1. We do “toddler trays” too and I’ve gleaned several ideas from your blog posts so Thanks! ๐Ÿ™‚ I stalk your blog daily for the ideas and encouragement it gives.

  2. First off… Im getting TONS of ideas from your blog! We just recently began homeschool preschooling and it’s a little overwhelming at times. I have so many ideas yet can’t seem to get organized. On top of that we will be adding a newborn to the family in about 2 months!!! Sorry to unleash on you… just really want to do this and do it effectively! Anyway, are your trays put away to where he can only get to them when you allow it or can he get to them at anytime? I see my 3 y/o son dumping them all out and moving on.

    1. I’m so glad you’re finding some helpful stuff here ๐Ÿ™‚ We put our toddler trays out for the longest. But now with a little 8 month old on the prowl, I’ve put them away for another season! For the most part, the trays were kept in a central location where I could monitor my son (at least at the beginning). I’ve been really particular with him from the get go about putting away what he pulls out before moving on to the next thing, especially with the trays. Because I would often sit down and play with him and the trays, he associated them with time with Mommy, so he wouldn’t play with them unless I was with him. But we go through seasons and some days they end up all over the house. This answer is probably not helpful. ha! We just go with the flow, train him to put his things away, try to monitor him to continue the training, but then remember he’s 3 and give him grace. You could always start out with only 1-3 so you have less to clean up. There is no magic number. Also, I recently posted about using busy boxes instead of toddler trays. We made the switch because of the 8 month old I referred to at the beginning of my response. ๐Ÿ˜‰ This has been working well for us too! It’s the same concept, but in a different format. You can read that post here: https://intentionalbygrace.com/2014/05/13/use-busy-boxes-toddler-baby/. I think I rambled. Feel free to ask any other questions!

  3. That was very helpful actually! I always seem to think that I have to do things perfectly and the way others are doing it so I was stressing about the idea of tot trays and busy boxes (I thought you were supposed to use both. And yes I know we’re not “supposed” to do anything

    1. I totally understand. I can fall into the same trap. The internet is great for gathering ideas, but it can get overwhelming. I have to make a concerted effort to step back and say, “Okay, now what is going to work for MY FAMILY!”