Early Years Play: What Are Play Trays?

This picture shows a toddler putting their hands in a tray of dried pasta as they play at a table.

Early years play trays are simply an activity set up within a tray. The surrounding area may be used as an extension of this. Their main aim is to encourage play to flow and for children to have fun. Usually, the trays are aimed at younger children.

Several different types of trays can be used and there are many play-based activities that can be set up. Activities are largely contained in the tray and are presented to inspire, intrigue and entice. Resources are carefully selected to appeal to a range of senses.

The different types of tray activities commonly include imaginative small-world play, process art, sensory exploration or activities with a set learning intention. See below for a more in-depth explanation of each type of activity.

The different ways to set up a tray are numerous and only limited by your imagination. There is a wealth of fantastic ideas online to get inspiration from, for all different ages and stages of the early years.

Why You Should Use Play Trays

Play trays are invitations to play and grab the attention of the children from the outset. Children quickly become very interested in the task and are keen to get involved. The tasks are usually open-ended and give children the freedom to explore, create and follow their interests.

Therefore, play trays can be used to expand your child’s play by offering new activities or resources that may otherwise be overlooked. Children learn through play and as they play with the trays they are engaged and stimulated by the interesting and inspiring resources within them.

Play trays can be prepared in advance and are ready for the children to play with as soon as they are introduced to the activity. This is great if you have a limited time for the activity itself. The tray can also be kept out for a longer period if you wish, for the children to keep coming back to. This gives children the opportunity to follow through on their different play ideas.

The physical tray itself can help children to keep resources within the vicinity as opposed to scattered all around the house or play setting. Children themselves can also get involved in the tidying up of the activity and the resources by putting them back in place in the tray at the end of the session. Setting clear expectations to the children regarding how the play tray is used and looked after from the beginning of the activity can be useful.

How Do I Use a Play Tray?

With any planned children’s activities, you will follow the same steps. First, consider the intention, plan the task, gather the resources and set up the tray.

The intention could be anything from introducing new play ideas to facilitating free play or teaching a learning objective.

As your child explores the tray they can play independently or they can be guided and supported by you. Your role could be to observe, facilitate, participate or stretch and challenge.

Decide on the theme you want the play tray to focus on and what type of activity you want to include in it. You can follow your child’s interests or ask them what they want to play with. Sometimes children can surprise you with their answers when they are asked what they want to play with. You may want to introduce your child to a new way of playing with certain resources or introduce a brand-new activity altogether.

Different Types of Play Trays

A play tray can be different sizes and made up of different materials. You need to match the aim of the activity with the most appropriate tray. The play tray setup will usually focus on one theme at a time, with all of the resources within it carefully chosen to connect to this theme.

A Tuff Tray

This is the largest of the different play trays. They are plastic trays, typically 100cm by 100cm in diameter, with a large lip around them. They can be purchased in lots of different colours and can be bought with a stand, which can be adjusted to at least two different heights. It can be set up on the floor, which makes it fantastic for younger children to explore as they can climb into the tray to play. Or the tray can be placed on a stand and set at the right height for your child.

This tray is brilliant for small groups of children playing, creating and exploring together as a few can gather around the tray at a time. It can be used for any type of play including small-world setups, construction, sensory play, creative play and number or letter activities. If you use age-appropriate resources in your tray e.g. baby safe components, this tray can be suitable for sitting babies upwards.

Tuff trays are really popular for use inside and outside and in both home and early years settings. There are lots of different makes of tuff trays and you can either buy one aimed at play provision or they are available from building merchants as mixing trays. There are now many places where you can purchase specific tuff tray resources, including covers or mats.

A Circular Tray

A circular play tray is smaller and usually metallic or plastic. It could be anything from 30cm to 50cm in diameter. This is a good size for one or two children to use at a time and can be easily used on the floor or table.

This is my favourite type of tray as children really get stuck in and easily access different parts to explore and get creative. The round nature of this tray means that the resources have equal weighting in the tray, there is no front and back and no set items for the children to look at first. The children can follow their interests with what they choose to play with first.

This type of play tray can be used for small-world imaginative play, sensory exploration, creative tasks and tasks with a specific learning goal. As it is smaller, you can put waterproof mats down to contain any overflow of mess. This helps with the tidying up of the activity once your child is finished.

A Clear Tray

This tray could be circular or rectangular. It is often used on a table and is great for water or light play. Being able to see through the tray makes it interesting for children to see sensory elements from different angles. The addition of light under this type of tray can also add a whole new sensory dimension to the play for the children. One to three children at a time could use a clear tray.

A Wooden Tray or Tinker Tray

A tinker tray is a wooden tray with different square and rectangular compartments of varying sizes. This type of tray itself can be small or large. It often contains natural materials, such as wooden shapes, felt wool balls, dried flowers, etc. Loose parts are available from several different retailers and add texture and are very tactile. They are fantastic for creative play and can be used in small play or artistic creations.

A Play Tray with Compartments

The picture shows a toddler playing with wooden pebbles and dry pasta at a play table with plastic compartments.

A partitioned tray can be plastic, wooden or metal. It can be circular with four plus segments around the outside and a circular segment in the middle or it may be a play table with different sections.

A common dip tray can be used as a partitioned tray. It is available from supermarkets, try looking in the picnic section or the entertaining section of the shop.

The use of segments means it is a great resource for playdough, Lego, sensory or small-world setups. The tray is set up on a table with additional space for the children to play with the resources. Resources are grouped by type and children are free to use them as they wish. Children can help in the set-up of these trays and assist in sorting the materials into segments.

Whichever tray you choose, remember to mix it up a little from time to time. Varying the tray used and presenting the same or similar activity in different ways can keep children’s interest levels high. It can also be a useful way to consolidate and extend children’s fun and learning.

Get Started With Some Play Tray Ideas

Sensory or Messy Play

This picture shows a toddler filling up a plastic cup with dried pasta from a larger plastic tray and tapping on the top of the cup.

This messy tray will comprise of a wet or dry base and objects of different materials and textures to explore. A range of tools alongside works well, such as tweezers, scoops, sieves, syringes, small containers, etc. Children may rub, scoop, fill, pour, mix, tap or drop the materials and see what happens and how things change. A wet base may include coloured water, gloop, jelly, ice, shaving foam or slime, etc. A dry sensory base could include coloured dried rice, salt, pasta, lentils, beans, oats and so on. There is no limit to the sensory base you use, as long as it is age appropriate for your child. Check it doesn’t pose a choking hazard or is unsuitable for eating or mouthing for babies and younger toddlers.

Small World Play

This tray will contain toy figures and a scene for children to act out stories. There are many brilliant small world play resources available to buy. The tray may also show a representation of a place in real life that the children are learning about. Children can act out real or fictional stories. This type of tray is always really interesting to observe as children act out their own stories.

Construction Play

This picture shows a toddler using wooden blocks to build their own structure on a wooden tray.

This tray will contain resources to construct, join and build structures. This could include Lego, wooden blocks, magnetic tiles, or recycled items such as paper, card and so on. Children learn about joining, fixing, balancing and gravity all in a fun and practical way.

Creative Play

This type of tray includes loose parts and trays that let children freely explore. For example, paint play could include big splodges of paint and toy vehicles to drive through the paint. Children can explore the tyre tracks and how they can make the different tracks. They can explore and ask questions: what happens when the car travels fast or slow? What happens when the car stops suddenly?

Loose Parts Play

This type of tray could include a wide range of loose parts of different sizes and textures. The children use the parts to make their pictures or sculptures. They may have inspiration from pictures and shapes or they can create whatever is in their mind that day.

Learning Through Play

In early years settings, this type of tray is used with a learning intention. The tray will aim to teach a key skill and give children opportunities to build on their learning. A tray could be set up with hidden letters in a sensory base for the children to find, for example. Here the children find the letters and match them to the picture or letter sounds.

Children can complete the activity independently or with adult help.

The children learn as they play along. This type of tray will have different play opportunities and could have any learning focus from the early learning goals. Whatever the focus the aim is always for it to be fun, engage children’s curiosity and develop early learning skills.

In Conclusion …

Keep the aim and purpose of your activity in mind to determine which tray will be the most suitable. Consider where the tray will be, the space available, the number of children and the resources needed. The possibility of mess with each activity can be a big factor. Use a tray with a big lip to contain the mess. Alternatively, use a smaller tray placed on a big tray or messy mat. Setting up the tray can be part of the fun before the children even come to play. Try out the different trays and have fun. Let your creativity flow, experiment, try out different activities and create those special happy moments with your child.