21 play tray ideas

I recently discovered these perfectly sized play trays from Kmart and they are a great size for little hands.

We have had so much fun creating inviting, engaging play trays of all sorts.

I hope you enjoy them and find some inspiration for your own play trays!

  1. Letter discovery tray

Alex loves discovering the letters that represent the most important people in his life. I purchased large puffy alphabet stickers and stuck them to the base of the tray. I then covered them with sand and gave Alex a pastry brush to search!

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2. Matryoshka discovery tray

We love Matryoshka dolls in our house (you might know them as Babushka dolls) so a Matryoshka tray was inevitable. I pulled a few sets apart and placed them in the play tray with pom poms under just a few. Alex then had to go hunting under each and every one to discover the pom poms and collect them.

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3. Handa’s Surprise tray

One of our favourite books is Handa’s Surprise. We read it every other day!
I created this simple Handa’s Surprise themed play tray with dyed yellow rice, a basket of pom poms as ‘fruit’, some wooden animals and a ‘Little People’ doll with a milk bottle lid blu-tacked to her head (as the basket).

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4. Construction tray

I purchased these great CAT trucks and they inspired me to create this multi textured construction tray. Starting at the yellow rice and going clockwise, the tray has yellow dyed rice, green dyed rice, green leaves, natural coloured pom poms, egg pasta, oats, dead leaves and black dyed popcorn kernels.

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5. Blue sea creatures/shells

A super simple tray which is sometimes the best! Dyed blue rice with sea creatures and shells for dramatic play.

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6. Lid scooping tray

A simple and fun concept which teaches coordination. Using a fish net Alex scooped out the lids and popped them in a bucket. You could use a slotted spoon, tongs or any other scooping utensil.

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7. Coloured ice cubes melting in gloop

I popped a bit of food colour into an ice cube tray, making different colours so that when they melted we could discuss colour mixing. I made up some gloop (corn flour and water) and dropped in the ice cubes. As they melted, the colours mixed and it was awesome to watch.

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8. All about BLUE play tray

Blue is a beautiful colour with so many tones which I decided we should explore. Using a range of items we played with all sorts of blue resources and matched them to similar blues. This could be extended so many ways – with additional colours, paint chip cards and more open ended toys for ‘blue loose parts play’.

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9. Stacking coloured pebbles

This was a fun experience and the opportunities for creating are huge! The pebbles come with a card pack of ideas including stacking (as pictured) or making shapes like animals, buildings, etc. The tray keeps all of the pebbles neatly contained so they are less likely to get lost or dragged around the house.

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10. Rainbow flower tower

This is the wooden rainbow flower tower from the above picture stacked up on itself. It was a lot of fun and the tray provided the opportunity for us to keep it all together. To extend or switch up this activity you could use rainbow blocks.

11. Dinosaur sorting tray

I have had a love of dinosaurs since I was a toddler and that is obvious in the choices I make for Alex. I adore dinosaur play and have a ridiculous amount of dinosaur picture books. ‘Could a Tyrannosaurus play table tennis?’ by Andrew Plant is one of my favourites and I especially love that he went back and changed the illustrations after it was discovered many of the dinosaurs he had illustrated had feathers. I created a play tray with a good range of dinosaur toys and as we read the book we looked over the dinosaurs in the tray to match them to the ones in the book. It was a lot of fun.

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12. The beach!

A huge part of growing up near the Adelaide coast is visiting the beach. We love getting down there when we can and feeling the sand beneath our feet, the seaweed between our toes and the water splash up on our legs. I purchased some vibrant blue gelli-baff and was inspired to create an ocean with it. I wanted to mix up some textures so I paired soft, squishy gelli-baff with coarse, rough sand. I then added a few beach/ocean themed animals with some shells and green curling ribbon to represent the seaweed. Alex was a bit put off by the textures meeting but I loved it! I had never felt such a confusing texture before – sand and gelli-baff, who knew?

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13. Water with fabric petals

This particular activity was inspired by Andy Goldsworthy’s natural art. I love the ethereal nature of his work and wanted to create something that moved and flowed. I purchased some pastel fabric petals from the local cheap store and put them in a tray with water. That’s it! They were fun to explore and felt beautiful and soft between our fingers.

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14. Pom poms and tape

A wonderful game to encourage coordination skills! All you need is a tray, tape, pom poms (or cotton wool balls) and tongs. Stick the tape around the tray with the sticky side facing down and encourage your child to use the tongs to pull the pom poms of cotton wool balls up without getting them stuck. Alex enjoyed placing them on the upside of the tape after getting them through.

For more pom pom play ideas click here.

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15. Indigenous card find and match

I have a beautiful set of Australian Indigenous cards that have traditional symbols on them. I placed a few of these under cotton wool balls for Alex to discover and match. This could be done with any card set.

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16. Aussie Outback

If you have ever visited the Australian Outback you will understand how orange/red the sand really is. It is incredibly beautiful. Alex and I dyed some play sand to recreate it for this play tray. To see how to do it yourself click here.

Based on the book ‘The Australian ABC’ we discovered which animals were in both the book and the tray.

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17. Easter egg pairing

Having just been through Easter we made an Easter egg play tray. Using plastic eggs we made a hiding game. It was simple and fun.

To see a great chocolate free Easter present idea click here.

18. Ocean/ice play

Sensory play has to include ice! Kids love to explore ice, there’s something about it that just feels so forbidden. Mixing ice, shredded paper and arctic animals, we created this fun exploratory play tray. Great for keeping cool on a hot day!

19. Rainbow rice and tools

We luuurrrvvve rice play in our house! I had seen rainbow rice a few times and decided it was our turn to have some. Mixing in a range of beautiful bright colours made incredible looking rice. We added a few tools for pouring, tipping and sorting and Alex was engaged for ages.

For details on how to make your own rice, click here.

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20. Baby washing

I feel very strongly that it is important for both boys and girls to play with dolls. Boys grow into men who become fathers, uncles and grandparents so it is important for them to act out that caring role just as girls are encouraged to do.

My son’s favourite book is ‘Please, baby, please’ by Spike Lee and Tonya Lewis Lee. I flicked through the book to see if a page from the book might inspire me to create a play tray and it did! The baby bathing page gave me the idea to pop a doll in with a few items Alex likes in his baths. He played at it for ages.

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21. Loose parts fun!

Loose parts play is such an easy way to inspire creativity, imagination and thinking skills in children. Loose parts can be practically anything! For a list of loose parts ideas please click here.

I made a container of all sorts of resources and we took it out to the front yard for inspiration. Alex loves being outdoors and these toys made it so much more fun!

See below for how one simple tray inspired many ideas!

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Funnels turned into trees for a dinoland

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Cardboard offcut, Christmas tree beads and recycled lids we saved!

A dinosaur eating pom poms from cupcake patty pans

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For another loose parts play idea click here.

Please leave a comment if any of these have inspired you. I’d also love to see photos if you do some yourself!!

Amy xx

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