Sensory Play Ideas | Using Tray Activities in the Early Years

Photo of Holly (Teach Starter)
Updated | 5 min read

Incorporating a variety of sensory play ideas in the early years classroom provides a fantastic invitation to play (and learn) for your students.

Sensory play isn’t just limited to a toddler room within a daycare center. Just because a child begins formal schooling, it doesn’t mean they should stop learning through play. With the starting age of formal schooling seemingly getting younger and younger, it’s important to maintain the importance of play all whilst guiding their young minds on their learning journey.

Learning Tray Activities for the Classroom

Activity trays or learning trays are traditionally a Montessori method of education for very young children. However, they can easily be adapted for older children who are in formal schooling or attending a mainstream educational facility. Use learning trays to engage your students’ curiosity all while linking to topics or learning intentions that are expected of them through the curriculum.

Don’t use play as a ‘break’ from learning, use play to engage their little curious minds.

How do you set up a learning tray?

You may have heard of a Tuff Tray or Tuff Spot Tray. These are a versatile tray that can be used in the classroom setting for a number of learning activities. The best thing about them is that they contain the mess, to some degree anyway!

Alternatively, the concept of creating an area that focuses on a particular learning intention through sensory play is just as good, and a little cheaper! Creating a learning tray that is portable, rather than a designated area can be super helpful, especially if you are struggling for space in your classroom.

Check out this gorgeous nature learning tray created by Jacquie Fisher on Edventures With Kids. You can purchase a wooden tray similar to these at most retail/cheap stores.

Learning Tray Ideas in the Classroom


Sensory Activity Ideas

The sky’s the limit when it comes to how you set up a learning tray in your classroom. Here are some of our favourite ideas we think you’ll love!

Spelling Tray Activity

So many fantastic skills can be taught in this simple idea. Using your spelling list for the week, display the words near by and have your students go on a letter scavenger hunt to re-create the words using the letters they search for in the tray.

In this gorgeous setup, Nicole from @teaching.this.way has used some beautiful autumn leaves. Plus, add an element of fine motor development by having the students use tongs to try and pick up the letters they need to create their words.

Learning tray ideas for the classroom

Word of the Week Tray Activity

Why not utilise a sensory experience for your students for your word of the week?

Really immerse your students in understanding this word by setting up a learning tray with books, items or materials that reflect that word.

Here is another fantastic learning tray by the amazing Nicole from @teaching.this.way. You may be thinking… why did she pick this word? Have a read of her description next to the photo for a little giggle.

Learning tray ideas for the classroom - day of the week activities

Check out our Word of the Week teaching resources for a list of words you can explore with your students.

Letter Learning in the Classroom

This rainbow of goodness will have your students begging to learn all about their letters! Print out images of things that start with the sounds of the week. In this example by @teaching_with_miss_stratfold, she has used the letters ‘s’, ‘a’ and ‘t’. You can easily adapt this for older students if they are learning about digraphs!

Learning tray ideas for the classroom

Here are some flashcards or alphabet teaching resources:

Image of Alphabet Order Activity

teaching resource

Alphabet Order Activity

A fun match-up activity to help teach children the alphabet, letters and sounds.

Teach Starter Publishing4 pagesYears: F - 1
Image of Animal Alphabet Display

teaching resource

Animal Alphabet Display

Alphabet charts with animal pictures.

Teach Starter Publishing26 pagesYears: F - 2

Seasons Discovery Experience

This image just brings us pure joy! How gorgeous is it? Go and check out @abaysidecottage for some awesome nature and play inspiration!

We love the inclusion of books and environmental objects that really give your students an understanding of a particular season.

When learning about seasons why not set up a learning tray for each and have them scattered around the room! Voila!

Learning tray ideas for the classroom

Check out our blog for more seasons activities for the classroom.

Here are some teaching resources that you could include in your learning tray along with objects and books:

Image of Months of the Year Poster - Northern Hemipshere

teaching resource

Months of the Year Poster - Northern Hemipshere

A poster displaying the months of the year.

Teach Starter Publishing1 pageYears: F - 4
Image of Seasons Sorting Activity

teaching resource

Seasons Sorting Activity

A fun sorting activity to use in the classroom when learning about the different seasons.

Teach Starter Publishing4 pages

Book Exploring Learning Tray

In the early years classroom, there is no doubt about it – you’ll be reading picture books non stop! Why not set up a learning tray that helps students explore a text structure or skill?

We love this stunning set up by @katysclassroom. Her students are exploring retells and days of the week so reading The Very Hungry Caterpillar is a no brainer.

Having an invitation to explore and play with a variety of objects, words and pictures from the book is a delightful way for students to really embrace a story.

Learning trays for the classroom

Here are some of our fairy tale teaching resources that may help with a set up like above.

Image of Fairy Tales Settings Posters

teaching resource

Fairy Tales Settings Posters

A set of 6 fairytale story settings background posters.

Teach Starter Publishing6 pagesYears: F - 2
Image of Hansel and Gretel Sequencing Activity Cards

teaching resource

Hansel and Gretel Sequencing Activity Cards

Use these fairy tale activity cards to help your students understand sequencing.

Teach Starter Publishing7 pagesYears: 1 - 2
Image of Three Little Pigs Sequencing Activity Cards

teaching resource

Three Little Pigs Sequencing Activity Cards

Use these fairy tale activity cards to help your students understand sequencing.

Teach Starter Publishing7 pagesYears: F - 2
Image of Jack and the Beanstalk Sequencing Activity Cards

teaching resource

Jack and the Beanstalk Sequencing Activity Cards

Use these fairy tale activity cards to help your students understand sequencing.

Teach Starter Publishing8 pagesYears: 1 - 2
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Image of 25 Fairy Tale Character Posters

teaching resource

25 Fairy Tale Character Posters

Set of 25 posters featuring the most significant and popular fairy tale characters.

Teach Starter Publishing25 pagesYears: F - 2
Image of Little Red Riding Hood Sequencing Activity Cards

teaching resource

Little Red Riding Hood Sequencing Activity Cards

Use these fairy tale activity cards to help your students understand sequencing.

Teach Starter Publishing8 pagesYears: F - 2

Mathematics Learning Trays

Use your learning tray areas to explore a number of mathematics topics.

We adore this set up by @asdcreationstation to explore measurement and non-standard units with her students!

Mathetmatics Learning Tray Ideas

Play Space Idea for the Classroom

Don’t have a learning tray? Or, don’t have time to head to the shops to search for one?

That’s ok – why not use the concept and set up a play space like @kidsresortelc.

In this gorgeous setup, students are invited to learn all about numbers 1-10 by counting out sticks into glass jars!

Setting up a play space in the classroom

We hope you have been inspired by some of these amazing ideas and ways to include both play and sensory activities into your classroom. If you haven’t tried this concept before, why not set yourself a goal this week? Include a learning tray or play space in your classroom for a topic you are learning about. Observe your students and see how they interact with a space like this in your classroom.

Share your ideas on Instagram #teachstarter and #learningtrayideas.

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