Mini Topic: Play trays

Your setting's exploratory play trays need not be limited to sand and water - try these ideas from Kevin Kelman

There are lots of interesting alternatives to the basic sand and water provision that will engage children's curiosity and encourage them to explore. Let the children try them on their own before initiating some of these ideas.

To provide the children with a range of sensory experiences, change the contents of your tray on a regular basis, but do continue providing ample opportunities for sand and water play.


  • Prepare three different colours of jelly in moulds, empty them into the tray and cover the tray before the children arrive.
  • Gather the children around the covered tray and invite them to guess what might be in the tray today.
  • Blindfold the children, remove the lid and allow them to explore and guess the identity of the substance.
  • Provide different kitchen utensils for playing with the jelly, such as a spatula, a whisk and a fish slice.
  • Have children transfer the jelly from the tray into bowls using the utensils.
  • Do not let the children eat the jelly, for health and safety reasons.

Pine cones

  • Gather different sizes of pine cone and place them in the tray.
  • Give the children playdough and urge them to attach small balls of it to the base of the pine cones to prop them up and so create a forest of pine cones.
  • Add small-world figures and vehicles for children to play with in the forest.


  • Place a range of shells in the tray and allow the children to play freely with them.
  • Encourage the children to sort and order the shells by colour, size and shape.
  • Add moist sand to the tray so that the children can build three-dimensional structures and add shells as decorations.


  • Place a collection of fallen leaves in the tray for the children to sort by type, colour or shape.
  • Encourage the children to make leaf pictures.
  • Ask the children to scrunch up dry leaves to make 'confetti' and use the confetti as a collage material.
  • Provide rakes, shovels, spades and buckets for the children to use when playing with the leaves.


  • Empty the contents of a bag of compost into the tray.
  • Hide root vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, onions and turnips under the compost.
  • Provide the children with small gardening tools with which to 'harvest' the vegetables.
  • Allow the children to wash the harvested vegetables.
  • The children will enjoy making soup with their harvested produce.

Grass cuttings

  • Place grass cuttings in the tray for the children to explore on their own.
  • Add small containers or buckets and spades. The children may enjoy transporting the cut grass around the tray with small diggers, tractors and transporter trucks.
  • As an alternative, add small-world animals for the children to play with in the grass.

No-tears shampoo

  • Let the children play with no-tear shampoo and make it into a lather.
  • Provide materials that the children can add to the shampoo to change the texture, for example, sand, glitter or salt.
  • Encourage the children to make patterns in the tray.
  • Invite the children to add a small amount of water to make bubbles.

Cooked pasta

  • Offer the children opportunities to play with different types of cooked pasta. Numerous kinds are available, including vermicelli, fusilli, fettuccine, penne, pappardelle, lasagne and conchiglie.
  • Add coloured pasta to the tray for the children to explore.
  • Encourage the children to roll cooked lasagne sheets into spiral shapes or to make letter shapes with cooked spaghetti.

Shaving cream

  • Allow the children to squirt shaving foam into the tray.
  • Invite the children to spread the foam around the tray and then to make marks in the foam, using their fingers or using mark-making tools such as a paintbrush or glue spreader.
  • Alternatively, provide shaving gel and let the children explore its changing properties as they play with it.
  • Encourage the children to add food colouring or poster paint to create interesting designs.

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