Lessons from a toddler: play and creativity.

For me, one of the greatest things about watching little ones is seeing how they approach new experiences.  For a while I’ve been wanting to find a better way to inject some fun practical learning and real life activities into her play.  Montessori inspired activity trays seemed the perfect solution, and I can change the activities every few weeks to keep things fresh and interesting.

I’ve had a week now to watch how the revamped play area has gone down with my little girl.  She woke up last Saturday morning to find the shelves, which were previously just a random collection of books and toys, arranged with an orderly collection of new activity trays.  They are all designed to be fun and bring a different element of play to her time at home. But I also wanted them to do more than that.  Between them, the trays help develop fine motor skills, provide a sensory experience, knowledge of colours, give basic counting opportunities, or allow her to explore everyday life skills.


What I’d expected was a straightforward ‘love it or hate it’ reaction to each individual tray. In our house at least, that’s the standard type of response to a shop bought toy.  Normally they have one particular use or purpose, and on that basis the toy is either the new favourite or is utterly disregarded. As a parent you hope you made the right choice in the shop! So I hadn’t been prepared for the far more creative approach our little girl took to the different activity trays.

Some of the trays were all out hits, exactly the way they were intended. For example the ‘tea making set’ was immediately spotted, and with cries of ‘tea! tea!’ she happily set about making me an imaginary cup of tea.  Even better when I put some cold water in to the teapot, put some sugar for her to spoon out of the sugar bowl, and allowed her to ‘really’ make tea.

Some of the trays were clearly just that bit too much for her to physically handle yet.  So the mini clothes pegs to secure on to lollypop sticks were too fiddly and too firm for her little hands to properly manage yet.  She was very curious about how to make them work and tried them in lots of ways to make them open, but all that happened was that a few of the clothes pegs got broken in the process.  It was an interesting lesson for me in building up to complex skills.

Although I am going to do another pegging activity next time, I will perhaps start with dolly pegs which should be easier for her to handle.  In the meanwhile I’ve swapped the activity with a small money box and a box of coins, which she spends long stretches of time playing with. Examining the coins and showing me the most shiny ones, putting them in the slot at the top of the money box, shaking the money box to hear the sound it makes with different amounts of coins in, tipping the coins out of the bottom, turning the money box upside down and putting them in that way.  This activity has definitely worked far better than the clothes peg one.

Other activities, like the buttons and felt squares tray, have been a massive hit, but have been used in a whole variety of creative ways.  I’d intended for the buttons and felt tray to be a colour matching exercise. The blue felt square with the blue buttons and so on. She does enjoy doing that.  But she also enjoys trying to stack the buttons on top of each other, lining the buttons up, and seeing what the felt squares will stick to (after she found that some clothes items do allow them to ‘stick’ quite nicely). I hadn’t expected so much from one little tray. Watching her independent creativity in action is such a pleasure as a mum.

I’d also expected that she would want to explore each of the trays at least once.  But actually, the flower arranging in a vase  – which I had thought that she’d really like – has been a total fail.  The only interest she has shown is in trying to peel off the blu-tack which I’d used on the underside of the vase to secure it to the tray for a bit more stability. You live and learn!

The books, puzzles and toys that she’s always had still get used too, but the activity trays have definitely been a successful experiment and a welcome new addition to playing at home.  I’m planning on changing the activities in the next two or three weeks, sooner if she gets visibly bored and stops going to investigate. But for the moment every day sees her going back and playing happily.  I’ve got so many ideas for the next set of trays I don’t know which ones to do first.  Not a bad position to be in!  And I guess it’s also a good thing that I’ve got plenty of ideas in reserve, so that if there are another few trays which don’t work so well I can easily replace them with something more suitable.


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