10+ DIY Montessori-inspired Tray Activities at 18 Months

At 16 months, my toddler started taking interest in a shape sorter toy and became aware of differences in colors, shapes and print like letters and numbers. I also noticed 'sensitive periods' whereby she displayed keen interest in object filling and transfer, and would carry out these tasks repetitively.

What are 'Sensitive Periods'?

'Sensitive periods' are times when children's brains are uniquely primed to efficiently learn skills associated to those interests. When caregivers notice children in 'sensitive periods' to learn and master a skill, it is recommended to follow the child's interest and set up the environment or provide the child with resources to help him/her succeed in mastering it.

Montessori-inspired Tray Setup

These are some guidelines I use in my tray activities:

  • Self-contained trays. Keeping items in the same tray signals to children that those items belong together, and that they could/should leverage all the resources on the tray for the activity.
  • Sequence tray materials in left to right order: This follows the natural way of reading. For example, jigsaw puzzle pieces to be placed in a small basket on the right, with the jigsaw base on the right.
  • Sequence shelf trays in this order: Straightforward to complex in left to right order. Concrete to abstract in top to down order. Explanation on Montessori Daoshi.

10+ DIY Montessori-inspired Tray Activities at 18 Months

For this series of tray activities, all of them are DIY and homemade, with materials being nature-sourced, recycled from household materials or repurposed from existing toys.

1. Animal Rescue

The idea of winding elastic hair ties around animal figurines came from The Imagination Tree.

This was a great fine motor and problem-solving exercise as my young toddler tried means and ways to detangle the elastic hair ties from the animal figurines.

After mastering the removal of the elastic hair ties, she even attempted to loop the hair ties back onto the figurines, which was significantly more challenging.

Montessori Inspired Toddler Tray Activities at 18 Months

2. Coin Drop

This coin drop activity is perfect for young toddlers interested in posting activities, i.e. placing an object into another object. It is a great way to learning spatial relationships between objects and build hand-eye coordination as well as concentration.

The idea of this coin drop tin originated from How We Montessori. I created a 'piggy bank' recycling a metal tin and cutting a slit in its soft rubber lid. The slot is just big enough for coins to be pushed through.

This activity required problem-solving and reasoning on my toddler's part, as she learnt to angle the coins such that they align to the slit. In time, she also learnt to pry the lid open to retrieve the coins (I kept the lid loosely fitted to enable this).

Coins could be choking hazards, so I recommend using alternatives like large poker chips or hand-cut cardboard buttons if close supervision is not possible.

Montessori Inspired Toddler Tray Activities at 18 Months

3. Wooden Peg Pull

My toddler started taking an interest in the artworks I had pegged onto the wall, curious to find out how the wooden pegs worked.

While she had not mastered the finger or hand dexterity and strength to press down on and open wooden pegs, she had become an expert at pulling them off.

To follow this interest, I created this wooden peg pull activity. I pegged the thinnest books in her book collection shut with a couple of wooden pegs. The reward of pulling all the wooden pegs off was reading her favorite books.

Montessori Inspired Toddler Tray Activities at 18 Months

4. Wooden Peg Push

Hammering and pounding build hand-eye coordination, arm strength, concentration and focus. This activity also reinforces the learning of object permanence.

I used a penknife to cut holes on each compartment of an empty egg crate. I made the holes such that there was tactile resistance to pushing the wooden pegs through.

I provided a toy hammer for my toddler to knock the wooden pegs into the egg crate. With time, she learnt how to manipulate the egg crate such that she could open it to retrieve the wooden pegs and repeat the activity independently.

Montessori Inspired Toddler Tray Activities at 18 Months

5. Jewelry Tree Decoration

This is an effortless setup whereby I provided my toddler with hair ties and cut toilet paper (TP) rolls to hang onto a jewelry tree.

This activity is a great one for fine motor skills and can be extended into color matching.

Montessori Inspired Toddler Tray Activities at 18 Months

6. Skittles Color Sorting

Another effortless setup for my toddler to sort Skittles sweets into their respective colored cups. Supervision is required as the size of the candies present choking risk.

Easy alternatives you could find at home would be colored wooden blocks, construction paper strips and crayons. Other ideas for color sorting using everyday materials can be found here.

Montessori Inspired Toddler Tray Activities at 18 Months

7. Vehicle Color Sorting

Emergency vehicles -- the fire engine, ambulance and police car -- have their distinctive colors.

To reinforce my toddler's recognition of these vehicles, I created this color sorting activity for her to place pom pom balls into bottle cap wheels of the vehicles -- red for the fire engine's wheels, white for the ambulance's wheels and black for the police car's wheels. I used hot glue to stick the bottle caps onto the cardboard drawing of the vehicles.

Note that my pom pom ball container positioning is incorrect in below picture, it should be placed on the left instead.

Montessori Inspired Toddler Tray Activities at 18 Months

8. Weather Icon Matching

"Little Kids' First Big Book of Weather" by National Geographic Kids is a great complement to this activity, especially for budding meterologists.

I cut out felt shapes for various weather icons and traced their outlines onto cardboard. Then I attached strings to the felt cut-outs to prevent them from getting lost and also placed velcro hook stickers onto the cardboard for the felt shapes to secure to.

Montessori Inspired Toddler Tray Activities at 18 Months

9. Flash Card Puzzle

This activity repurposes flash cards. I cut outgrown flash cards into halves diagonally, horizontally and vertically to make puzzles.

Montessori Inspired Toddler Tray Activities at 18 Months

10. Cardboard Pizza Puzzle

Once my toddler mastered the flash card puzzles above, I tried this 4-piece cardboard pizza puzzle with her.

The food puzzle idea originated from Happy Tot Shelf's watermelon puzzle while the idea for the pom pom ball handles originated from Mothercould's rainbow cardboard puzzle. The pom pom balls fit into the context and design of the pizza puzzle as 'meatballs', which was perfect.

For my tray setup, I provided the puzzle in its undone form, Montessori-style. Toddlers tend to be more attracted to activities that are undone. Additionally, I placed puzzle pieces on the left and the puzzle base on the right as the left to right movement to complete the puzzle is indirect preparation for learning to read.

For older toddlers, this puzzle makes a great visual tool to teaching fractions (the concept of equal segments forming something whole).

Montessori Inspired Toddler Tray Activities at 18 Months

11. TP Roll Breast Pump Tube Activity - Threading

This is the first threading activity I introduced to my young toddler. The idea of using cardboard TP rolls as the 'beads' came from Laughing Kids Learn.

Instead of a shoelace, I provided a spare breast pump tube. The rubber tube is stiff and easy to grip and manipulate in small toddler hands, setting my toddler up for success for this very first threading activity.

Montessori Inspired Toddler Tray Activities at 18 Months

12. Penne Pasta Pipe Cleaner Activity - Threading

By a stroke of luck I realised that (expired) penne pasta pieces could be slotted into pipe cleaners.

This activity is more challenging vs. the cardboard TP roll and rubber tube one, putting my toddler's concentration, hand-eye coordination and fine motor abilities to a test.

She strung a small number each time before losing interest in the activity and then coming back again, which shows that this activity is right for her developmental stage and just the right level of challenge -- not too easy to brush off, yet not too difficult to lose heart.

The pasta strung pipe cleaner can be used as a diy 'necklace' for stuffed toys, furthering abstract thinking and pretend play.

Montessori Inspired Toddler Tray Activities at 18 Months

For more child-led, open-ended play ideas, follow my Instagram, Pinterest or Facebook Group.

Montessori Inspired Toddler Tray Activities at 18 Months
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Hi! I am Yunnie. I am the newly minted mama to a little baby girl and a mum friend to everyone on this special (and many times scary) journey of motherhood. Also a graduated bride with a penchant for weddings.

Hi! Thank you for taking time to read my blog. I am a stay-home Singaporean mama living in Seattle who is passionate about child-led and open-ended play for children in a conducive home environment.

Discovering Montessori and Reggio has been a life-changer for me. It made me an empathetic and mindful parent who follows my child’s needs and interests in the activities I plan at home. I hope the Montessori-friendly and Reggio inspired baby and toddler activities I share here inspire you too.

Happy reading!