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Leveling Up your Centers with Tray Tasking

Have you ever heard of tray tasking? If not, don’t worry, it is not as fancy as it sounds, but it does hold some serious magic when paired with centers. So, we’re going to talk about the what, why, where and how of using tray tasking.

What Is Tray Tasking?

For me, tray tasking is placing an activity on a tray and placing it in the corresponding center. Sounds pretty simple, right? That’s because it is.

Why You Should Consider Tray Tasking

So why use trays, why not just put the activity on the shelf or on the table, or put it in a container or a basket? Let me tell you about the magic of trays, it’s all about the natural confines of a tray, the lip of the tray, the size of the tray, plus the awesome ability to be able to move the activity to a table or to the ground. That’s why I am in love with trays, because when it’s just on the shelf, it’s hard to take all the pieces with them. It’s hard to make sure that pieces stay together.

The natural boundary of a tray tells children- this is where the pieces to this activity go and this is where they stay. Also, I love trays instead of baskets, or containers because you can better see what’s on the tray rather than in the basket. When it’s on the shelf, if it’s in a basket or container, they may not be able to tell exactly what is inside. When it’s on a tray, the activity and its pieces are easily seen and that makes it more inviting.

Where To Use Tray Tasking

Where can we use these trays? I like to use tray tasking in our playful learning centers. These are the centers that need some scaffolding and some specific activity while also being a choice. For me, these are the Math Center, the Science Center, the Writing Center and the Literacy Center. They’re the centers that need a little bit more structure. I’ve found in the past that if I just put items in there and don’t really have a little bit of a structure or a scaffold or an idea behind how to use the materials, children just pick them up, look at them, put them back down and walk away. They don’t really interact with them. And so I wanted to create some activities that were more teacher driven, but child chosen. And those centers work fantastic for tray tasking.

How To Use Tray Tasking

We’ve talked about the what, why and where let’s move to how to use tray tasking. I think that there are two different ways that you can introduce tray tasking. I’ve used both of these and I think they both work well, for different types of trays.

First, you can introduce these activities that are on the tray in a small group or the whole group, and then place them in the center. Maybe in a small group, you actually play a game that’s on the tray and then they’re familiar with it. They can then go and do that independently in the center. Or maybe you introduce what’s on the tray and you model it in whole group, get that excitement built up, and then put it in the center.

The other way that I like to go ahead and introduce this idea of a tray task is to teach in the moment. Some of these activities don’t need a whole lot of instruction, but maybe just a little bit. This is when I can watch for a student to go to that center and come over to teach them how it works. Then naturally other children watch them. Or I make one child “the expert”. If one child already understands how to do the tray, and another child comes and asks how to do it, I’ll say “oh, let’s ask our expert”. And then we’ll have the expert come and explain it.

Examples of Tray Tasking

So you may be thinking, well, this is great, but I would love some examples. I’m going to talk you through some that you can also do.

Math Center Trays

Let’s start with the math center because I feel like this is the absolute easiest center to incorporate trays. We might have lots of different math manipulatives that we can just put on a tray to make even more engaging.

So one example might be using puff balls in to an ice cube tray. This practices one to one correspondence, sorting, you can add some tweezers and then you’ve got some fine motor skills. Maybe they will even count them while they’re there. So this is one that is super easy. And the confines of the tray really, really helped because it keeps everything together. On the tray you may have a container of puffballs, you will have the ice cube tray and you might have the tweezers to have them, pinch them to transfer them over to the ice cube tray. All of the pieces can stay on the tray. And they know that those all go together.

Another thing that you could easily do in the Math Center is just do some sorting bears. I put a handful of sorting beards on the tray. Then I have different colored bowls to sort them into. This works great for the beginning of the year as more of a simple tray task to start with. You can also add in some fine motor by adding pinchers, or maybe even the bug catchers depending on how big your bears are.

Another thing we absolutely love to do for the math center is games. These are very, very simple games. For example, a fill it up game where they’re just rolling a dice, seeing the numeral and adding that many pieces.

We had one not very long ago, that was apples. They rolled the dice and they saw the numeral and then added that many apple erasers to their tree. When it was all filled up, then they were finished. This was something I showed them how to play in small groups. That meant I also got some eyes on whether my friends were starting to be able to recognize their numerals, and whether they were able to count with one to one correspondence. I then I put this over in the math center for them to play by themselves. And this always works fantastic because they find it familiar and they know how to play it.  They love to play it again, so that’s a great place to put it!

Literacy Center Trays

One idea that we have is there is a sheet on there that has an umbrella, and it has all the letters that are supposed to be like raindrops. They pull letter cards out of a basket, look at the letter card, find the match on the mat, and they cover it with a dragon tear to make it look like a raindrop.

They’re working on matching numerals, looking at those similarities and differences, visually discriminating between the letters. So that is a simple one we can also play during small group. Think about anything that you do, any activity or any set of manipulatives that you may have, whatever it may be, think about what you could put on a tray to entice them to this center, and to get them learning with intention in a playful way that they have chosen.

Science Center Trays

Let’s move to the Science Center because this is where I feel like we have had the absolute most success in adding trays. For reference, before my science center was a little dull. It has lots of things to manipulate, but not necessarily a lot of intention or direction behind it. I wanted children just to be able to explore the materials that were there. But I found as I observed them, they didn’t quite know what to do. So instead they went over they touched some things then they put them back down and walked away. It  took my teaching partner looking at me and saying, “I think we can do better than that”. And she was absolutely right. She came up with the idea of tray tasking inside the science center and it is working absolutely beautifully.

Some examples of that might be: our bugs and insects science center…we have some big bug manipulatives and they have a bug report. They can draw their bug and they can check off which bug it is. We’re bringing a little bit of science into the writing piece of it. Because they’re looking at their bug, they’re evaluating their bug, and then they’re actually writing about their bug. On that tray, we have the bug report, we have the bug manipulatives, we have crayons, and we also have as many visual instructions as possible, so that they can start to read those by using the visuals.

Also, during our holiday theme, we have a holiday Science Center setup. We do an activity where I took an old Kleenex box, wrapped it in red paper, put in some items in there. It’s more of like a touch and feel. There is a small cookie cutter in there, a bow, a candy cane, a pinecone, a bell and an ornament. They reach in and they try to figure out what it is by looking at the mat that is also on the tray. They feel it with their hands, and they try to guess which one it is and then they pull it out, see if they were right and match it onto the mat on the tray.

Last example for this science center, is for rocks, fossils and shells. We have a small tub filled with sand where we hide rocks, fossils and shells and then we have a mat where they can sort. They sort the rocks in one section, the fossils in another, and the shells in another. It adds a little extra engagement because they’re searching through the sand to try to find those pieces before sorting them. Now, we could just put them in a container, right, we could put the rock shells and fossils in a container and just have them pull them out and sort them…and that works too. But sometimes it’s fun to add a little extra to really boost that engagement as well. 

Types of Trays

I know you’re probably going to ask what type of trays are best. When you’re looking for trays and when you look at the pictures of the trays I have, you’re going to notice that I mainly use one type of tray. The ones that we love that we can’t say enough good things about are the trays from Lakeshore Learning called Easy Clean craft trays. They come in a set of four and they are amazing because of the lip that is on them! They are really easy to clean, and they’re sturdy, they’re not going to break. If someone drops it, it’s certainly not going to break or crack. These have been amazing, and we have several sets of them, because they work so incredibly well.

But we also have regular trays from the Dollar Tree and from the Target dollar spot and those work well.  I like to be mindful when I’m putting an activity on a tray that the pieces aren’t going to fall off.

Also, a couple of years ago target had these amazing trays with like four little divots or cups in them along side of that tray and you’ll see that in the picture too. And that one is amazing for manipulatives because you can already put those little manipulatives in the little dips in the tray and it works so fantastically. So, when you’re out and about keep an eye out for trays!

We also use a lot of small containers, whether it be like little plastic containers for them to sort or chip trays that are divided. We look for lots of different little pieces because we use containers on the tray to further help organize the play.

How To Set Up a Tray Task

So, if you haven’t done tray tasking before, let me walk you through it.

Step 1- Decide on this skill that you’d like to focus on. Because remember, tray tasking is more teacher driven, but still gives the child a choice because it’s in the center. It’s a choice for them to explore…but it’s more driven based on the skills that you want to focus on. So which skill do you want to focus on? And most of the time, these trays are meeting tons of different skills. We were seeing lots of different skills in just one tray. But what is your main focus that you would like to focus on?

Step 2- Decide on the materials you’d like to use and then place it all on the tray. Look at the tray and think about a preschooler touching it. Is there any way to make it more engaging by adding tweezers? A small sensory bin? Novelty items? Silly things? Things that they just might enjoy that might you know (smelly markers)? Also think about if you need to add another small container to kind of contain some of the pieces?

Step 3- Decide how you want to introduce the tray. Do you want to introduce it through whole group? Do you want to use it during small group? Or is it just going to be a tray that you put out, and if needed you teach within the moment?

So that brings us to the end of me telling you all the things about tray tasking! And let me just tell you it has seriously leveled up my center game! It’s the reason that I can encourage skill practice through fun, engaging and organized ways. We know how hard it is to keep materials separate when we’re putting them out in centers. So trays and their natural limits really help this, it’s really become a take and play solution.

Guide to Preschool Centers

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