Learning Through Play: Five Ways To Use A Sand Tray

Posted by Mandy Abel on

"Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning" ~ Fred Rogers 

With our beautiful Montessori sand trays arriving back in stock this week I thought I would do a wee write up on why we love it (and trays for play in general!)

Trays can be used in so many different ways and are an important tool in Montessori education to support a child's sensory exploration and development.

Benefits of Sensory Trays

Some of the benefits of the sand/sensory tray include:

  1. Sensory Experience: Providing a tactile and sensory experience for children. They can touch, feel and manipulate the sand with their hands, which stimulates and enhances their sensory perception.

  2. Fine Motor Skills: Manipulating the sand with tools like small rakes, scoops, spoons or their hands helps children refine their fine motor skills. Pouring, sifting and shaping the sand with different tools encourages hand-eye coordination, dexterity and finger strength.

  3. Concentration and Focus: Engaging with the sand tray requires concentration and focus. Children can spend extended periods exploring and creating patterns, designs or scenes in the sand, which helps develop their ability to concentrate and sustain attention.

  4. Language and Vocabulary Development: While playing in the sand, children may engage in conversations with peers or caregivers, describing what they are doing, asking questions and expressing their ideas. This process fosters language development, vocabulary expansion and communication skills.

  5. Creativity and Imagination: The sand tray offers an open-ended and non-prescriptive medium for children to express their creativity and imagination. They can create landscapes, build structures, draw shapes, or make patterns, providing an outlet for artistic expression and imaginative play.

  6. Emotional Regulation: The sand tray can also serve as a calming and therapeutic tool. Children can use it to express and work through emotions, such as stress, anxiety, or frustration, by shaping and reshaping the sand or engaging in repetitive movements. (We love adding a few drops of essential oil like lavender to bring a sense of calm to play!)

  7. Problem-Solving and Mathematical Concepts: Working with the sand tray promotes problem-solving skills as children experiment with different strategies to achieve their desired outcomes. They can explore mathematical concepts like measurement, volume, capacity and spatial relationships by pouring, filling, and comparing quantities of sand.

If you don't have sand, you can use any dry medium - @mikaedmundson has set up a little ocean world using rice which is perfect for scooping and can be reused many times (you could even colour it too!)

Learning through Play

Here are five ideas we often use at home, to take learning further through play:


Hide some stones, gems and dinosaurs in the sand and provide some tools for your little paleontologist! We have some beautiful fair trade scoops and vessels, but you can also use what you have around the home - a sieve, pastry or paint brush and a scoop or two make a beautiful sensory activity.

Add a book to extend learning and engagement (a favourite picture book or a more factual/non fiction book both work well - the Yuval Zommer range is a favourite in our home).

Your trays can just as easily be transformed into a construction site with diggers and trucks, an island for pirates to dig for buried treasure or a farmyard with 'mud' for the animals - whatever your child's current interest is.


Tracing letters into the sand is a great way to practice pre-writing skills - using fingers or a pen or brush. Add some wooden alphabet letters or flashcards to copy for further interest.


As with the alphabet - you can provide numbers or flashcards to copy. You could also hide some objects in the sand for little ones to dig out and count - natural treasures such as seed pods or shells, or our wooden ball sets are great for this type of activity.

Image Credit: @thewondersofplay for Qtoys - our wooden puzzles and educational resources are a perfect match for learning through play!


Practice those fine motor skills or set up a super sweet mindfulness activity by creating mandala patterns and more. Children can use their fingers or a wooden stylus - or simply press small stones or foraged treasures into the sand.


Water beads, sand, other dry mediums or even potion play! As with any wooden products we recommend thoroughly drying after use but there is no reason why things can't get a little messy! My little ones loved pouring and transferring when they were smaller - simply pop a couple of bowls and some scoops out and watch the magic happen.

A Montessori Staple

Wooden trays serve a practical purpose in Montessori classrooms and homes by maintaining the organisation and accessibility of activities or toys. The presence of trays in a child's play area promotes independence, orderliness and the development of motor skills through the transfer of items to and from the toy shelf.

Though a simple accessory, using it with sand or sensory mediums has many benefits. It can encourage holistic development by integrating sensory experiences, fine motor skills, cognitive exploration, language development and emotional regulation. This type of play offers a versatile and engaging platform for children to learn, create, and grow in a self-directed and purposeful manner.

Does the type of tray matter? Absolutely not! Our fair trade trays come with a sand leveller but you can use any tray you have in the kitchen or around the home for this purpose. We firmly believe it's always best to use what you already have, but thrift stores are also a great place to find affordable wooden trays in different sizes and styles too.

I would love to hear any other ideas for how you use your trays in play - let us know in the comments below!   

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