Why We Do Montessori Trays: An Environment of Yes


Last week I shared a preview of our Valentine’s shelves on my Facebook feed. I had been asked by a couple of Facebook friends to keep them updated when we had new activities on the blog, so this seemed like an efficient way of doing so. However, posting anything in social media where it may be viewed by people who have very different viewpoints can sometimes lead to unexpected responses.

A Facebook friend messaged me, very concerned for Ella and the regimented, too-academic focus that she was concerned that I had created for my two and a half year old. The person was acting from a kind-hearted place and I personally always want to be open to different thoughts and criticisms, but I realized how misunderstood the Montessori way is for people who are so used to disastrous toy rooms and the chaos most assume naturally accompanies children wherever they go.

That is simply not the Montessori way.

Personally, we use a mix of Montessori and Reggio, but today, I will focus on why Montessori is set-up the way that it is, and specifically, the use of tray work

Above is a pair of trays that were available on Ella’s Valentine’s shelf set-up. The left tray has a bunch of paint chips, a heart punch-out, and a small bowl to empty the hearts into. The right tray contains a glue stick and a stretched canvas on frame for Ella to attach the hearts onto.
Perhaps in a typical non-Montessori home environment the heart punch-out would be available in an art room or art cupboard, or possibly only available when a parent initiates the work. With Montessori, Ella has constant access to materials that she has “mastered” and then a couple of trays with new materials to learn about. The placement on a tray is for several reasons:
  • it normalizes the activity, presenting it in a self-explanatory and progressive way
  • children are able to engage when they are interested, revisiting the same tray and work over and over if they want to, or avoiding a tray until they are compelled to (internally or through gentle prompting)
  • it removes frustration or distraction by providing what is needed
  • isolated (new) skills
  • reverence for materials and awareness that it is a new material expected to be used in a certain way
  • orderly work environment provided for the child, despite their ability to set-up orderly work stations by themselves
With the heart punch-out, by presenting small strips of paper and a small bowl not only does the tray explain to Ella what she is allowed to punch out at this time, it normalizes a care of materials and orderly work environment that she will be able to recreate when the heart punch-out is eventually stored in her art cart and cabinet, rather than presented on a tray. She’s not going to get halfway through haphazard punching of odd bits of material before realizing the punch-out chamber should be emptied, or have to interrupt her work to find a suitable container for the escalating amount of heart confetti (or have confetti all over her work environment).
Ella was entranced and proud of her ability to operate the heart punch, and she revisited the work three times in two days. There is no way that I would know that she would want to do the same craft activity over and over again that many times and be able to initiate that, so by giving her the freedom to access the tray and isolate the skill, she gains experience and confidence.
(Some really horrible late-night phone pictures that were not meant for the blog. The only thing that was “corrected” was her W-sit! I love how proud she was throughout the process, and how confidently she progressed through the two trays. BTW, that heart-lid holding the excess, that was her idea.)

When it came to the second tray, Ella preferred to switch out the glue stick for white glue and dotted the glue at various points around the canvas before attaching several hearts. At one point, she smooshed and rubbed the glue with her fingers over a third of the canvas and we described how sticky and gooey it felt. She did not rub the glue in her hair or do anything that would construe misuse of materials to me, so this was just part of our exploration. I hope to provide this as an example of how Montessori is not rigid — but rather, normalizing. Ella can switch out materials for other preferred ones, or smoosh the glue into the canvas all she wants, as long as that glue isn’t being smooshed into her hair, or onto the walls, etc, she is free to familiarize herself and learn with the materials. Further, by noticing that the paint is on a separate tray that the heart punch, Ella is invited to think why they are not placed together — works can be borrowed or switched out, but there is a thought process involved.
Montessori creates an environment of “yes.” My daughter can go up to any tray and confidently select it knowing that she has the opportunity to explore and learn. She can find a teapot full of pink tea and know that its all hers to pour and sip, and she knows where the tea towels are if there is a small spill. She knows that the heart punch is all hers and available for her to go back to and revisit that satisfying punch through the cardstock and see a clearly defined silhouette removed from each strip. She doesn’t have to ask, she doesn’t have to wait, she doesn’t have to worry.
Of course, what I often show on the blog is her “work” — Ella also has a separate “play room” (which is half of our living room), but even there, the toys are set up in an orderly way, often using baskets and trays to group items together. This empowers Ella to put her toys away herself, and allows her to focus and find what she wants to play with rather than having her empty out toy bins searching for her toys. Clean up is easy for her, and she never experiences a stressed out mom surrounded by a giant mess because our environment simply isn’t set up in way that invites mess. (Honestly, I’m much more likely to make a mess than she is. Much more.)
Having a Montessori home — from our extended light switches to our work trays to our small kitchen tools — has helped me empower my daughter to be “confident and capable,” which has been a blessing to me and I hope will create amazing opportunities for her.
How have you set up your home to help your child be confident and capable?

Similar Posts


  1. A Wonderful explanation. Thank you for taking such time to write it out. I am quite interested in the Montessori but I have not utilized the trays…now I know why it is important to use them. Thanks again!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.