When you want an activity that will keep your kids off screen and engaged in imaginative and pretend play look no further than adding their favorite open-ended toy to a tray filled with a sensory material.
My child's favorite toys are his toy vehicles of all sorts. Cars, busses, trucks, trains, diggers. If it has wheels, he loves it. It's a common favorite toy and a sensory tray with toy cars is a great distraction activity for toddlers and preschoolers.
What is a sensory tray?
A sensory tray is a tray, like a baking pan or large shallow bucket, filled with a medium that provides a unique sensory experience. It can be rice, sand, beans, shredded paper, etc. The list is endless. A sand-box is essentially a giant sensory tray.
Your child can play in the sensory tray with items like sifting tools or digging implements, but for extra fun, toys are a great addition to any sensory tray experience.
How to Make a Toy Car Sensory Tray
Once you understand how a sensory tray works, you can put together your own to suit the unique interests of your child.
What you need:
Large tray. We used a cookie sheet that had a lip to it.
Sensory material. We used rice because I had a big bag that was so old it would have taken ages to cook and soften. If you don't like using food stuffs, there are many other materials to choose from.
You'll want to be careful to use a medium that is appropriate for your child's age. For children under 3, avoid items they could choke on. Always supervise your children during this activity.
Toys. In case you missed it the first dozen times, we used toy vehicles. Other ideas include toy animals, blocks, small dolls, etc.
Pour the sensory material onto the tray. For toy vehicles, it was nice to have only a think layer of rice. That way, driving the car along the tray created paths and roads.
If you are worried about mess, don't be. However, if it so happens that you don't want rice all over the place, place tray on the table or other work surface covered with paper, towel or sheet.
As you can see from the photo below, it may or may not be effective. But you probably own a broom, so no big deal.
For the final step, let the kids explore the items in the sensory tray however they want!
Originally published 2011, updated 2023.