I started a new job last week. I am the new atelierista (art teacher) at a Reggio based preschool close to where I live and I just love love love it! Reggio is a play based approach that I learned about several years ago and immediately fell in love with. There are several key elements to the Reggio approach to learning, which I will be sharing more and more about over time. Today, I want to focus on the idea of the environment as the teacher, a Reggio essential. In a Reggio classroom, the environment is carefully constructed and designed to engage active learners who are inspired to think, ponder and create. I spent the last week or so setting up our atelier (art studio) and one of the things I had the most fun creating was our tinker tray. I’m so excited to tell you about it because it’s something anyone can do, and is an absolute home run for engaging younger and older children.
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If you follow my blog, you know I an a thrift store junkie. Yes, I have a problem. I have always been attracted to compartmentalized drawers or trays, like the one in the pics. I come across them fairly often, either with a cover or without and pretty much every time I see one, I buy it. A good price for one of these is about 10-12 dollars and if you’re lucky you can find one for even less. There are so many possibilities for a tray like this and a tinkering tray is a great one.
First, look for objects around the house or outside that look interesting. If you have kids, I’m sure you have a lot of stuff to chose from. I try to stick with natural elements, like stones, twigs, crystals and pieces of wood. Other items might be marbles, shredded paper, dried beans, nuts and bolts, keys and toothpicks. Basically, you want to fill your tinker tray with anything that might be interesting to feel, look at, play with or construct with. Once you have your tray organized you’re ready to get going. *If you aren’t able to do a thrift store or flea market shop for a tray, maybe you have an old Melissa and Doug tray laying around that could work. They don’t always have as many compartments but it can still work. Here’s an example. Or maybe you can make one from cardboard to look something like this. Or, make your life super easy and buy this great one on amazon.
Okay, once you have your tray set up, there are lots of ways to enjoy it. We started with small round mirror trays as a base for mandalas or whatever the kids came up with. I work with young children, so a provocation, or invitation to play, needs to be open ended and engaging. What I love about the mirrors is they are an activity in them self. Kids can come over, look at their reflection, pick them up, look at other reflections and then decide how they want to use them with the objects. If you don’t have mirrors to use, which you very well may not, you can try a piece of wood wrapped in tinfoil or a regular tray or a round lid from a container. There is no right or wrong way to do this.
Gigi jumped right in when she saw the materials. It cracked me up that her first thought was to blow right through the cardboard tubes that were in the tray. Ha! Something I had never thought of. Since other kids will be using the tray, I replaced these after she used them but her response was right on. “Hey, I can make bubbles!” she said. We recently saw this awesome activity on a tv show, so I knew just what she was thinking. Next, she noticed the gems and was very interested in filling her mirror tray with them. “Look mama, I can move them all around,” as she slid each one with her finger making sliding noises. This kind of investigation engages the senses, promotes critical thinking and demonstrates cause and effect, all while having fun.
I have spent a lot of time doing art and sensory play with my children. If this is something new, you might want to sit with your children first and explain that the objects in the tray are very special. They are there to explore and create with, but not to throw or make a mess with. Of course, there is going to be some objects that spill or get on the floor, just like with any project. If you’re worried about it, you can put an art tarp or drop cloth or sheet down on the floor and do this activity directly on the floor. Or, try putting the tray in one big shallow tub so everything stays somewhat contained. This tray is meant to be used over and over. When you’re done with it, you can store it in a tub or on a shelf and bring it out as desired.
Mirror trays are just one way to explore the tinker trays. Next we are going to use slabs of clay and see what happens. I’ll be sure to post pictures so you can see. Play dough would be fun as well. You can also try clear contact paper taped sticky side up to a piece of cardboard. The idea of the tinker tray is to let kids tinker! Let them have ideas and create and ask questions and be encouraged to keep going. What would you do if you had all these materials at your disposal? Would you line them all up? Make some mosaic art? Maybe you’d glue everything together and make a big sculpture. The possibilities are endless and that is the gift I want to give to the children in my classroom.
If you are intrigued by tinker trays and the Reggio Emelia approach to learning, I recommend you check out this site. There are tons of great ideas there. You can find some Reggio inspired art projects here and here that are really fun for kids. Most of all, I hope you are inspired to let your children create. You never know what idea they might tinker up. Have fun!
*Note* I wrote this post almost a year ago. I’ve since learned a ton about tinker trays. To learn along with me and get over 10 ideas for how to use them, click here or on the pic below.