A Tale of Two (and Half) Trays

This tale begins with it was the best of times, the really, really best of times. Two of our age group classes were charged with exploring the uses of a simple wooden tray given to us by Karen Hewitt and the Learning Materials Workshop. Where could a wooden tray take us? The Learning Materials Workshop's website tells us that founder, Karen Hewitt, places "an emphasis on the importance of open-ended play as a generative experience and rich source for fantasy and form-making is ever-present in her work."

I am happy to share that this simple tray brought us exactly that kind of play. We opened the discussion about how to use it with the 4 and 5-year olds. What would you do with this tray? The first idea offered was "build a bridge." This was because the tray looked so substantial. We experimented with this idea, but the children quickly saw that their hopes for having another opportunity to climb on furniture would not be supported using this particular piece of wood.

We talked about how there are options for layers -- there is the lower surface (the bottom of the tray) and then the possibility of covering or revealing that surface with a sliding lid. Since we were reading fairy tales and using lots of maps in our dramatic play, it made sense to transfer mapping opportunities to this new, large, but not large enough to stand in or on, tray. The children thought that we could make a moveable, dimensional map in miniature. The paintings the children made to line the bottom of the tray are described on the child art retrospective blog.

I asked one of our co-oping parents to cut a design into four pieces of black mat board with a router. These pieces could slide into the channels,to cover and reveal the layer below. While I was waiting for those pieces to come together days passed, and as any teacher knows, ideas began to flow. Karen had included a strip of mylar and it, along with this idea of reveal/conceal, it reminded me of a children's poetry writing class I taught years and years ago. I asked the children to use mirrors to look at the reflected world behind them for inspiration. Through the looking glass. Things familiar, but quite different.

Then, I found a similar size tray at the thrift shop. This tray is covered in deep blue velvet. What if the tray became a tactile experience with the deep blue providing a soft backdrop with a reveal in touch and even sound? And wait there is more! Two other themes were taking shape in short order. The imaginary play space is dressed as outer space and we are reading the book, The Seeing Stick by Jane Yolen. In outer space, the 3- and 4-year olds cannot get enough of troublesome alien eggs and the 4- and 5-year olds are interested in exploring the world without sight. And these two these ended up playing a very big role in how both of the trays were put to use.

Magic happened. This is an adventure best told through pictures, but to give you a brief overview...there was BIG drama, there was exploration with hands, hearts, and minds, and there was certainly beauty through the use of a simple tray and how children naturally explore through open-ended play. What I did not know before we started this pursuit is that the children could take a tray and provide so many contexts for it. It was truly enjoyable. Make sure to click on the toggle, show info, in order to see the photo captions. The photo collection shows both the 3- and 4-year olds and the 4- and 5-year olds groups.