Yes, Montessori at home is about so much more than setting up tray activities for your child. The truth is that you (your mindset and how you interact with your child) are the most important part of your prepared environment at home!
It is also true that it's through working with the hands that your child will meet inner developmental needs such as being able to control and coordinate movement and being able to concentrate.
Part of preparing your home to support your child's natural development is providing opportunities for working with the hands. Much of this will come through everyday practical life activities, but you may also want to set up a few activities on a shelf that isolate specific skills.
Here are 10+ activities that you can set up using the same divided tray. This is not a checklist but rather some inspiration for creating your own tray activities at home using what you have. Thrift stores are wonderful for finding divided trays. Simply switch out the contents to keep things fresh, perhaps even repurposing items from one activity to make a new one.
You'll have to observe your child to figure out what activity might appeal most to your child's interests that will also present just the right amount of challenge. Be prepared to remove an activity from the shelf if it doesn't entice your child. Your journey as a Montessori parent will ask you to get comfortable with trying things out and seeing how your child responds.
Spooning / Transfer Work
Transferring beans from one dish to another using a spoon is one of the early practical life activities in a Montessori classroom with children who are around 3 years old. Toddlers are often more interested in dumping the contents!
Make sure the spoon is the right size for your child to handle. I found this beautiful wooden spoon at a thrift store, but it was a little too long so I cut it down, sanded the end and finished it with some beeswax polish.
Children can do also this transfer work with lentils, pumpkin seeds, chickpeas, rice and so on. Switch up the contents to keep the activity fresh. I'd stay away from transferring things like pompoms and marbles since children under 6 years old are figuring out how the world works (Dr. Montessori called this process "adaptation") and we don't normally use a spoon in that way.
Nuts & Bolts
Most Montessori preschool classrooms will have a nuts and bolts activity on the practical life shelf, and you can easily set up your own version at home. This one has three bolts of the same size, with 1.5 inch bolts and 1/2 inch nuts. A slightly more challenging version would include nuts and bolts of three different sizes, or a set of very small nuts and bolts. If you wish you can add a small table mat to place the nuts and bolts on before starting the work.
Be sure to model the tripod grip (thumb, pointer and middle finger) when holding the head of the bolt in one hand and also when turning the nut with the other hand. Your child will hold the nuts and bolts however they can manage it best, but you can still model the tripod grip as indirect preparation for holding a pencil.
Other points of interest include aligning the threads of the nut and bolt, slowing down when screwing the nut near the head of the bolt to avoid over tightening it and slowing down when the nut is close to coming off the bolt and then removing it slowly.
Locks & Keys
Also commonly found on the practical life shelf of a Montessori classroom, locks and keys is an activity that's easy to set up at home. Normally there would be three sets (small, medium, large), but sometimes you've just got to go with what you've got!
To present this activity to your child, unroll a small table mat and place the large lock on the mat with the keyhole facing down. Repeat for the small lock. Then place the large key opposite the large lock. Repeat for the small key. When you pick up the large lock, rotate it up so your child sees the keyhole on the bottom, then insert the large key.
Points of interest are matching the key to the correct lock, aligning the teeth on the key to the keyhole, turning the hasp 180 degrees to completely unlock it, aligning the hasp over the hole to close to the lock, and listening for the noise to indicate the lock is locked or unlocked.
Sorting objects into a two-part tray is one of those activities that has nearly limitless possibilities. Buttons, beads, nuts, beans, seeds, shells, marbles, paper clips, elastic bands, screws, bolts and washers are just a few ideas. Think about how you can repurpose some of the materials used in other activities to create your own sorting activity.
Toddlers could use the visual sense to sort larger objects that are quite distinct. A 3 year old could refine the visual sense by sorting objects where the difference is not so obvious. A 4 year old could wear a blindfold during the activity to develop the stereognostic sense. This is the ability to visualize mentally without using your eyes.
Cutting with scissors
To set up your child for success, use child-size scissors that are sharp. When you are showing your child how to use the scissors, a point of interest is that the scissors stay in position and it is only the paper that travels into the blades. Hold the blades of the scissors over the empty side of the divided tray so the paper falls into it as it is cut.
This tray has pieces of paint chips with a white line to show where to cut in a straight line. Normally, though, a child will have first had practice with cutting snippets from a narrow strip of paper. Cutting in a straight line is followed by cutting serpentine (wavy) lines and then cutting zig zag lines.
This activity is simply winding a length of yarn or twine around a spool. A point of interest is holding the end in place on the spool with one hand while using the other hand to slowly wind the yarn around until it holds the end in place. And remember to model using the tripod grip to hold the yarn while winding it!
Your child may enjoy sanding blocks of wood or even a stick he or she has picked up during a nature walk. Contour sanding sponges are easy to cut to make them the right size for a child and they don't tear like regular sandpaper.
Using Elastic Bands
Part of preparing tray activities for your child is thinking through how you will present the activity. This involves doing the activity first by yourself and analyzing your movements so you have it down before showing your child.
To show your child how to use elastic bands via an activity like the one in this divided tray, maybe you'll first select two wood prisms, setting them down one at a time on the table. Then you might use one hand to pick up an elastic band and stretch it around the thumb, pointer finger and middle finger of your other hand. Then you could use your free hand to pick up the two wood prisms again and stretch the elastic band around them.
Using Paper Clips
An added challenge to this activity is matching the paper clip with two or more pieces of paper of the same color. You get another opportunity to model the tripod grip when squeezing the paperclip to open it!
Stringing or threading beads is another fine motor activity that offers many variations and will develop your child's hand-eye coordination. You can use yarn, twine, cord or even a shoelace with a knot at one end. Small beads with a small hole will present more of a challenge. This divided tray holds just the quantity of beads that will fit on the length of cord. I taped the end so that it is stiff and feeds easily through the wooden beads.