Tray Tasking As Authenic Learning Tool
By Vicky Folds, Ed.D.

A typical classroom is equipped with developmentally appropriate learning materials, child-sized furniture, learning centers that have a balance between busy and quiet areas, and a schedule designed to accommodate a particular age group of children. It may seem that the classroom is completed, but is it finished? Early childhood teachers are always seeking new ways to offer more than just the basics. To meet those needs, consider adding a Tray Tasking Learning Center that challenges young children's minds and instills an instant level of satisfaction every time the child engages in a Tray Task.


What Is a Tray Task? 

Tray Tasking engages children in activities that promote the whole body preparation needed for the development of formal reading and writing skills while having fun. Children use practical, easy, and familiar household items as learning tools to strengthen eye and hand coordination and left to right progression. The main criteria for the use of common household items is that they possess the function, moveable parts, sizing, flexibility, and construction needed to reinforce whole body movement.     


Trays are set up with two important directionalities in mind: Top to bottom and left to right; the same principles for formal reading and writing. A child manipulates the items organized on a tray using movements that require them to engage their eyes, arms, and hands in top-to-bottom and left-to-right directions. Tray activities are usually displayed on open shelving as a learning center area.  It's helpful to designate a table next to the shelves to become the Tray Task Table. 


Assembling a Tray Task

To create a Tray Tasking activity, begin with a turkey baster and two clear plastic bowls on a horizontal, rectangular tray. The arrangement of the tools is just as important as the purpose of the task. The bowls are to be placed side by side. Partially fill the bowl on the left with water. Add one drop of food coloring to add interest. Place the baster horizontally across the top of the tray. The directionality of the items is intended so that the child will pick up the baster from the top of the tray (top-down direction needed for reading and writing), tip the baster into the water filled bowl (left side), grasp the bulb and cause water to enter the baster and transfer the water from left to right, releasing the water into the bowl on the right side (another important directionality necessary for reading and writing). The challenge is to transfer the water without spilling it onto the tray. Children will usually pick up the baster with two hands (until they master a one-hand approach), concentrate while trying to squeeze the baster bulb (strengthening finger muscles) and focus on the challenge of the task. 


Documenting Tray Tasking 

To document Tray Task learning, print a list of the children's first names and attach it to the table. When a child completes the task, she simply checks off her name as the teacher evaluates the task. This gives the teacher a chance to observe to see if the child crosses the midline, completes the task, and moves in a left to right direction and other traits. The findings can then be documented onto a checklist and into the child's portfolio. Establish a recording system by using a check mark for satisfactory completion of a task, writing 'WTH' if the child completes 'with teacher's help,' or leaving the space blank when wanting to provide another opportunity for the child to complete the task.  


Observation Guidelines from Maria Montessori

When children engage in Tray Tasking, the adult can see the child actually strengthening grasp control, focusing on his ability to coordinate movement, and discover how to complete a task. It is the child who is motivated through the task to persist until completion. In this way, Tray Tasking permits a teacher to teach little but observe much. We can generate observation guidelines through an early childhood theorist, Maria Montessori, (1870-1952) that still apply today:


Observation is the first role of the  teacher to

            a   Understand the needs of the child.

            b.  Observe the child objectively in order to determine the best approach.


As observers, teachers should

            a.   Act as the observer and initiator rather than the intruder.            

            b.    Not interrupt a child's attempt, just observe the outcomes.

            c.    Remain calm and open-minded.

            d.    Observe as if all attempts are to be regarded as important indicators.


Appropriate approaches to observation include

            a.     Observing in such a way as to not cause a child to become nervous.

            b.     Employing the technique of  'observing while walking.' 


Piaget's Influence                                             

Jean Piaget's (1897-1980) cognitively based theory provides another influence for Tray Tasking. Piaget contends that a child learns new knowledge every day and builds upon that knowledge depending on the learning environment and how she applies the new knowledge to learning situations. Piaget refers to the learning of new knowledge as 'assimilating and how the child uses that knowledge as 'accommodating These actions are observed through Tray Tasking. As a child acts upon the environment, she revisits existing information and adds the new piece of information in the brain. Thus, the child is accommodating new information that creates a new level of knowledge about a particular learning episode. For example, yesterday Johnny selected a Tray Tasking activity to complete. He investigated the materials and its purpose, transferring water from the left to the right bowl. He attempted to pick up the transfer tool and move the water from one bowl to another. Today, he approaches the Tray Task with more confidence, with a memory of having used the materials. His ability to control the transfer tool, increase his attention span, and complete the task is reached with more satisfaction.  The child achieves what Piaget's refers to as 'equilibration.' The child has balanced his assimilating and accommodating abilities as part of a self-regulatory mechanism necessary to ensure the development of his interaction within the environment. This process happens all the time when a child is discovering and learning new knowledge. Thus, from birth and throughout life, individuals in their perpetual quest for learning, continually construct knowledge.


Communicating Tray Task Learning to Parents

Teachers can also demonstrate a Tray Task during parent/teacher conferences to show families its function as an authentic assessment tool. Conferences are a good time to explain how the following body movements and motions develop as children begin to master reading and writing skills.

  • Crossing the midline
  • Eye/hand coordination  
  • Arm and wrist muscle strengthening  
  • The use of both hands in harmonized ways  
  • Grasping control

The crossing of the midline, for example, is an important movement that must be exercised during early formative years. This movement can be accomplished during a variety of play activities, such as painting at an art easel, drawing on a chalkboard, telling a story on a flannel board, moving to music, and participating in Tray Tasks. 




Vicki Folds, Ed.D., has been an early childhood educator and consultant specializing in early education and management for 30 years. Currently, she is an adjunct professor with Nova/Southeastern University, Broward Community College, and Palm Beach Community College. She's also an NAEYC validator, a CDA Rep and past president of ECA of FL, an affiliate of NAEYC. Her latest book, Tray Tasking, is published through: Thomson Delmar Learning