Creative Tinker Trays Ideas for Kids


My children love to build. They love building with anything from wooden blocks to sticks and stones. For an activity today, I wanted to create some tinker trays to give them an opportunity to create anything they wanted, given a tray of loose parts.

If you have never used tinker trays before, they are basically trays with a collection of loose parts. The objects can range from craft supplies to small building materials.

Children are presented with the tinker trays and use the loose parts to then create and build.

Children are not typically told what to make when working with tinker trays. They are given the opportunity to use their imagination and think creatively. They have to look at all of the loose parts and decide on a way to use them together to create something.

I used these trays at home with my children and in my kindergarten classroom on many occasions.

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One of the things that I love about tinker trays is that you can simply use materials that you have on hand. I typically walk around my classroom, or my kids toy area and choose a collection of random materials that we already have.

Some ideas for materials that I used for my tinker trays include:

  • Craft Supplies (Pipe cleaners, glue, cotton balls, beads etc.)
  • STEM Building Kit Materials
  • Foam Sheets and Brads
  • Car Building Kit (Kid Screwdrivers, Screws etc.)
  • Collection of Natural Items (Wood Slices, Wooden Figures, Pine Cones etc.)

With any tray you create, make sure that all materials are age appropriate and safe for the children using them. Supervise during all activities.

I made 5 trays for my children to explore and create with. I did not give any particular instructions on what I wanted them to build because I wanted to see what they could come up with on their own.

At each tray I had 4-5 children using and building with the materials.

Craft Tinker Tray

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Craft Material Tinker Tray

The craft material tinker tray included an assortment of craft supplies, from pom poms, pipe cleaners and beads to cotton balls and tissue paper.

The specific materials that you include are not important, just a variety of craft supplies allow children to freely create. I like adding a few supplies that children would not normally build with, such as elastics. It is interesting to see what they come up with.

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STEM Kit Tinker Trays

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Wheels and Axles Tinker Trays

The materials for this kit I accumulated over time. It includes wheels, axles, pulleys, and blocks. They can all attach to each other, which makes them perfect for building. (Link to kit is found at the bottom of the post. The materials shown are from several kits.)

Originally, from the kit, the pieces create a specific structure, however, they work really well as loose parts. Using these materials is also great practice to get children familiar with simple machines such as pulleys.

tinker trays

Children quickly figured out how the different pieces worked, and how they worked together. They had things spinning and moving in no time!

Foam and Connectors Tinker Tray

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Brads (clips) and Foam Strips Tinker Tray

This tinker tray was more popular than I anticipated! The only materials in this tray were sparkly foam sheets cut in various rectangles and brads.

The brads push through the sheets and then open to fasten so the parts are movable. This lead to some really interesting creations.

You can help children out by hole punching a hole in the foam for the brads to go through. The foam that I used was thin enough that the brads easily pierced through.

Some children started connecting them and spelling out different words. Other children attached the brads and explored how they moved – like joints on a person.

Natural Material Tray

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Natural Story Play Tinker Tray

This tinker tray included a variety of natural materials. From clear stones to wooden people, this tray was really popular with all of the children.

They explored balance with the wood slices and played around with with the people to create small story plays and settings.

I love using this collection of materials to create tinker trays. My children at home use this collection a lot. They love all of the natural pieces and freedom to create whatever they want from it.

Clear stones became water and a stream. Wood slices became trees. It was amazing to watch what the children’s imagination came up with.

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Tools Construction Tray

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Mechanic Tinker Tray

These loose parts were a great opportunity for kids to create and build using real screwdrivers and screws. The kit is for children so the pieces are meant for small hands.

There are a lot of small loose parts in this tinker tray. Make sure that it is age appropriate for all of the children who may be using it.

Children enjoyed this tinker tray because they had seen adults use some of the pieces before and liked having the opportunity to try it out themselves.

They were excited to take some of the pieces apart and put others together.

This tinker tray is also a great hands-on activity for real world experience. Some children stayed at this center for the whole period and worked to put the pieces together to create something amazing.

Tinker trays give children the opportunity to freely try out a variety of different materials. It is a great way for kids to explore possible new interests and talents.

tinker trays

Tinker trays are a great opportunity for kids to be creative and build at home, or at school. I am always amazed at what young kids envision, and then work to create, when they first see a bunch of loose parts.

The ideas varied from child to child, but they all love being given the opportunity to create.

More Hands-On Teaching Ideas

If you are looking for more hands-on learning activities for kids at home or at school, below is a collection of my favorite and most popular activities. From science experiments and escape rooms to art and math activities there are lots to keep kids engaged and learning.

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