Montessori sand tray for handwriting
In my previous post, I discussed the metal insets, a lesson that helps prepare young children for writing. The next lesson in the Montessori handwriting series is the sand tray.
When I started teaching in the classroom sixteen years ago, I immediately noticed that the sand tray was a big hit with the youngest three-year-olds.
Although my daughter, Annie, is five years old and still loves exploring writing in the sand! There is something so calming and wonderful about drawing and making forms in the sand with your fingers.
What I like about this work is that your child can practice writing a letter in the sand, and if they feel that they made a mistake or didn’t like what they made, they can always shake the tray and start all over again.
In this post, I’ll share how to do the sand writing tray lesson I learned from my teacher training. I’ll also share variations of the lesson and how it went with Annie at home!
In This Post
Why is the Montessori sand tray imporant?
The sand writing tray benefits young children because it helps with the tactile experience of forming shapes and letters. The sand in the tray is another form of direct handwriting preparation in the Montessori handwriting sequence, like the metal insets.
Tracing the sandpaper letters with the fingers gives your child “the feel” of the letter symbol and, at the same time, reinforces the strokes needed to create it. Then, your child traces the letter in the sand to get the sensory feeling of writing the letter.
The sand writing tray helps your child with:
- tactile-kinesthetic feedback for hands and whole body
- the development of movements necessary for writing/letter formation
- developing tactile, visual, and auditory recognition of letters
Exploring writing letters in a sensory tactile way also helps with muscle memory and will be beneficial when your child is ready to form letters with a pencil.
I wrote a great deal about direct handwriting preparation as well as the pre-writing skills young children need to prepare for writing with a pencil. To read more about this, check out my post:
How to do the sand writing tray lesson
What you will need
- A flat, shallow tray
- fine material for tracing, for example sand. You could also try rice or similar dry material.
- optional: a mat or protective cover for the table because sand can scratch some table surfaces.
- optional: cleaning supplies nearby (dustpan, broom, table crumber)
- sandpaper letters (for presentation 2). You can make your own DIY sandpaper letters. Check out my blog post: Montessori Sandpaper Letters: 3 Easy Ideas To DIY At Home
* Sign up for the Resources Library at the bottom of this post if you’d like to download the sandpaper letters printables I made. If you’re a subscriber, check my newest email for the updated password.
Step-by-step: sand in the tray
As you see in the photos, we experimented with different-sized trays and colored sand. We tried a tiny, flat wooden tray, which Annie loved! It was small enough for her to fill the tray with sand independently.
Presentation 1: Shapes
Fill the tray with enough sand to cover its surface.
Sit on your child’s dominant side.
Demonstrate tracing a large circle in the sand. Be sure to go counterclockwise to prepare for writing. Use two fingers (index and middle) of your dominant hand.
Invite the child to trace. Shake the tray gently to erase the circle.
Your child traces the circle in the sand with two fingers of the dominant hand.
Your child shakes the tray gently to erase the circle.
Demonstrate different shapes with two fingers.
After each demonstration, shake the tray to erase the form. Your child repeats the shape presented and erases it. Your child continues drawing shapes independently.
Annie enjoyed drawing shapes as well as pictures in the sand. She drew a picture of a heart and put a heart-shaped rose quartz in the center, which I thought was sweet. It reminded me of a sensory zen garden!
Presentation 2: Letters
For the child who has been learning sounds and symbols with the sandpaper letters and can trace the graphic symbol with a smooth, even finger stroke (staying on the sandpaper), at this point, it is appropriate to present the letter writing in the sand.
Your child practices the movements to make the letters by watching you, the adult. Then, your child will use these movements to make letters by practicing tracing letters in the sand.
Obtain a sandpaper letter, place it on the left side of the sand tray, trace it, and draw the letter in the tray. Erase, repeat.
Invite your child to continue the work or erase the tray, leaving work ready for next time. Encourage your child to clean up after sand spills.
Also, let your child know she can use the sand writing tray independently as often as she likes.
I found that the sand writing tray is an excellent tool for practicing writing letters that are really tricky for young kids to write, such as the letters k and r.
Sometimes, it can be frustrating to form tricky letters. Shaking the tray and starting all over again is easier and more calming.
Tips on using the letters
- When using sand, remember that sand can scratch some table surfaces. You may want to put the sand tray on another tray or a fabric mat. A mini brush and table crumber set may also be helpful.
- Have the clean-up materials (broom, dustpan) nearby to clean up and spills.
Annie was excited to help clean up the white sand we accidentally spilled on the floor!
- Remember to use two fingers and to go counterclockwise.
- Draw the letter in the sand twice.
- Tell your child, “You can do this sand tray with any letter you choose.”
- Group letters with the same beginning stroke, like c, o, g. This helps prepare your child for an upcoming lesson, the handwriting rugs, when we sort letters by beginning stroke.
Fun variations and ideas for the sand writing tray
I noticed that the children naturally enjoy drawing a picture in the sand. It’s a great form of expression, and I allow the children to use their imaginations with the tray freely.
Often, children will write letters when they draw pictures on paper, and I think it’s interesting when they make that connection when writing or drawing in the sand.
You can also change up the tray to keep the work interesting.
Here are a few examples:
- Try using different materials like rice, pearl barley, small lentils, tapioca, millet, cream of wheat, or coarse cornmeal in the tray
- Try other size trays
- Use different colored sand
- Trace different shapes or geometric forms
- Trace numerals
- Use fingers dipped in water on a Zen board
- Get a collection of cards with different shapes and forms to spark your child’s imagination with the sand.
I mentioned an article by Understood.org at the beginning of this post. It gives an example of making a tactile handwriting activity that reminded me of the sand writing tray.
Place some colored hair gel in a quart-sized plastic baggie. Flatten the baggie on the table and practice writing letters.
This will give a different sensation than writing in sand, but the resistance of the gel allows you to get the feel of how the letters are formed. This is an excellent variation for kids who dislike touching sand or other fine material.
Concluding Thoughts about the sand in the tray
Annie enjoyed exploring with the sand tray. She was super excited to draw different things in the sand. Trying the tiny tray was great because she could pour the sand into the tray independently.
I also realized that the shapes and letters must be smaller when the tray is smaller, which allowed Annie to focus and concentrate in that smaller space. She also explored writing smaller strokes in the smaller tray, which is excellent practice for writing with a pencil.
However, I found that Annie was more drawn to the larger tray. Seeing her use her imagination to draw pictures in the sand was beautiful. She even added to her picture by adding stones to the sand, like a little zen garden!
Drawing shapes and letters tactilely in the sand is a big hit with little ones. There is something so calming about it. And it’s a fantastic way to get them interested and to develop a love for writing.
Have you tried drawing shapes or writing letters in the sand with your child? Leave a comment below!
More Montessori Resources
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* Sign up for the Resources Library below if you’d like to download the sand tray lesson plan and the sandpaper letters printables I made. If you’re a subscriber, check my newest email for the updated password.