Have you ever noticed how children naturally like to run their hands through soft textures like sand and salt? Hands-on exploration is a crucial pre-writing activity! At home or in a classroom, you can set up a Montessori sensory writing tray of sand or salt. The sensory tray can help children develop writing skills in any language, such as Chinese, Korean, and English.
Video at the end of the post shows an example of how to use the Montessori sensory writing tray.
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Is a sensory salt or sand writing tray necessary for teaching writing?
Many of us who grew up using traditional worksheets wonder if a sensory writing tray is necessary. Every child is different; some children may enjoy a sensory writing tray while others might skip this activity.
Some Montessori classrooms have a sand writing tray for sensory writing practice in the primary years (ages 3-6).
When my daughter was younger, she used the Montessori-inspired sensory writing tray to learn Chinese stroke order. However, she never used it for English or Korean, because she was comfortable using pencil on paper for these alphabets.
Benefits of sensory salt or sand writing for children
For many children, the benefits of sensory writing with sand or salt include activation of the multiple senses:
- Tactile: Children love to touch and feel different textures, and the fingertip is the most sensitive part of the body. Each fingertip has thousands of touch receptors. When the receptors are stimulated by touch, neurons fire signals via nerves to the spinal cord, brain stem, thalamus, and finally the cerebral cortex for processing.
- Visual: Sensory writing trays allow kids to see how their fingers create letters and words.
- Auditory: As you will hear in the video at the end of the post, auditory stimulation provides synergistic input to help to commit each Chinese character to memory.
Multisensory experiences can help with memorizing Chinese characters and reading Korean and English phonetic sounds.
For children who are not yet ready to write alphabet letters or Chinese characters, they can practice drawing shapes in sand or salt!
What you need for a Montessori sensory writing tray
- As with all activities, please supervise your child and make sure they don’t try to eat the salt, sand, rice, or whatever you choose to use. Children under age 3 years or those who are still mouthing non-food objects should refrain from this activity.
- Create a color contrast with the sensory material and the tray. Color contrast enables the letter to be more visible to the child. The child may also enjoy choosing a favorite color!
- Only a thin layer of salt or sand is needed. Too much can actually make the word difficult to form.
- Try to use what you already have at home to save on cost. You don’t need to buy Montessori sand tray which sells for $15-$45!
- Wood tray which can be repurposed from other toys like this and this. Other options you might have at home:
- Box lid – can paint or put sheet of paper on the bottom for contrast
- Tupperware or baking dish
- Consider a square-shaped tray so your child get used to visualizing Chinese characters within the standard writing grid.
- High sides can help keep the sensory material within the tray
Soft granular material*
- Salt: can dye with few drops of food coloring in a zipper bag. Shake and mix thoroughly. Then air dry.
- Expired food: sugar, baking soda, polenta, ground oatmeal, rice, sprinkles
*If kept clean and dry, salt, sugar, and sand can be reused. Remind your child to wash his or her hands before and after using the salt writing tray. Store in a sealed, labeled container.
- Stick, chopstick, or paintbrush
What if my child throws the salt or sand?
Before starting any activity, I set clear rules with my kids about what they can and cannot do. My kids have not thrown the Montessori salt trays. However, at the beach, I do need to remind my son not to throw sand at other people. I gently kneel down to eye level and tell him that this is not okay.
If your child cannot listen, tell them that you need to remove the tray. Let your child know that another chance can be considered in the future if they can respect the rules.
Examples of 4 types of Montessori sensory writing trays
1. White salt and box lid
The easiest way to set up a Montessori sensory tray is with a thin layer of fine table salt and a box lid. Here’s an example of how it can be used with the Montessori English alphabet sandpaper boards. They are available in regular print, D’nealian font (pictured below), or cursive.
The below video from when my daughter was 3, trying the salt writing tray for the first time with our Uncle Goose Chinese Blocks! She insisted on writing with a stick and wanted to squish as many Chinese characters as possible into the little tray…
Notice that the paint at the bottom of the box is a bold color for contrast against the white salt. Contrast between the salt and the background allows for the written word to be more visible.
2. Dyed salt and wood tray
Only a few drops of red food coloring led to this pretty pink salt paired with our stroke order sandpaper cards!
But my kids prefer the calming turquoise blue!
3. Baking soda and wood tray
The next example was from our Chinese 木 Radical Words – Wood Dice and Sensory Writing Game. In hindsight, baking soda was a bit messy, and we much prefer salt.
4. Rice and baking dish
Here’s an example of writing Korean letters in expired rice paired with puffy paint tactile flashcards. I put a black sheet of paper under our glass dish to give contrast against the rice.
My kids actually have not done this with Korean – I set this up for my daughter, but she was already comfortable with writing at that time.
Here’s another example of writing Chinese characters in expired rice. However, we found that writing in salt and sand is more accurate than larger grains like rice or even sprinkles.
My kids have had fun exploring writing Chinese characters in different textures!
Montessori sensory salt writing tray video demonstration
In this video, I kept the normal sound and speed so you can see how all senses are engaged in this writing exercise!
Notice how it takes her a few cards to get into the rhythm! This was my daughter’s first time writing in a sensory tray.
However, after a few times, she now writes so much better and notices when her strokes are too short or too long.
Did you hear the satisfying crunch sound with each stroke?!
I hope your child has as much fun learning how to write as my children!
There is nothing in the intellect which is not first in the senses.Aristotle
Have you tried Montessori sensory writing trays with your child?
If you try this activity, please let us know in the comments below! What age(s) are your kid(s) and how did it go? We’d love to hear about your learning experience!
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