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Monday, July 20, 2020

Pom Pom Heuristic Play Tray for Toddlers

Are you looking for a quick, low prep activity to keep your toddler entertained? In this post I'll show you how to put together a quick heuristic play tray using pom poms, utensils and recyclables that's sure to keep your toddler intrigued and entertained.

toddler playing with pom poms and cups in a tray

Toddlers are notoriously fickle with their attention spans and can move from being super excited about a toy or activity to completely over it in a matter of minutes. This is completely normal age appropriate behaviour, so don't be discouraged and let it put you off creating play experiences for them. 

As a general rule of thumb toddlers will be able to concentrate on a task for 3-5 minutes per year of age. It's important to keep this in mind when setting up play invitations for toddlers, don't set up overly complicated activities as they probably won't play with them for a long period of time.

My mantra for toddler play is keep it simple! Try not to spend too much time setting up activities as it's entirely possible they'll play for less time than it took you to set up. One of the best activities to set up for toddlers is a heuristic play tray {similar concept to treasure baskets} as they're quick to set up and will often hold a toddler's attention for longer as they're directing their own play.


Heuristic play allows children to freely explore their environment by handling everyday items in a controlled situation. Children are naturally curious explorers, they're drawn to investigate and have an innate desire to discover how and why things work, which is why heuristic play works so well with toddlers. Heuristic play is child lead and open ended as there is no right or wrong way to play with the objects, the way a child interacts with the items will be completely driven by their own imagination and curiosity.

You've probably set up a heuristic invitation to play for your baby or toddler already without even realising it. Has your child ever got into the Tupperware drawer? Ever put out some pots, pans and spoons so they can bang and make noise? These are all types of heuristic play. 

While it may look like they're just banging objects around, heuristic play provides opportunities for investigation, fine and gross motor movements, sensory input, exploration of cause and effect and language development. While they're manipulating objects babies and toddlers are developing neurological connections and learning how to problem solve. 

What may seem like a simple basket or tray of everyday items to us as adults is actually a treasure trove of opportunity for a toddler.


There are no rules when it comes to setting up a heuristic play invitation, however you want to make sure that all of the items you're using are toddler safe and that your child is strictly supervised at all times.

pom pom heuristic play tray


  • Cups
  • Tongs
  • Spoons
  • Pom Poms
  • Egg cartons
  • Cardboard tubes
  • Grimms cups {optional}
  • Tray or tub

To set up our pom pom play tray I used items we already had around the house that I knew would work well together. I started with our papoose 2.5cm felted pom poms, which are quite thick and larger than regular craft pom poms, and then added items that she could use to move them, put them into or through. 

I raided our recycling stash for an empty egg carton and paper towel tube and then added a wooden spoon and a stainless steel jug we got from the op shop. Finally I added some of our Grimms bowls that matched the colours of some pom poms {to see if she would naturally colour sort} and a pair of Grimms wooden tongs. 

You can use any combination of recyclables and toddler safe utensils you have at home to set up your own tray. You could also add empty pringles jars or biscuit trays so they can place the pom poms in and out of them. You can also use textured sensory balls or coloured plastic Easter eggs if you don't want to use pom poms.


  • Fine motor skills
  • Cause & effect
  • Sensory input
  • Colour recognition
  • Language development
  • Hand/eye co-ordination
  • Imaginary play

I deliberately added items made from different materials with different textures so that she would get lots of tactile sensory input as she explored the items made from felt, wood, cardboard and stainless steel. Each material offered different properties and textures for her to explore like hard, soft, light, heavy, cold, smooth etc. They also allowed her to explore sound as she banged each one against the metal tray to see what happened.

toddler sorting pom poms into empty egg cartons

Manipulating the pom poms with her fingers alone provided a great fine motor work out as she squished, poked, picked up and pushed the pom poms through and into the other objects. Each of these movements required her to use her pincer grip {grasping an object between thumb and index finger} which is an important pre-writing skill toddlers and preschoolers need to master before developing a proper pencil grip later on. 

I also added in tongs and the wooden spoon to see if she would further manipulate the pom poms with tools. She loved exploring the tongs the most as she could hold them in one hand and put the pom pom into them with the other. As toddlers gain more control over their fine motor movements they'll be able to use tongs to properly grab and hold small items.

toddler using wooden tongs to pick up a pom pom

I added in some of our Grimms friends bowls because I noticed we had 3 pom poms that colour matched our bowls. They're also the perfect size for the pom poms to fit inside and easy for her to grasp and tip over to get the pom poms back out. 

Toddler years are the perfect time to introduce colours and start teaching colour recognition through play so this was an added opportunity for her to match the colours if she chose to. If you have coloured plastic bowls or egg cups they'd work just as well.

toddler colour sorting with pom poms and grimms wooden bowls
toddler pouring pom poms from a metal jug

Baby girl was 19 months when we did this activity and she had so much fun exploring the pom pom tray and learning how each one would react when she pushed them through the tube, put them in a cup, or poured them from the jug. She made pom pom tea with the jug and spent lots of time putting the pom poms into the Grimms bowls and empty egg carton. 

After a while she got into the tray herself and continued playing with the pom poms. If you watch the video below you'll see how I was describing what she was doing, which is a great way to aid language development, and she copied me and said out for the first time.


pom pom heuristic play tray activity for toddlers

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