How to create a simple Montessori sensory salt writing tray + 9 pre-writing shapes to try!!

A Montessori sensory salt writing tray is a fantastic way to get children interested in writing and letter formation in the early years.

Have you ever observed how kids are drawn to tactile experiences, like squishing play dough, running their hands through sand or feeling the water flow through their fingers? These types of sensory activities are essential precursors to writing!

But learning to write can feel like a daunting experience – especially for children who worry about getting things wrong. To take the pressure off, a Montessori sensory salt writing tray is an ideal way to practise writing.

Whether you’re at home or in an educational setting, consider creating a Montessori sensory salt writing tray. This touch-based activity serves as a versatile tool to help children advance their writing abilities, regardless of the language they’re learning.

Do you have to follow Montessori philosophies in order to do this activity?

While the Montessori sensory salt writing tray is rooted in Montessori educational principles, you don’t have to be a strict follower of the Montessori method to reap its benefits. The beauty of this tool is its simplicity and versatility; it can easily be integrated into various educational frameworks or even casual home learning environments.

The primary aim of the salt writing tray is to engage children in a tactile, hands-on way that enhances their pre-writing skills and number or letter recognition. Whether you’re homeschooling, following a different educational philosophy, or just looking for enriching activities to do with your kids, this simple tray can be a beneficial addition.

Also, the Montessori method emphasises self-directed learning, but if your child benefits more from guided instruction, adapt the activity to suit their learning style. The key is to provide an environment where your child feels encouraged to explore, learn, and have fun!

So don’t be deterred if your home or classroom isn’t a Montessori environment. The salt writing tray can be a valuable educational resource for any parent or educator looking to bolster a child’s early development.

a 4 year old girl practises writing in a blue Montessori sensory salt tray

How to make a Montessori sensory salt writing tray

It honestly couldn’t be easier to make a Montessori sensory salt writing tray – you just need two ingredients, table salt and food dye.

A Montessori salt writing tray is a simple yet effective tool for helping children develop their pre-writing skills. Here’s how you can make one at home:

Materials Needed:

  1. A shallow tray or dish (like a baking sheet or a shallow plastic storage container)
  2. Table salt or coloured sand
  3. A small jar or cup (for levelling the salt)
  4. Writing utensils (like a small stick, the end of a paintbrush, or even a finger!)
  5. Optional: Food colouring (if you want to colour the salt)
  6. Optional: Alphabet or number cards for reference

How to Dye the Salt:

  1. Preparation: Lay a sheet of parchment paper or aluminum foil on the baking sheet. This is where you’ll let the salt dry.
  2. Measure the Salt: Measure out the amount of salt you’ll need for your writing tray. Usually, a cup or two should suffice, depending on the size of your tray.
  3. Bag the Salt: Place the measured salt into a Ziplock bag.
  4. Add Food Colouring: Add a few drops of food colouring into the salt inside the Ziplock bag. The more drops you add, the more vibrant the colour will be. If you’re using gel food colouring, a small dollop should do.
  5. Seal and Shake: Seal the Ziplock bag and shake it vigorously until the salt is evenly coated with the food colouring. You may need to manipulate the salt through the bag with your fingers to ensure even coverage.
  6. Optional: Wear Gloves: If you want to protect your hands from staining, consider wearing gloves for the next steps.
  7. Check the Color: Open the bag and check if the salt is the colour you desire. If it’s too light, add more food colouring and shake again.
  8. Spread the Salt: Once you’re satisfied with the colour, spread the salt in a single layer on the prepared baking sheet.
  9. Dry the Salt: Let the salt air-dry. This usually takes a few hours, but you can expedite the process by placing the baking sheet in an oven set at a low temperature (around 200°F or 95°C) for 10-15 minutes.
  10. Test Dryness: Before storing or using, ensure the salt is completely dry. If it feels damp, extend the drying time.
  11. Store or Use: Once dry, either use the salt immediately in your Montessori salt writing tray or store it in a sealed container for future use.

A four year old boy practises writing numbers in a Montessori sensory salt writing tray

How to Prepare a Montessori sensory salt writing Tray:

  1. Prepare the Tray: Begin by taking your shallow tray or dish and placing it on a flat surface.
  2. Fill with Salt: Pour enough table salt into the tray to create a thin layer, about a quarter to half an inch deep.
  3. Level the Salt: Use a small jar or cup to gently press down on the salt to create a smooth, even surface. If the salt doesn’t level easily, you can also shake the tray gently from side to side.
  4. Optional: Color the Salt: If you’re using food colouring, now is the time to add it. Sprinkle a few drops into the salt and mix thoroughly until you achieve your desired colour.
  5. Set Up Writing Tools: Place your writing utensils next to the tray. You could use anything from a small stick, the non-bristle end of a paintbrush, or even a child’s finger to practise writing.
  6. Place Reference Cards: If you’re using alphabet or number cards, place them near the tray for easy reference.

How to Use:

  1. Demonstrate First: Show your child how to use the writing tool or their finger to draw letters, numbers, or shapes in the salt.
  2. Let Them Try: Encourage your child to try writing or drawing on their own.
  3. Erase and Restart: After your child finishes each letter or shape, they can use the jar or cup to smooth the surface back out, or simply shake the tray gently, and start anew.
  4. Make It Fun: Turn it into a game! Call out letters or numbers and see if they can write them in the salt.
  5. Clean Up: When done, you can store the salt in a ziplock bag for future use or simply toss it if it’s become too discoloured or dirty.

9 Pre-writing Shapes to Master

Did you know that there are 9 pre-writing shapes that your child should master before they attempt to write letters? As you can see from the photo below, these are very basic lines, crosses and shapes – the specific strokes and lines all needed to be mastered before a child can comfortably move onto other tasks such as writing their name.

These shapes can easily be copied in a Montessori sensory salt writing tray.

A graphic showing the 9 pre-writing shapes that children need to master before being able to write. The shapes include a horizontal line, vertical line, circle, cross, square, diagonal lines an x shape and a triangle that can be used in a Montessori sensory salt writing tray

Other Ways to Use a Montessori sensory salt writing tray:

This doesn’t have to be a resource for very young children only. Once your child has mastered the pre-writing shapes, you can keep the salt for other uses too. Here are some ideas for you to try:

  • numbers
  • letters
  • phonics sounds
  • HFW (high frequency words)
  • For spelling tests
  • Multiplication tables

Alternative Methods

One reason salt is used is because it can be preserved for a very long time. Our own Montessori sensory salt writing tray lasted years – when stored correctly in a ziplock bag. However, if you are worried about using salt (particularly if your child still has a tendency to put things in their mouth) here are some alternatives:

  • sequins
  • rainbow rice
  • kinetic sand
  • dyed sand
  • paint
  • eco glitter

a young girl makes fireworks in a sequin and eco glitter writing tray this can be used as an alternative to salt


Is Your Child Starting School Soon?

Starting school is not just about the academics – whilst learning about pre-writing activities is really helpful, you need a holistic approach to the lead up to school.

Head on over to my membership, ‘How I drink my Coffee Hot’, to access the ‘Starting School’ mini course.

Topics covered include:

  • Building Independence
  • Social-Emotional Readiness
  • Foundational Academic Skills
  • Your Readiness as a parent
Sian Thomas
an image of This Playful Home founder, Sian Thomas. The photo includes a photo of her daughter when she was around 18 months old

I’m Siân (rhymes with yarn), a play advocate, proud parent to three, and former teacher. My mission is to infuse more joy and less overwhelm into the lives of parents. Discover play-based activities with me that not only make learning FUN but also forge deep connections with your young learners, creating memories to cherish forever.