Summer Shortcut: Use A Baking Sheet To Contain Craft Chaos

Did you catch last Monday’s announcement? We’ve kicked off a new series about all the ways we “cheat” during the summer months to make life easier on everyone – especially mom. Meagan’s idea last week was GENIUS – did any of you try it? This week I’m sharing one of the few “hacks” I’ve come up with myself and not stolen from more clever friends or seen online. Enjoy! -Sarah

LEGOs on a tray

Let me tell you about Montessori preschool classrooms, in case you aren’t familiar. 

Low shelves line the room. On the shelves are plastic trays, like the kind you use when you move through a cafeteria line, only smaller. On each tray is a “work,” or an activity with several parts. It might be a word game, a small puzzle, or some kind of exercise involving tiny cups and a small pitcher of water. The trays are grouped by color; blue trays all go on the same shelf and all contain works of a similar nature.

In a Montessori preschool, children as young as two and three learn how to get a tray from a shelf, carry it to a small table, sit down and “work” with it, and return it to its place before getting out another activity.

Montessori Classroom

Now let me tell you how crafts and activities happen at my house.

Not like a Montessori preschool. Not anything like it at all. 

They get out LEGOs. They get bored. They decide to color. They ask for the play-doh. They want a snack. They go back to the LEGOs for a while. They wander into the office and stare into the closet where I keep craft supplies and ask to get out the science kit and make a volcano erupt.

And so on.

For the most part, this is because I’ve allowed it to be so. My older two kids play amazingly well together and keep each other entertained for hours; I’ve always tolerated a certain amount of mess in an effort to let them direct their own play (and, yes, after a certain point I usually just declare that we’re all going to help clean up before we get out any more stuff).

But in the getting-out-of-all-the-things, I’ve stumbled upon a way to contain individual crafts and projects, even if we don’t always put them away right away: a cookie sheet.

Taking my cue from Montessori, we use regular old baking sheets for almost all craft projects and activities that contain small parts. Here’s why:

  • A baking sheet has just enough of a lip around the edge to keep beads or markers from rolling away, but not so much that it gets in the way of reaching into the tray and “working” in the space
  • A full-sized baking sheet is spacious enough for art work, water colors, play-doh, and LEGO creations
  • Having a clearly defined space to work in seems to curb that tendency to spread out to infinity – of course there’s still spillage, but the kids’ projects stay more contained than they would if the whole dining room table was available
  • It’s totally portable. If I need to clear the table for dinner, they can take their tray somewhere else.
  • It protects surfaces from LEGO scratches or art “oopses.”
  • When we run out of trays, we know we need to actually put one of our activities back where it belongs to free up space for something else!

Here’s where the Montessori similarities end: We don’t always put stuff away right away, and that’s okay. Sometimes a tray of LEGOs sits on the counter for a week, and we take it down and put it back up several times a day. I’m just cool with that (but would be less cool with LEGOs all over my floor).

summer short cuts
The cookie sheet hack allows me to be pretty laid back about clean-up, which suits my summer style – but also ensures I don’t have 200 small parts from a dozen different activities scattered around the house. Of course I want them to learn to put their things away – and when it comes time to do so I expect their help. But I also know that at this age most projects last mere minutes, and I’m not really interested in policing and assisting in perfect, Montessori-level procedures all day long. Plus I like giving them the freedom to get bored, do something else, return to an earlier project, etc. – and cleaning up thoroughly in between each one just isn’t in the cards for them or for me at this stage.

And now you’re wondering… Do I actually BAKE on the baking sheets? Yes, I do. The art supplies we’re using at this stage are all washable and non-toxic, so a good scrubbing is all it needs to get back to its intended purpose. But if you’d rather have specially designated trays for crafts and activities, we do also use the BÄRBAR trays from IKEA (pictured below), which work well (though they are not quite as big as a rectangular baking sheet).


Is your summer full of small parts and craft clutter? Give the cookie sheet shortcut a try, and take a break from constant cleanup for a bit!

PS: After reading our friend Asha Dornfest’s update last week on her blog Parent Hacks, we realized how much the summer shortcuts in this series are right in line with the awesome tips she shares and collects there. If you’re looking for more quick ideas and time-savers, be sure to follow the #ParentHacks hashtag on social media or check out!

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  1. Claire