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Wednesday, June 6, 2012

DIY Magnetic Travel Activity Tray

I'm going to show you a travel activity tray that I whipped up in the days before our recent road trip.  This one is (obviously) geared toward preschooler boys, but you could take the same concept and adjust it for girls.

I was rushing this one, and a few bits are not quite up to my usual standards, but it still turned out good and was a successful boredom buster on our road trip.

What I used:
11" by 17" metal cookie sheet, with sides
metal, hinged book rings (3)
3 sheets of craft felt
velcro tabs
duct tape
clear contact paper
circle craft magnets (1/2" diameter by 1/4" thick)
scrapbook paper & computer print-outs

What I did was make several layers of play mats that my Little Man could use cars, trains, and dinos on.  They fit into the cookie sheet, and toys with magnets glued to them can be used on top.  

To keep everything together, I had the Hubs drill three holes in the vertical edge of the tray - these had to be filed smooth after drilling to get rid of sharp edges that might scratch little hands.  I used metal, hinged book rings to attach the layers of activity mats.  I added a strip of duct tape on the backsides of the punched holes, to help  prevent the holes from tearing through as the pages were turned.
The different activity layers can then be flipped up and over the front like pages.  The operation of this requires some adjustment each time the pages are turned, but it keeps everything together 
and offers a variety of play surfaces.  

The bottom layer is attached right onto the pan itself, with a covering of clear contact paper.  *A note on this - the contact paper and the nonstick surface of the pan acted like they weren't going to hold well long term.  A few coats of Mod Podge may have been the better choice, but I didn't have a lot of time to get this done before we hit the road.

I tried to remedy this by edging each end with duct tape, 
the whole side of the cookie sheet, which both helped hold 
down the bottom page right onto the pan, and also 
attached the side storage pockets that I made out of felt.

For the pockets, I used three sheets of craft felt.  
I cut one in half, and for each side pocket, sewed the half piece
onto the bottom of a full piece - down the half edge, across the short end, 
and back up the opposite half edge.  Then I turned them right side out.
I top stitched a straight line up the center to create two pockets on each end.
I trimmed about 1 1/2" off the length of the full piece, but could have done more - he had a hard time reaching down into the pockets.

*A note on this - I was winging this whole thing and didn't think about
closures till after the pockets were sewn.  I attempted to use stick-on
velcro tabs, but they kept pulling off the felt during our test run.  By that
time, the pockets were sewn and attached to the tray and I was not able
to sew velcro on with the sewing machine...I ended up stapling them.
yup.  Kind of an eyesore, but it worked.  If you make one of these, you
will want to play around with placement of the velcro and sew it on
while you are able to fit it into your sewing machine...
or yours will look redneck like mine ; )

As you can see above, I used duct tape to attach the felt pockets to each end of the tray.  I duct taped both from and back, making a few snips at the corners so that the piece could both hang down over the edge during use, and flip up onto the tray for storage.  I wasn't sure if this would hold up, but in my rush to complete this project, it was all I could think of for attaching them.  And actually, duct tape is pretty darn strong and it ended up working.

Ideally, I would have added some feature for strapping these pockets closed on top of the tray, so that it could be stored vertically in the pocket on the backside of the driver's seat.  Instead, my storage pockets laid loosely on top of the tray, and we kept it flat on the floor below Little Man's feet.

During our trip, Little Man could lay this on his lap,
with the pockets hanging down the sides.  He could reach
in and grab cars, trains, construction vehicles, and dinos
and use them on the different laminated pages.  The flipped
pages just hung down over the front as he turned them.

Here is a closer look at our activity pages...
The bottom one, that was attached right on the cookie sheet with clear contact paper, is hand-pieced out of patterned scrapbook papers.
 I hot glued magnets to the bottoms of 5 mini dinos.  

The next one up is a construction scene that I created by editing and piecing together a black and white printable coloring page.  I then printed it enlarged onto three sheets of paper that I trimmed and pieced together.  I used a fine point sharpie to fill in the missing lines and then colored it and laminated it with clear contact paper.  Little Man and I chose three matchbox construction vehicles from his stash to hot glue double magnets to.

Ha!  No wait, here it is...
The next one has train tracks and a station.  This was originally a printable maze, and I edited it with My Memories to make the track continuous.  I used a few clipart items to add the bridge, trees, signal, and station, and then drew in the river in Windows Paint.  I printed it enlarged to 2x3 pages (I think), and then trimmed the edges and pieced it together.  We chose an engine and one train car from our wooden track set and hot glued magnets to the bottoms.
The top two pages are city street and race track scenes.  
Believe it or not, I made these by saving high resolution product photos of play rugs, then printing them enlarged and piecing them together.  All of these pages I then cropped to fit into the 11 x 17 cookie sheet.  This just meant cutting off an inch or so on one or two sides.  Nothing major was lost.  We chose four matchbox vehicles - a truck, a taxi, and a few race cars, and all could be used on both road mats.
The key (and challenge) was finding high resolution pics to use.  Those are the only ones that can be printed large-scale without being all pixelated.

This project turned out to be a hit.
Little Man was super excited to use it and take it along
in the car on our extensive road trip.  It was easy to 
pull it out for him, too, for some distraction.

Want to make one?
Here are some of the printables I used...
You can see this post for info on how to print 
larger scale on your home computer.  If you DO make one of these,
as-is, or an improved version, I would looove to see some photos of it!
Please share them with me! 

Train Tracks

Construction Scene -
Left & Right sides to piece together.
Extend some lines with a thin marker to fill in empty spaces

Race Track
This one I had to crop a good chunk off to fit on my cookie sheet,
but still had plenty of track to drive magnetic cars on.

I can't seem to find the same high resolution photo that I used for the town streets one, but I did come across several others through an ebay shop that would also make fun play mats for this type of magnetic activity tray.  These pics are hard to track down, so I'm putting the ones I have found in this post.  I may be coming back to them myself one day!

City Streets

Country Roads

Town Roads

Farm Scene - 1
This would be so cute with a tractor and some farm animals!
Farm Scene - 2
I can see this being entertaining with one of 
those tubes of mini plastic animals!

Oooh!  Space!
How about with little plastic astronauts and a rocket?

And Pirates!
With some mini plastic boats and a tube of ocean critters.


  1. This is such a brilliant idea!!

  2. So cool!! We have the cookie trays (from the dollar store) that we use for eating and drawing in the car. I love the added pockets and magnetic toys. Thanks for another great idea!

  3. This is great! I've been looking for a project like this to do. Thanks so much!

  4. Love this! But I can't find a "Pin it!" button. :-(

    1. If you install Pinterest's Pin It button to your toolbar, you can pin on any site with/without the button next to the photo or imbedded in the post. There are instructions on their page:

      With our blog redesign, I will put "Pin it!" button on the list for each post. Thanks for stopping by!

  5. Thanks so much for this fantastic idea! We have a big road trip coming up and I am about to make this for my daughter after finding your page via pinterest. I have the tray and magnets ready, just need to print the pictures and stick magnets to toys. I am so, so grateful to you for this idea!! Love it!

  6. Replies
    1. Thanks so much Jamie! It worked out great for our trip!

  7. Thanks for the brilliant idea. I have 48 hours to make this... Maybe for the next trip. I have to think of something else to use instead the cookie sheet since here in Finland the cookie sheets weuse are much bigger and impossible to fit a kid's lap.

    I also might add some resealable stickers to use on the laminated/contact-papered sheets.

    1. Hanna! Resealable stickers are a fantastic idea to make this stretch. Someone also suggested dry erase markers, too. Hope you found something to make it work there in Finland!

  8. I used your printables for the maps and used them in the
    We took them to the airport and they have worked great! I took a pic and a video for you!

    1. Love your pic Diana! I shared it on our facebook page in the Reader Submissions album. Thanks so much for sharing : )

  9. What a great idea! I'm getting ready to make these for my boys now to keep them quiet at restaurants and in the car.

    1. Hi Emily! Ooh these WOULD work fab in restaurants! Good thinking, and thanks for sharing!

  10. I am working on this right now, fabulous idea, cant wait for our road trip tomorrow. i think i will add a color page or two and bring along dry erase markers as well.

    1. Denise! Dry erase markers are a great idea!! Thanks for sharing that : )

  11. I just said brilliant like 3 times in a row. Thanks for sharing! And l love the photobomb. Anyone with a cat gets this and it literally made me lol!

    1. Haha! : ) You made me smile this morning! Thanks so much for stopping by!

  12. Thanks this is amazing! I am making one for my daughter for an upcoming road trip over the holidays. I just have to find some printable sheets and cover with mactac. I was just wondering what the tray underneath is that your son is using? Is it something you purchased for eating in the car that attaches to the car seat?

    1. Hi Angela! Yes, the plastic tray underneath is a travel tray that straps around the back of the carseat and rests on the child's lap. I got it through Amazon - it's called Taby Tray

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  14. This is so great! I was just about to purchase something similar on One Step Ahead, but I thought to myself "maybe I can make something that would work even better" and then I found this! Thank you so much for sharing this fantastic idea, my son is going to love this on our 5-hour flight next month!

  15. Is there another tray on the car seat? I am going to try this for a summer road trip, but I can see my kids repeatedly losing the cookie sheets off their laps!!

  16. Just found you via Pinterest. This is an amazingly creative project! I have a 2 year old and a 3.5 year old (both boys). We are taking them and their big sisters on a 10 hour trip to South Dakota this summer and I can't wait to make these. So cool! Many many thanks!

  17. Just found you via Pinterest. You are a creative genius! Thanks for the wonderful post and the comments about what you would change. I can't wait to make these for my preschool age boys! Moms are awesome!

  18. I have linked to this post in my article Frugal Road Trip with Kids – What To Bring

  19. Thank you so much for sharing your ideas. I am creativity-challenged but I found your site just in time for our 6 hour trip (12 total) and it worked wonderfully. The trays kept my toddler and preschooler busy for quite a while and I had found a 6-pack of see-through cars at the dollar store and they worked best since the weight of the car vs. the strength of the magnets was perfect (and they were the exact width of the roads). Thank you so much for making your ideas available for those of us who can only dream of being creative. Our children will also thank you :)

  20. Thank you, thank you, thank you! Working on this now for boys, 2 and 5 for an 8 hour road trip this weekend. This is awesome :)

  21. Love this idea. My thought for the pockets is to get zipper pencil pouches with grommets so they will go in a 3 ring binder(dollar store)then drill holes on the sides to hold them with rings same as the scenes. Several could be placed on each side and could color co-ordinate with the scenes.

  22. you NEED to sell these! This is genius!

  23. love this idea heading on a 14 hour road trip with 2, 4 year old boys this just may save my sanity. Thanks From a frazzled mum in Australia.

  24. Working on making this now! Thank you so much for sharing!!!! This is brilliant!

  25. Thank you for this, its genius! Something else I saw with baking sheets like this is to spray them with chalkboard spray-paint first so they can draw on them with chalk (car roads, doodling, whatever) plus also be used for magnets like what you did!

  26. Thanks so much for posting the printables! I plan to use the railroad background laminated with packing tape for my 3 year old to drive his trains on.

  27. I have to make this....thank you for sharing....

  28. We have a mini van and the kids sit in the back seat, any ideas on how to prevent the tray from sliding off their laps? Like a seat belt per say? Also, what are some ideas for little girls?
    Btw, this is awesome. I'm in the process right now. I painted the pans to make them look prettier and it was a fail. I used craft paint because its what I had on hand. But I think perhaps if I used spray paint it would look nicer. I don't know. I sprayed a top coat overtop to protect the paint and to make it smoother.

  29. I love this. I'm in the process of making them right now for my 2 and 4 yr old.
    Any ideas for pages for a 2 yr old girl? She says she wants cars too like her brother but I need other ideas as well.
    I'm not close to where the kids are sitting in the car (they are in the back of the minivan) any ideas on how to secure it on their laps so they don't fall off?
    We painted our trays. Its a good idea in theory but I used craft paint and its not looking very pretty. I think spray paint would have been better. But its all I had on hand. I sprayed a top coat on to make it nice and smooth.

  30. I am just making these for my kids for our very long car ride next week. My daughters includes...Minnie Mouse, Care Bears, Tinker Bell, Frozen, Princesses, and Jake and the Neverland Pirates. Thanks for the inspiration!! Can't wait to use them!


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