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The wonderful world of tuff trays

Simple, creative tuff tray ideas 

from Kelly Reay @preschool_teacher_Ireland

Tuff trays were originally used by builders and called ‘builders trays’. Builders use them to mix cement and transport heavy building materials.  This is why early years settings and primary schools have been using them for years for all kinds of play experiences and most recently they have become very popular in home settings across the world.  Everyone wants to get in on the action and create wonderful play experiences for their children and children they teach.


 We love our tuff trays in our preschool setting and use them every single day, inside and outside. We get so many comments and likes on our tuff tray creations every day on our Instagram account. We have had so many of our followers go and buy a tray and come back to us and say “it was one of the best items they have bought”.  Why are tuff trays also known as tuff spots and active world trays so good you ask?  Tuff trays are so versatile they can be used to set up so many different play opportunities for children of all ages.  They are brilliant for sensory and messy play because the hard edge around the tray contains the mess.  When the children are finished playing it is so easy to wipe the tray clean.  Here are four sensory tray ideas.


“Making vegetable soup” for this tray we used vegetables that we had used in our role play area. We chopped them up and used real kitchen utensils. You can see in the saucepan there is a coloured substance, we added a packet of soup. The packet soup provided the smell of real soup to the activity. The children mixed all the vegetables into the soup and transferred it in to the bowls. This sensory experience allowed the children to explore real vegetables by touching and smelling them. The children made their own vegetable soup developing language and social skills. They had so much fun and played here all morning it was great to observe their role play and listen to their conversations. The tray was busy all morning and all the mess was contained on the tray.

“Sensory rice” This was a valentine themed activity but any coloured rice is brilliant on the tray. We added valentine themed loose parts but you can add all kinds of loose parts for the children to explore the rice with such as cups and spoons.  Children can use the rice and loose parts to transfer the rice from one cup to another and listen to the sound of the rice as it hits the tray. While involved in this sensory activity they can develop mathematical concepts and language.  This kind of activity can be very calming and therapeutic.

“Bathing babies” we added warm water, some sensitive baby wash, sponges, baby wipes and some empty shampoo bottles.  This is a really quick and easy set up but it is always a hit with the children.  The large flat area on the tray allows you to add lots of dolls and provides space for quite a few children around the tray.  Washing babies is a great activity for a child who may be getting a new brother or sister. It is also great to teach self care. The children love to fill cups and pour and transfer the water and like playing with rice it can be very calming and therapeutic.

“Digging and planting” Another really simple and easy set up. We used compost and some planting pots all purchased from aldi then added some rakes and spades.  We added some black turtle beans.  This tray provided children with the opportunity to touch, feel and explore the compost.  They could pretend they were planting flowers. The children also made up their own game hiding the seeds then digging to find them.  While using the garden utensils the children are refining gross motor skills.


Tuff trays are amazing for creating a small world scene. The tray enables you to make a little island. Small world trays promote language development and allow children to use their imagination and explore the world around them. Small world is our favourite trays to design and plan and we love watching the children’s eyes light up when they arrive and see it.

“On the farm” we used weetabix and co co pops to create a muddy area for the pigs. We used shredded green paper for a grassy area for the horses. The children loved the sectioned areas and used the diggers to scoop up the co co pops.  They really enjoyed using the animals to squash the cereal providing a great sensory experience.

Simple creative tuff tray ideas from Kelly Reay @preschool_teacher_Ireland

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