I have wanted to write this blog for a while but struggled to decide which tuff tray play inspirations were my favourite. I found it impossible to limit to 10!

This is therefore part 1 of my top tuff trays! Part 2 to follow shortly!

I LOVE creating tuff tray play inspirations, for me they must be aesthetically pleasing produce longevity of play and capture the imaginations of the children! In the home, the additional factors of ease of set up and of course limiting mess potential come into consideration.

Tuff trays are an absolute crucial piece of play equipment for a toddler in my opinion. They are incredibly versatile and allow children to explore in so many different ways, through texture, taste, sight and story-telling whilst containing (to some extent) the mess and creating a manageable world of play.

In this blog, I have chosen trays that I think you may have a chance of being able to recreate at home with relative ease and ones that from experience at the café, have kept children entertained for a good while. Scroll through the pictures attached for examples of each but don’t be put off if you don’t have the extent of the toys or equipment we have used, you can always improvise or create or simply leave a part out. These are just ideas, and all are adaptable.

Rice

Coloured rice is by far the most popular with children of many ages. We use it almost every week in the café as a base for our themed play. I used some today with my 3 and 6 year old and it kept them (mostly) quiet for over an hour!

Rice is easy to make and keeps for months if stored in a dry container and can be reused repeatedly. It is versatile and you can use it with almost any theme. We made red, white and blue rice for our Paddington theme (and superheroes too), fluorescent rice for our circus theme, white and blue for our police theme and orange and red for a fireman inspired tuff.  To make coloured rice, you simply use the cheapest long grain white rice you can find and add nontoxic water based kids paint to it (any water based kids paint you buy from Asda, Tesco, B&M etc). Simply pour the paint over the rice and mix until all coated, then spread out on a tray and leave to dry overnight. The paint, once dry will not transfer to the hands and as stated above you can keep and re-use the rice over and over.

(tip – if you put an old sheet or blanket under the tray, it will catch most of the stray rice that gets out and avoid hrs of hoovering! Sadly I cant help if you have a thrower!)

Construction

Most kids have trucks right? Well put all those diggers and dump trucks in a tuff tray with some cereal and hey-presto! Hours of fun (and snacks – win, win) . My favourite is branflakes and Weetabix haybales but this also works exceptionally well with edible mud! (flour, cocoa powder and a smidge of vegetable oil to bind!).

Coloured oats

These are a little harder than rice to dye but definitely worth the effort. Using the same paint method as the rice above (coat, mix and spread out to dry), this will work best with Jumbo oats rather than your bog standard porridge oats. You will need more drying time and can use slightly less paint but again once dry you can keep these stored for a good while in a sealed container. Check out our Zog and Mythical beast try using coloured oats.

Space

One of my favourite themes and always popular with the kids! If you have space themed toys at home (aliens, rockets, planets etc) then fab but if not, this one is an easy hack! Ideally you need a space blanket (like the ones you get at the end of the great North run, you can order from ebay dead cheap) but to be honest, for a shorter set up, tin foil would work or even black material to line the tray. Line the tuff tray with the space blanket / foil then add your sensory product. In the past I have used blue rice, cheerios, coloured sand or anything you see fit. Cereal is a great one to use, as the crunching sound is out of this world! (note you can buy actual moon and star shaped cereal if you are getting carried away!) I find rice krispies and cheeerios work best. Why not scrunch up some tin foil to make space rocks?

If you can cope with a bit of mess (I would suggest outside if you can), a fantastic sensory base for space play is moon sand (simply 8 cups flour to 1 cup baby oil.) it is relatively harmless, fantastically mouldable but it does make all clothing very dusty; nothing that a wash wont fix so go for it!

For a more technical version, I would suggest using kinetic sand. This can be bought relatively cheaply from loads of toy retailers, both instore and online. If you fancy having a go at making your own, you will need:

  • 2 cups white sand
  • 4 teaspoon corn starch
  • 2 tsp clear or white hand soap (liquid type)
  • 4 teaspoon water and food colour of choice

Simply mix sand and cornstarch in one bowl, soap, eater and colour in another and add soap and water mix slowly to sand, mixing til you get right consistency (you will need to allow it to dry our slightly before using or it will be too tacky).

With any of the mouldable substances, playdough shape cutters work fabulously. Invest in some star ones or simply press something star shaped into the sand / moonsand.

Minibeasts

This is an all-time favourite but this will involve either having a selection of minibeasts, buying some or last resort making them! Amazon sells 28 piece sets for under a tenner, but we have also had great fun making our own minibeasts by painting rocks.

Apart from the actual beats themselves just collect natural bits to go in. I would use, twigs, pinecones, rocks, mini logs or tree stumps, leaves and soil. You could also use bark (the type from a garden centre) if you already have in your garden. Add some toy spades and hey presto. This activity is great combined with a family walk to collect “nature” for the bugs.

If you are not brave enough to go with soil as an option. A cleaner, and certainly tastier version can be made with bran flakes (that look remarkably like bark). Great for little ones who are at the stage of taste testing everything.

Dinosaurs

What top list of tuff trays would be complete without this one? My favourite dino tuff involves coloured sand. Whilst you can do DIY coloured sand (using normal sand and grated chalk), it is pretty time consuming and not as vibrant as store bought sand. Both Tesco and B&M stock coloured sand normally and at between £3 and £6 a bag its good value. You can go simple and simply add a selection of toy dinosaurs to the sand (perhaps the odd mini tree stump or large rock and large camouflage leaves. I have an amazing volcano that I add in but you are unlikely to have this lying around!

For slightly older children you could always try the volcano science experiment (but this is messy and not re-useable. – see www.pinterest.co.uk/pin/515028907389209137/)

You can also make your own volcano with card (or a paper plate) rolled into a cone shape, painted and strips of red, orange and yellow coloured tissue or cellophane poking out the top for lava!

Spaghetti

This is a great one for babies as a stand alone messy play – either just cook the pasta plain or add a touch of food colouring for rainbow spaghetti play (you add the food colour during cooking to the water – gel colours work MUCH better than normal liquid food colouring). Most babies will just enjoy the texture and taste of the spaghetti but add in some simple utensils, bowls, colander. If you can mix wood and metal even better.

Spaghetti dyed blue is also great for creating water in an under the sea tuff or a pirate adventure! Spaghetti dyed green with plastic play food, is a great way to explore the hungry caterpillar book!

  • Water – there are so many uses for water in a tuff tray and due to its shallow nature, the risks are minimal. Children should always be supervised around water though, even for the slip factor. Great ways to sit back and relax in the garden “supervising” are:
  • Simply adding water with a range of pouring utensils. Cups and bottles, sieves, small pans, slotted spoons, bath toys.
  • You can add soap to make bubbles but watch out for the added slip risk
  • A favourite of ours is potion mixing and I’m always saving odd shaped bottles for this. You can use old shampoo bottles, miniature food colouring bottles. We LOVE our fishbowl shaped cauldrons (plastic from Poundland). Simply add water, a few drops of food colouring, some natural ingredients – daisies, fresh herbs, pipettes, spoons and measuring utensils

I hope that you will find these ideas helpful, please feel free to message me if anything needs clarifying and look out for the next instalment which will undoubtably feature some or all of the following:

  • How to dye and use pasta
  • Water – under the sea, pirates and mermaids, Ice play
  • Book themes and nursery rhymes and using a tuff tray for art projects!

Hannah x