23 Sensory Tuff Tray Ideas

Tuff trays have become so popular over the past few years and I can really see why! The trays allow for endless imaginative play which is great for child development. I really love the messy, sensory play for babies and small world play for toddlers and preschoolers. You can be as creative and imaginative as you like when creating the tray and adjust the activity to suit the age of your little ones. I have compiled a list of some of my favourite tray ideas from other tuff tray lovers with instructions on how to create the tray!

1. Volcano Tuff Tray


The volcano tray was created around the STEM experiment, 'make your own volcano'. The volcano itself is made from paper mache moulded around a cup. Then red dye, bicarbonate of soda and a splash of washing up liquid were added to the cup and white vinegar was poured in. For the surrounding areas, green-dyed rice and fern leaves were used as pastureland, large gems and blue chalk for water, sand for the beach and sand dunes, clay, asparagus and cress for trees and bushes and stones to represent, well, stone. I used these materials to create different natural habitats and then matched an array of aquatic and land animals that would typically be found in these environments.

This messy play tray is a hands-on learning experience that promotes concept development and provides children with a knowledge and understanding of the world by discussing where the animals and their environments can be found. It also engages language and mathematical developments while enhancing fine motor skills. As the trays are created and played with at home in a family setting, it develops cooperative play.

2. Rainbow Tuff Tray


To make the tuff tray, cotton wool was used for the cloud, blue-dyed pasta for the rain, sweet corn for the sun and golden cake decorations for the sun rays, a mix of quinoa, rice and pasta dyed green for the grass, sand to represent the beach and a little beach hut made out of wooden pegs and large gems. For the rainbow, mix PVA glue, shaving foam and different food dyes together to make different coloured puffy paint.

This tray really is the messiest of messy plays. Children are able to sprinkle the 'sun rays' through the rain and mix the colours together to create tactile experiences to inspire curiosity and creativity. It also enhances fine motor skills, such as their pincer grip and prompted concept development as well as enhancing their scientific language development.

3. Train Safari Tuff Tray


The train safari tuff tray is such a hit with children! Not only is it great for their development it is just so fun to play with! Sand was used for the beach, stones for a riverbank, green-dyed rice, pumpkin seeds and grass as pastureland. Torn up lettuce leaves for a jungle, spring onions stood in Play-Doh as trees, blue puffy paint for water and the children's train and track set. Different animals with different family units were used in the tray to link it back to how other children have different family setups. Moving the train and exploring the different habitats helps enhance their fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination as well as promoting concept development and provided the children with a knowledge and understanding of the world.

4. Ice Cream Tuff Tray


This tray was such fun! My little girl Cleo is two this month and she loves to put everything in her mouth. Especially anything that looks remotely like food! So, I wanted this sensory tray to be edible. I made the cone from Rice Krispies and the ice cream part was cloud sand (2 parts wholemeal flour and 1 part cooking oil) and the flake made from chocolate cheerios. I also added sprinkles on top for good measure! You can even use the cloud sand to mould shapes and create sandcastles!

The ice cream tray was good for so many reasons. I dotted the numbers 1-10 around to reinforce number recognition throughout the play. Pouring, tipping, moulding, and squashing are all great for fine motor skills. The sensory part of this tray contained so many textures to experience and also different tastes. Both kids ate the chocolate bits and the Rice Krispies! But I can’t imagine that the cloud sand would taste very nice.

5. Cleaning Up The Planet Tuff Tray


This is one of my favourite trays I’ve done so far, just because of the message it teaches children. They had to pick up all the rubbish on the beach, save the animals, and recycle it into the correct bins. I added an activity to the tray to keep my youngest busy as I thought this may be a bit old for her. She had some shapes on shells to put on the right tortoises' backs. She did this while Davey cleaned the beach. He wasn’t sure where some of the rubbish went as he didn’t know what material it was, so it was a really great way to make him more aware of what things are made from, what we can recycle and why we should. He freed the animals from fishing nets and ropes, and he cleaned up all the rubbish on the beach. We were very happy to see it nice and clean at the end. Both kids loved getting messy with all the cloud sand and aqua beads, mixing it all together and feeling all the sticky messy it created. My youngest loved the shiny bottle caps and wouldn’t put them down.


Sand - cloud sand and couscous

  • Water - aqua beads

  • The mini crisp packets I made by washing them, flattening them in between baking paper and pop in the oven 170 degrees for 3-4 mins.

  • Toy animals

  • Bits of recycling from around the house.

6. Pirate Tuff Tray


During our Pirate themed week, we had a lovely pirate tray which had a painted bottom, we used poster paint to create a sandy beach and a blue ocean. We mixed some blue with some white which gave an ocean type effect. The beach then had polenta added so that it was safe for the babies (11 months). Little sea creatures and some Playmobil items from the toy box finished the scene which is a perfect #invitationtoplay. This tray is perfect for developing our preschooler's creativity as he can explore the animals and come up with stories. The babies can develop their sensory experiences through the feel of the sand and different textures of the sea creatures.

7. Farm Tuff Tray


Our farm themed tray was designed for our preschooler (3-year-old) to play with different textures and enjoy a bit of messy play! We have a duck pond with water (and a bit of blue food colouring), muddy pig puddle (cornflour, cocoa, and water), green coloured rice for the field, Rice Krispies and oat mix for the chickens and polenta for the farm track. We also used some shredded wheat or the fences. Your children can spend hours playing with the tuff tray and learning about different animals, what they eat, and what areas of the farm they live on.

8. Endangered Animal Tuff Tray


This tray can be adjusted to suit the age of your child. For babies (6 months old), the panda related tuff tray was perfect to help with eye development and co-ordination. Both were quite keen to crawl on top of the soft tray. It was also super simple to set up. We grabbed a white blanket to place over the tuff tray, added our favourite panda book then found all the soft toy pandas in the house. We seem to have quite a few!

For toddlers, the endangered animal tray was based on the book 'The Tiger Who Came to Tea'. It was made from coloured rice and looks really cool. It wasn’t too tricky to set up with starting with the white of his tummy, mouth and eyes. This was then surrounded by the orange rice and black rice to add the stripes. Our preschooler couldn’t resist jumping straight in and scooping up the rice to make "tea". He used little kitchen utensils which is really useful for coordination and fine motor skills. He also practised his numeracy with counting. Focusing on endangered animals was really nice as we were able to have some lovely learning conversations about what endangered means and other areas of conservation.

9. Edible Dinosaur Tuff Tray


My son is 2 now, and since he has been able to eat food, I have added edibles to our play. I try to use the least amount and not to waste much, so I only use what he actually likes.

The tuff tray play is really educational and fun at the same time, as we talk about what is on the tray, use terms to cement learning or new learning.

Sensory play on this tray was a feast for the eyes in terms of colours and textures, such as wood, glass and of course the edibles.

Feeling things between fingers is an important sensation for little ones, building on fine motor skills and getting to know what noise each texture can bring, e.g. the cornflakes would crunch in the hand and mouth, whilst the jelly is not crunchy.

Sensory or messy play inspires creativity and fosters their curiosity in a safe environment. Little ones are free to explore their senses and build on understanding different textures.

I used cornflakes as this is one of my go-to cereal foods to use, it can be crunched in the hand, rolled over with a rolling pin, scooped with vehicles or spoons and he loves eating it! The jelly was cold as it was left in the refrigerator for the night to set and was banana flavoured to add to the sensory experience. We also had edible toasted bruschetta that looked great as rocks but again the savoury taste was a change from the sweet jelly adding a different taste/texture and also a lot harder than the cornflakes, the food is the stimuli for the senses, for my little one to piece together in his mind and reinforce which types of materials and foods feel like.

10. Aeroplane Tuff Tray


We did a small world airport scene but also tried to link it with the landing and take-off strip into the sky scene.

The tray is actually covered in old table cloths that I cut to size and we re-use these a lot, the landing and take-off strip is rubber and mostly there is the metal set or wooden pieces. The clouds really set the scene for the sky, and they were so easy to do, literally spread out some cotton wool. Again, I went with his interests and he was able to use his imagination and creativity the peg doll and little pieces. Language and communication skills were also something that we were able to work on. Sometimes I ask what something is, sometimes he will, we discuss what is on the tray and what he is doing. Small world play is very important to me for his development but mainly I just want him to have fun. All learning is a bonus!

11. Garden Tuff Tray


Hello there, I’m Sharon from @craftedbybears over on Instagram. 

I always follow my little one's interests and get her involved in the tray set up. That way she’s engaged in the whole experience and takes ownership of it. 

I make sure each tray has a challenge to it such as counting, spelling, scooping, or matching.

For our Garden Tuff Tray, I supplied my little one with a range of elements to create her garden allowing the exploration of textures and composition. She studied the pictures in our Usbourne ‘Peep Inside’ Garden book and decided what she’d like to feature in her garden. Her creativity always astounds me and her ability to translate the vision she has using loose parts. Once this tray was complete we immediately engaged in a story created by her. A ‘bugs party’! This tray provided hours of open-ended play and fun, with the added sensory experience of playing outdoors. aIt’s always a little sad to pack up at the end of the day. But we will always have our memories of an adventurous play activity! 

12. Space Tuff Tray


With the hugely exciting SpaceX launch, we decided to create a space-themed play tray. We looked at our solar system, using our beloved Usbourne Space book. I then created a little Solar System with the different planets within it. To make it tactile I added black rice, glass beads, and tea lights to give it a real space feel. Our planets glow in the dark too, so we played with this tray in a darkened room! We sat and matched each planet to the images and descriptions in our Solar System book. I’m a real advocate for learning the through play and I know this activity will give my little one a visual reference the next time she thinks about the planets and our solar system. 

13. Bee Play Tray


For World Bee Day we were inspired to put together a little Bee themed Play Tray. After reading our trusty Usbourne book about animal homes, we studied the busy day of a bee. We discussed the collection of nectar and how pollen is also transmitted from flower to flower by the bee. Within our tray was a little pot of nectar for our bee to take back to the hive. We tried scooping the nectar and filling the inside of our Grimms mini rainbow, which served as our honeycomb. The yellow rice represented the pollen that also travels with the bee. The rest of the tray had bee-related elements, which were used for imaginative play. I tend to add letters to our trays too, so we can sound out words together and encourage letter and word recognition. 

14. Transport Tuff Tray


The transport tray was created using a variety of materials from cereal, rice, water beads, and rocks. This tray was designed small world play, messy play and sensory play all rolled up into one huge learning through play experience. The textures, loose parts and vehicles all use different motor movements and is excellent for child development. Imagination and knowledge of different areas are used and learnt within this tray.

15. Worm Tuff Tray


The worm tuff tray was made using up a lot of items we had used from previous trays and plays. I used homemade playdough for the worm tunnels and worms and added loose parts and other items for an extra sensory experience. This tray provides a way to build knowledge about the world, as well as motor skills, counting, and creativity.

16. Giraffes Can't Dance Tuff Tray


The Giraffes Can't Dance tuff tray was created using different coloured rice for the Giraffe (dyed using food colouring) and salt for the moon. This tray is perfect for sensory exploration but is also beneficial for learning many things including fine and gross motor skills, role play, and mark marking.

17. Bug Hunt Tuff Tray