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22 Messy Play Tray Ideas

Tuff trays have become so popular over the past few years and I can really see why! The playtrays 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 play and adjust the activity to suit the age of your little ones. I have compiled a list of some of my favourite messy play tray ideas from other tuff tray lovers with instructions on how to create the playtrays!

22 Sensory Messy Tray Ideas - Learning Through Play

messy play tray ideas - Volcano and Jungle Sensory Tuff Tray

1. Volcano Tuff Tray

The Fam of Five

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.

messy play tray ideas - Rainbow Sensory Tuff Tray

2. Rainbow Tuff Tray

The Fam of Five

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.

messy play tray ideas - Train Safari Sensory Tuff Tray

3. Train Safari Tuff Tray

The Fam of Five

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.

messy play tray ideas - Ice Cream Sensory Tuff Tray

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.

toddler tuff tray ideas - Cleaning Up The Planet Pollution and Recycling Sensory Tuff Tray

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 mess it created. My youngest loved the shiny bottle caps and wouldn’t put them down.


toddler tuff tray ideas - Cleaning up the planet sensory tuff tray

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.

toddler tuff tray ideas - Pirate ship and beach sensory tuff tray

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.

toddler tuff tray ideas - Farm Sensory Tuff Tray

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.

tuff tray ideas baby - Endangered Animal Panda Sensory Tuff Tray

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 coordination. 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!

tuff tray ideas baby - The Tiger who came to tea Sensory Tuff Tray

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.

Dinosaur Sensory Tuff Tray

9. 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.

activities for kids - Aeroplane Sensory Tuff Tray

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 tablecloths 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 with 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!

activities for kids - Garden Themed Tuff Tray

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. It’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! 

activities for kids - Bee Sensory Tuff Tray

12. 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. 

Transport, Diggers, Train and Car Park Sensory Tuff Tray

13. 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.

Worm Insect Sensory Tuff Tray

14. 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.

tuff spot ideas babies - Giraffes Can't Dance Tuff Tray

15. 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.

Bug Hunt Tuff Tray

16. Bug Hunt Tuff Tray

This is super simple and so much fun! We took mud from the garden and some leaves and sticks we collected on a walk and added them to the tray. I did add plastic and wooden insects but in fact, the real-life insects we discovered in the mud was fascinating for the children. We learnt the names of insects and gained knowledge about them. The children were able to freely explore with different utensils and gain a little understanding about the garden and what lives within it.

tuff spot ideas babies - Julia Donaldson Stickman Sensory Tuff Tray

17. Stickman Tuff Tray

We love stickman! I mean who doesn't!! So it really wasn't a hard choice to design a tray based on him. The stickman tuff tray was designed more for the sensory aspect rather than anything else. I used brown sugar for Stickman and salt for the snow. Both were perfect textures for mark-making and the loose parts gave this tray an extra layer for play.

tuff spot ideas babies - That's Not My Sloth Tuff Tray

18. That's Not My Sloth Tuff Tray

This tray was created from opened, unused cereals my kids just won't eat!

I used a variety of cereal for colour but also for exploring different textures. I added scoops and pots to this tray. Again, there is lots of learning potential behind this tray including motor movements, mark-making and imagination play. My daughter loves seeing the pictures I create then using the items to 'bake cakes' with.

tuff spot ideas - Mini Beasts Sensory Tuff Tray

19. Mini Beasts Tuff Tray

To make the mini beasts tuff tray I covered the bottom half of the tray in soil and added a line of rocks halfway along the top of the soil. I made underground tunnels, through the soil to look like worm and insect tunnels. I rolled worm shapes out of pink Play-Doh and added them in the tunnels. I rolled a long green sausage out of play dough, squashed it flat and made lots of line indents all the way along. It gave the effect of grass, which I laid across the other top half of the soil edge. I used plastic shrub plants from Harry’s Schleich watering hole and laid them across the top of the soil on the green Play-Doh and between the rocks.

I added artificial flowers to the left and right side of the tuff tray and added some artificial leaves on top of them. I cut cloud shapes out of cotton wool and used leftover spaghetti for the sun. Finally, I laid the plastic mini beasts all over the tray.

A tray like this is so good for engagement whilst learning facts about mini beasts. We read a lovely Usborne book 'Peep inside the Garden,' and as we went along we searched for the insects mentioned in the book. It is great for hands-on learning, stimulating the senses, and it ignites the imagination.

tuff spot ideas - Sand Quarry Tuff Tray

20. Sand Quarry Tuff Tray

To create the quarry tuff tray I printed straight and curved roads, then laminated them and stuck them in position on the tuff tray. I surrounded it with sand and stuck the laminated vehicles and signs into the sand. I laid rocks in different positions around the sand. I piled the black dyed sugar cubes, black beans, wooden blocks and white stones in piles for Harry to use his diggers to move around. I placed Harry’s digger vehicles all over the tuff tray in different positions, ready for him to play.

Tuff trays like this are great for fine motor skills, Harry loved moving materials from one place to the other. It is great for creative play, a lovely sensory activity that is lots of fun and helps light up your little one's imagination.

tuff spot ideas - Julia Donaldson The Snail and the Whale Tuff Tray

21. The Snail and the Whale Tuff Tray

Jenny Townsend Vlog

This Tuff Tray wasn’t set up in two minutes BUT the bits I used and made for it can be reused again and again. It was World Oceans Day this week so I thought this Tuff Tray would be perfect! 

So how did I create this Tuff Tray? Firstly, I studied the illustrations in the story itself and went from there. I used scrap bits of cardboard for some of the background and the background, I cut them to size and painted them. I made our own moon sand for the beach which was a great hit with my little girl. She loved to feel the soft sand and create sandcastles from the sand. The sea I made from dyed rice was another huge hit. The volcano was probably the hardest to make and also took the most time. I used paper mache along with newspaper and cardboard to create the Volcano and then once it was dry I painted it. The Artic scene was created from cotton wool and painted egg cartons. Once this was all set up and put into place I then added toys that I already had in our home such as animals, Happyland people, a fire engine, and other little bits.

This activity was great for imaginative play as not only could recreate the story from The Snail and the Whale but she could also create her own story. All the different materials are great for our little ones' senses, especially touching and exploring all the different textures. The use of the fire engine was a great way of teaching my daughter about how they help us and not just when there is a fire e.g. helping get the whale off the beach and back into the sea. What I am trying to say is that this may just seem like a fun thing to play with but it is also a great learning aid!

tuff spot ideas babies - The Very Hungry Caterpillar Tuff Tray

22. The Very Hungry Caterpillar Tuff Tray

Jenny Townsend Vlog

My little girl LOVES this book and I thought about how I could extend storytime with some extra props. I always try and use recycled materials in my craft activities. So I used some leftover IKEA cardboard boxes and drew out all the food the caterpillar eats as well as the butterfly. I then painted them and cut them out. I also used a cereal box and painted in red and drew the face of the caterpillar on the front and painted that. I cut out a big mouth piece making sure the food could fit inside it. Then when we read the story my little girl would post the food in the caterpillar's mouth as we went through it. She literally LOVES doing this. The more we read the book the more she remembered and learnt the story, she can now go through the whole story by herself! This not only tells the story of a hungry Caterpillar but it also shows the life cycle of a Caterpillar and through my daughter having the props she could see more clearly that life cycle. This is a great way to get reluctant readers involved with a story or even to get your child to have some quiet time... because we all know how much we as parents need that!

Tuff trays are an amazing way to help your children learn and develop while being such great fun at the same time! And of course, you can play together and as a family which makes it even more important. There are so many amazing tuff tray ideas mentioned in this blog and it was really difficult picking some of my favourites! For even more tuff tray ideas, check out their Instagram accounts above and give them a follow. New and exciting tuff tray activities are added daily! And, if you try out any of the ideas above please do tag me and the Instagram account of the original creator - we would love to see all of your creations!


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