Early Years Tuff Tray Activities

I’ve always seen lots of great tuff tray activity ideas on Pinterest and Instagram for young children, but it’s not something we ever did with the children when they were babies and toddlers. Last summer I bought a Tuff Tray (ok, a cheap builders mixing tray from Amazon) to use at my daughter’s birthday party. It didn’t turn up in time for when we needed it, but I kept it as I figured it would come in handy over the school summer holidays as a diversion from the television on the days we were staying at home.

I purposefully put together activities that don’t need much, or any, specialist equipment, are cheap, and easy to throw together! Much to my husband’s delight, I wash and hoard things like yoghurt pots, plastic strawberry containers, ice cream tubs, biscuit tins, paper cupcake cases and old washing up bowls, and they all come in handy for things like this. Here’s a few different things we’ve tried and enjoyed, and would be ideal for children in Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS).

1) Water beads
Water beads (like these) will need to be prepared 24 hours in advance by soaking in water, but once ready I popped them into a bowl on the tuff tray with a variety of containers, bowls, jugs, cups, and spoons. The kids only played with this in 20 minute stints, but came back to it over and over again.

water beads tuff tray

2) Play dough
Most parents I know hate play dough as the little bits get everywhere. I’m not too worried, I tend to keep it contained to the kitchen or outside in the garden. If you’re not much of a fan, the tuff tray is a great resource for keeping all the bits in one place. We usually buy our Play Doh, and have a few different tools and sets we’ve been bought as presents. If you’d like to make your own, why not give this recipe a try? If you’re trying to develop a little one’s fine motor skills, why not try this song?

3) Junk modelling 
Exactly what it sounds like. Chuck loads of junk (toilet rolls, cereal boxes, yoghurt pots, margarine tubs...) onto the tuff tray along with glue, sellotape and anything else you think might come in handy (pipe cleaners, stickers, split pins). You could set a task or a theme, or let your child run free with their ideas.  

4) Gardening
On days where the weather is too awful to get outside we’ve still managed to do some gardening inside! I pop the tuff tray on the kitchen floor, and put the compost into a flexi tub for easier access. With this indoor set up the children quite happily filled their plant pots with compost, planted their seeds, and gave them their first watering.

5) Water play
For us this set up is often similar to the water beads one (idea number 1). We have lots of different containers, but instead of water beads we have a washing up bowl full of warm water. Sometimes we splash around. Sometimes we wash dolls or Barbies. Sometimes we play with bubbly washing up liquid. Sometimes we collect a list of objects, predict whether they will sink or float, and then test our predictions.

6) Painting
A tuff tray is excellent for keeping paint off your floor and dining table! My parents bought the kids some bird boxes to paint during the summer last year  (these were being sold off in Asda for £1.50 each) and the tray was a great place to do these. Alternatively, just good old paint and paper will do!

bird box paintingTuff tray painting

7) Ice play
This one is particularly good for hot summer days. I froze leaves and flowers from the garden inside old yoghurt pots and just popped them onto the tuff tray. The kids enjoyed the first challenge, getting the ice out of the pots, and then used the ice to make patterns, build towers and just generally mess about. We ending up fashioning a kind of curling game which involved sliding your bit of ice as close as possible to an upturned yoghurt pot. The ice melted before we got bored of the game - good job I held some ice back in the freezer! You could also freeze bigger items in bigger containers. My 3 year old recently attended an Octonauts party where multiple toy sea creatures were frozen in a large lump of ice. The children had to use paint brushes and water sprays with warm water in to “rescue” the sea creatures. My son did this one activity for pretty much the whole party!
(Sorry about the quality of the photo below, I wanted to crop out my child in her swimming costume.)

ice play

8) Themed station
Setting up a “themed” area that the kids can come back to over a period of, for example, a week means that they can keep coming back to a topic whilst also giving themselves a bit of thinking space. If it’s a theme that really interests them it makes learning fun and keeps them motivated. For example, an “police” themed station might include this book, some toy police cars, a police badge (bought or made), a toy phone to talk about calling 999, some colouring sheets.  A “space” themed station might include this book, a toy rocket, some glow in the dark stars, black paper and chalk pastels.

9) Moon Sand
I prepared a small amount of Moon Sand to be played with on the tray. You could play with it in lots of ways but we liked burying little plastic dinosaurs and animals, and uncovering them again. We had a bucket of water on standby to wash them, and then popped them on towels to dry out in the sun...before burying them again. 


Do you have any good tuff tray activities you’d like to share, or have you tried any of these? Let me know in the comments.