Are you looking for sensory tuff tray ideas to help young children learn through messy play? Perhaps you have a tuff tray already and are wondering what to use it for. Or you might be considering buying one for your home or educational setting and are researching what you can put inside it. To help you make the most of these versatile tray tables we've come up with 50 brilliant ideas for games, small world displays and sensory set-ups that will delight your children. With ideas for babies right up to school children, there's a tuff tray option below that'll keep every age child occupied and entertained as well as educating them and working on their development without them even knowing.


50 brilliant tuff tray ideas

Tuff tray ideas for babies

It's never too early to start experimenting with sensory play, as long as you're careful with the materials your baby will come into contact with. Babies won't be able to use a tuff tray safely on its stand, but you can remove the tray and use it at floor level – where they'll be able to climb right in!

You can add soft-textured items into the tray for your baby to explore or create a shallow tray of lukewarm water and bath toys for your baby to sit and play in. "Tummy time on different textured surfaces can promote exploration of different materials with hands and feet. And toys that encourage pulling, grasping or squeezing can promote different experiences," says child development expert Dr Amanda Gummer.

Be aware that small items can pose a choking hazard for your baby and remember to never leave a child unattended around water, even for a few seconds.

1. Sensory tray

baby lying in a tuff tray surrounded by sensory toys

Suitable for age: 0+

More like this

What you'll need: Tuff tray (cleaned and removed from its stand) and a selection of baby-safe sensory objects, for example, soft toys, shakers, squeaky toys, blankets, board books and fabric books

Pop your baby inside the tuff tray and surround them with the sensory objects so you can explore them together. You can lie them on their back or give them some tummy time. Let them reach out and feel different objects and help them along by gently shaking shakers or stroking their skin with the blankets and soft toys.

Variations: Change the environment by making the room darker and using a disco light to create dancing coloured lights.

2. Jelly dig

Suitable for age: Around 6 months+ (when your baby can sit up by themselves and have started weaning)

What you'll need: Tuff tray, sugar-free jelly, large plastic bowl, baby-safe plastic toys

  1. Prepare the jelly according to the instructions on the packet and pour it into the bowl.
  2. Add the toys as the jelly cools.
  3. Pop the bowl of set jelly into the tuff tray with a few plastic spoons. (If you're trying this activity with a baby, you'll need to use the tuff tray at floor level).
  4. Let your baby or toddler have fun excavating the toys using their hands and the plastic spoons!

Safety: Jelly cubes can present a choking habit so keep the raw jelly away from babies and young children and always prepare it according to the manufacturer's instructions. While jelly is taste-safe for babies, we wouldn't recommend including jelly as a regular part of your baby's diet.

3. Yoghurt paint

Suitable for age: Around 6 months+ (when your baby can sit up by themselves and have started weaning)

What you'll need: Tuff tray, yoghurt, a clean paintbrush

Are you ready for your baby to get messy? Simply sit them (clad only in their nappy) inside the tuff tray. Hand them the paintbrush and a pot of yoghurt and let them paint, swish and swirl the yoghurt all over the tray and – let's be realistic – all over themselves. Yoghurt is a wonderful paint for babies to experiment with as it's a fun texture, it creates clear marks and it won't matter if the paintbrush makes it into their mouths.

Variations: If you don't mind the mess, you could extend this activity to include painting on a glass door. This works particularly well on a patio door if you're outside on a warm day.

4. Water tray

baby sitting up in tuff tray playing with water and plastic toys

Suitable for age: Around 9 months+ (when your baby can sit up well independently)

What you'll need: Tuff tray, lukewarm water, clean containers – for example, jugs, pots, a mini watering can – and plastic toys

Add a shallow level of lukewarm water to a tuff tray that has been removed from its stand at floor level. Then, sit your baby in the water with a selection of containers they can fill, pour and sprinkle water with.

Safety: Child safety experts, such as RoSPA, advise that small children can drown in as little as 5cm of water so be sure to add only a shallow amount of water to the tray and never leave your baby unattended, even for a few seconds.

Tuff tray ideas for toddlers

Toddlerhood is the ideal time to embrace sensory play, when children are more mobile and developing motor skills and language. You can have fun with a wider range of materials, although remember children of this age will still be tempted to put things in their mouth. "Child-safe materials such as playdough are ideal as they promote squeezing and moulding, and simple activities such as finger painting or bubble blowing can stimulate a child visually," says Dr Amanda.

A huge benefit of messy play for this age group is the exposure to new experiences that provide the opportunity to learn new words. "Sensory activities help children develop language as they describe experiences and interact with others in different play settings. They can experiment with language and sounds in a fun and engaging way, helping them with communication and social development," Dr Amanda explains.

5. Masking tape road

Suitable for age: 2+

What you'll need: Tuff tray, masking tap, a marker pen, toy cars

Create roads on the tuff tray using masking tape and draw road markings on the tape with the marker pen. Fill the tray with toys cars for your little one to zoom around. Add more details to the scene with toy trees, Duplo people or toilet roll tunnels.

Variations: Use chalk instead of masking tape. You could also draw roads in the shapes of numbers or letters to cruise the cars over and help preschoolers practice letter formations.

6. Teddy Bears' Picnic

child playing teddy bear's picnic on a tuff tray in the garden

Suitable for age: 2+

What you'll need: Tuff tray, teddy bears, picnic toys – for example, a blanket, plates, tea cups and play food.

Arrange the teddy bears and their picnic in the tray so your child can play and have fun making up stories.

Make it extra sensory: Add turf or pretend grass to the tuff tray so your child can feel different textures. Add some real sandwiches or cakes so your child can taste the picnic and share it with their teddies. And why not add the teddy bears' picnic song. This version sung by Justin Fletcher is available on Spotify.

Variations: Create tuff tray worlds for other nursery rhymes, for example, sit 5 toy frogs on a log in a shallow rock pool and sing 5 Little Speckled Frogs.

7. Finger gym

This idea is great for developing fine motor skills and practicing hand eye coordination. "Different types of sensory play should be encouraged and anything that involves reaching, stretching or drawing shapes with the hands or fingers can encourage coordination," advises Dr Amanda.

Suitable for age: 2+

What you'll need: Tuff tray, colander, dried spaghetti

Pop everything inside the tuff tray and encourage your little one to thread the spaghetti through the holes in the colander.

Variations: Give children wool to thread pasta shapes or Cheerios onto and create jewellery.

8. Painting pebbles

Suitable for age: 3+

What you'll need: Tuff tray, pebbles, a paintbrush and poster paints

Can your child make a mini work of art on a pebble? Add all of the ingredients to the tray so your little one can start creating.

9. Crazy haircuts

Suitable for age: 3+

What you'll need: Tuff tray, different coloured paper, safe scissors

Learning to use scissors involves control and coordination of the hands and fingers. Make it fun by giving little ones crazy hair to snip and style!

  1. Draw a face on one piece of paper and snip it out. Pop it on the tuff tray.
  2. Create strands of hair with coloured paper and glue it onto the head.
  3. Try rolling strips of paper around a pencil to create curls. Or cut zigzag, spiral or spiky locks.
  4. Give your child safe scissors to snip the hair and give the character a daring new do.

Messy play ideas

10. Minibeast Hunt


Squeezing child-safe tweezers is an exciting exercise that strengthens fingers and improves coordination.

Suitable for age: 2 and above

What you'll need: Tuff tray, child-friendly tweezers, plastic pots, plastic minibeasts and soil (or pretend soil – you can create this by mixing together cocoa powder and play sand).

  1. Make a pile of soil in the middle of the tray and pop the toy minibeasts into their new home.
  2. Give your little one the tools to search in the soil for the creatures.
  3. Can they use the tweezers to lift them out and pop them in a pot?

Variations: Create a pirate treasure hunt by burying plastic jewels in sand.

11. Painting patterns

Suitable for age: 3+

What you'll need: Tuff tray, child-safe paints, different tools and toys you don't mind getting paint on – for example a toothbrush, a toy saw, a sponge and a toy car

Splodge different colours of paint in the middle of the tray and arrange the tools around the edge. Encourage your child to reach in and move the paint around using the different tools. What different patterns and textures can they create?

12. Paper funnels

This simple idea from Play Hooray is ideal in a tuff tray, which can catch all of the little grains of rice and make it easy for children to repeat the activity over and over again. Scooping the rice will help children to practice fine motor skills and the sound of the rice pouring through the tubes makes this a fun sensory experience.

Suitable for age: 2+

What you'll need: Tuff tray, wire rack with legs, colourful paper, dried rice, spoons or scoops

  1. Pile rice onto the tuff tray and position the wire rack so it sits above the rice.
  2. Roll each piece of paper to create a funnel; a cone that is wide at the top with a narrow opening at the bottom.
  3. Stand the funnels in the squares of the wire rack with the narrow opening facing down and the wide opening at the top.
  4. Show your child how to scoop up rice and pour it into the funnels. The rice should fall slowly through the hole at the bottom. If it won't flow, you might need to snip the hole to make it a little bigger.
  5. When the rice drops through, can your child catch it and scoop it and pour it again?

13. Shaving foam paint

boy painting with shaving foam paints on a tuff tray in garden

This easy idea from Play of the Wild creates shaving foam paint with a great puffy texture.

Suitable for age: 3+

What you'll need: Tuff tray, shaving foam, 4 different coloured bottles of food colouring, 4 bowls, paintbrushes

    1. Fill each bowl with shaving foam. Add several drops of different coloured food colouring to each bowl and stir. Add a little more if you need to.
    2. Pop the bowls and paintbrushes on the tuff tray and invite your little one to start painting the tray. Can they make exciting rainbow swirls?

Variations: As an alternative to food colouring, mix a small amount of washable poster paint into the shaving foam. This paint is perfect for painting onto glass doors.

Sensory tuff tray ideas

These ideas are designed to awaken the senses. "Any play activity which engages touch, sight, smell, sound or taste is sensory play. It’s an important mechanism for children to experience their environment, and to explore, be curious and develop," says Dr Amanda.

14. Underfoot sensory tuff tray

Suitable for age: 3+

What you'll need: Tuff tray, cardboard, scissors (for you to use), glue, safe textures to stick to to the cardboard – for example, tissue paper, cereal, lolly sticks, cotton wool, tin foil

This idea from Adventures and Play shows how versatile a tuff tray can be. If you remove the tuff tray from its stand you can use it at floor level, so children can experience different exciting textures with their bare feet.

  1. Cut 8 circles or squares from the cardboard that are about 25cmx25cm and glue different textures onto each shape.
  2. The textures need to be safe for little feet to stand on. Some good examples include: scrunched up tissue paper, lolly sticks glued flat to the cardboard, rice krispies or a similar cereal, cotton wool, tin foil. You could also just paint one of the shapes.
  3. Once the glue and paint is completely dry, arrange the shapes on the tuff tray. Your children can explore the shapes and textures by touching, standing and walking on them with bare feet.

Add more: Encourage your child to step or jump between different shapes to encourage gross-motor skills and physical development. "Play activities such as hopping or jumping can promote bi-lateral development as they require coordination and synchronisation of movement," says Dr Amanda.

15. Cocoa paint

Suitable for age: 2+

What you'll need: Tuff tray, cocoa powder, paintbrush, paper (optional)

Cocoa powder creates a beautiful brown paint with a sensory twist – the oh-so-lovely scent of chocolate! Add 2 tablespoons of cocoa powder to 100ml of boiling water and stir. Add more water if it's too thick, or more cocoa powder if it's too watery. Wait for it to cool down and then let your little one get creative. Smaller children can paint the tuff tray or older children can use the mixture to paint pictures onto paper.

16. Noisy farmyard small world

toddler boy playing with a farmyard setup in a tuff tray

Suitable for age: 2+

What you'll need: Tuff tray, crushed up cereal, farm toys – for example farm animals and a tractor – and objects that make a noise – for example, a small bell, a shaker or a xylophone.

Make a world inside the tray using the crushed up cereal to create the floor or the farm and the xylophone to create a path. When your child drives the tractor over the cereal, it'll make a pleasing crackle or crunch. When the animals walk the path it'll tinkle. You could also tie a little bell around a cow's neck so it jingles when it walks.

Variations: Your child could drive toy cars over bubble wrap to hear the bubbles pop.

17. Scented potions

child mixing potions on a tuff tray in garden

Suitable for age: 2+

What you'll need: Tuff tray, empty jam jars, pots and bottles, measuring spoons, stirrers (spoons or lolly sticks work well) and sensory potion ingredients – for example, water coloured with food colouring (you could add edible or biodegradable glitter), ground spices, fresh herbs or flowers

Arrange the potion ingredients on the tray in the pots and bottles. Your child can have fun mixing different ingredients together in their jam jars. Can they make something that smells beautiful? Or how about something that smells horrid? And can they imagine what their potions do? Although, we don't recommend trying one of them.

18. Painting on foil

Suitable for age: 2+

What you'll need: Tuff tray, washable paints, jumbo paintbrushes, tin foil, an apron

This is a really simple way to make painting new and exciting. Simply cover the tuff tray with foil and provide your little one with jumbo paintbrushes to swish the paint onto the foil. We've suggested washable paint and an apron because this could get messy.

19. Blowing bubbles

Suitable for age: 3+

What you'll need: a tuff tray, bubble mixture, bubble wands – shopbought, or create your own.

Simply add the bubble mixture to the tuff tray, dip in and blow bubbles!

DIY bubble wand ideas:

  • Small bubble wand: twist one end of a pipe cleaner into a circle and hold the other end.
  • Medium bubble wand: loop a pipecleaner into a circle and use another pipecleaner to attach it to the end of a twig.
  • Large bubble wand: Loop a long piece of string through 2 paper straws. Use the straws as handles and dip the string into the bubble mixture.
  • Enormous bubble wand: dip a hula-hoop into the mixture.

20. Ice painting

Suitable for age: 3+

What you'll need: a tuff tray, ice blocks (freeze a shallow layer of water in tupperware or ice cream tubs), paintbrushes and paint

Turn painting into an extra sensory experience by giving little ones a frozen canvas to paint on. Simply, give them the paintbrushes and paint to create pictures and patterns on the ice. They'll love seeing their creations appear and as the ice starts to melt it will create a whole new rainbow pattern within the tuff tray.

Outdoor tuff tray ideas

21. Dinosaur small world

Suitable for age: 2+

What you'll need: Tuff tray, sand, grass, pebbles, twigs, small logs, plastic dinosaur toys

little boy playing outside with tuff tray filled with sand and dinosaurs

Create a rich dinosaur world using sand as the base, grass as vegetation and twigs as trees. Dot around the pebbles and small logs. Invite your little one to bring their toy dinosaurs to explore their new world.

22. Washing babies

Give children a nurturing grown-up role and put them in charge of giving their babies a bath. This is a perfect idea to try outside on a warm day and works just as well in a water table as it does inside a tuff tray.

Suitable for age: 2+

What you'll need: a tuff tray, water, bubble bath, dolls, sponges and jugs

Add lukewarm water and bubble bath to the tuff tray to create a bubbly bath. Sit the babies in the bath so your child can use the sponge and give them a lovely wash. You could also add extra elements for them to wash off. Try adding shaving foam on the dolls' heads for your child to gently rinse away. Or, pop a little face paint on the dolls for your child to rub away.

Safety: Never leave your child unattended near water, even for a few seconds.

23. Drawing shadows

Suitable for age: 4+

What you'll need: Tuff tray, plastic toys, paper, crayons

All you need is a sunny day for this cute drawing activity. Pop the paper in the tray and stand a toy so its shadow is falling onto the paper. Can your child draw over the shape of the shadow to create a picture?

24. Plant a sunflower

Suitable for age: 3+

What you'll need: Tuff tray, multi-purpose compost, sunflower seeds, small plant pots, watering can

You don't need to be green-fingered to plant a seed. Encourage little ones to scoop compost into a flower pot and pop in a seed. Sprinkle a little more compost on top and water it. Then leave it. The hardest part is being patient enough to watch it grow.

Variations: Sunflowers are best sown between April and May. Choose a seed for the time of year you're planting it in. This handy Seed-Sowing Year guide from Gardeners' World has month-by-month recommendations. We guarantee your child will love watching any plant start to shoot.

EYFS tuff tray ideas that support the early years curriculum

25. Out-of-this-world counting

Suitable for age: 3+

What you'll need: Tuff tray, chalk, glow-in-the-dark stars, torch

Take the chalk and write numbers in circles directly onto the tuff tray. Add the stars and ask your child to put the right number of stars in each galaxy. For extra sensory magic, do this activity in a dark room. Use a torch to look at the number and then count out the glowing stars.

Variations: Give your child cars to park or farm animals to count into pens. You can also use this activity to practice addition equations. Can your child add 2 stars to 3 stars by counting how many there are altogether?

26. Sensory counting tray

Suitable for age: 3+

What you'll need: Tuff tray, green sand (or green rice), farmyard animals, a blunt pencil

  1. Add a layer of sand (or rice) to the tuff tray, deep enough to trace numbers into.
  2. Add groups of animals around the tray, for example, 1 horse, 3 cows and 5 chicks.
  3. Can your child count the animals and trace the number into the sand using their pencil?

Variations: Give your child equations and encourage them to mark the answers in the sand.

27. Phonics fishing

Suitable for age: 3+

What you'll need: Tuff tray, colourful card, child-safe magnetic letters, magnetic fishing rod

  1. On the colourful card, draw fish outlines. Inside each one, write words you'd like your little one to build. Then cut them out.
  2. Arrange the fish around the edge of the tray.
  3. Scatter the magnetic letters in the middle of the tray.
  4. Can your child fish out the letters they need to build each word?

Variations: Make it messy by adding alphabet spaghetti to the tray instead of magnetic letters. Use child-safe tweezers to pick out the letters.

Phonics levels: Adapt this activity for the level your child is learning in phonics. It's a safe bet to include 3-letter words that practice individual consonant sounds (for example c-a-t). Your child might be moving on to learning pairs of letters that make a sound (for example ch-i-ck). You can also use this activity to practice spelling high-frequency words (for example the, go, we and all).

28. Bear Hunt small world

Mudpie Fridays brought a classic story to life by creating the different environments in Michael Rosen's We're Going on a Bear Hunt. Tuff trays provide a large versatile space to create worlds from different books and explore literacy with young children.

Suitable for age: 3+

What you'll need: Tuff tray, materials to create the worlds from Michael Rosen's book – for example, grass (real or artificial), pebbles, blue cellophane, brown cereal, brown play dough, toy trees (or create them by glueing pompoms to twigs), cotton wool balls, grey paper, a toy house and characters – for example, a plastic bear and dolls house people.

  1. Create the different environments from We're Going on a Bear Hunt, including home, long wavy grass, a deep cold river, thick oozy mud, a big dark forest, swirling whirling snow and a narrow, gloomy cave.
  2. Recite the story while walking the characters around the tuff tray. Remember, they can't go over it, they can't go under it so they must go through it...

29. Boat races

boy blowing boats across a purple tuff tray

Suitable for age: 3 and above

What you'll need: Tuff tray, water, toy boats, paper straws

Fill the tuff tray with water and add the boats. Children use their straw to blow a boat across the tray. Multiple children can race their boats. What better way to teach younger children that forces (including blowing) make objects move? Or that the greater the force (the greater the puff), the faster they will go.

30. My body

Suitable for age: 4 and above

What you'll need: Tuff tray, chalk, paper (cut into rectangles), pens, sticky tack

  1. Draw the outline of a body onto the tuff tray, using chalk.
  2. Write body parts onto the small rectangles of paper, for example, ear, belly button, toe, knee.
  3. Challenge your child to stick the labels in the right place on the body.

31. Sink or Float

Suitable for age: 3 and above

What you'll need: Tuff tray, chalk, a container of water and a selection of objects to test, for example: a lolly stick, small plastic toys, a button, a toy boat, a sponge and a paper plate

  1. To set up the tuff tray, fill the container with water and pop it on the tray.
  2. Draw a line down the tray with chalk to create two columns. Label them "sink" or "float".
  3. Now, start the experiment. Test each object and write down whether it sinks or floats by adding the name of the object to one of the columns.

Remember, objects are more likely to sink if they are heavy or have a smaller surface area.

Variations: Older children could guess first whether each object will sink or float and write down their guess (their hypothesis) before testing if they are right.

32. Cross the River!

This science challenge by aceearlyyears is a brilliant way to help children practice STEAM as it combines exploration of science (forces) and engineering (designing and building the bridge) in a fun setting. You can also use this activity to practice using positional language.

Suitable for age: 4+

What you'll need: a tuff tray, green felt, blue material (or a scarf), wooden blocks of different shapes, lengths and sizes, and small toys

  1. Use the green felt and blue material to create a river with 2 grassy banks.
  2. See if your child can create a bridge between the 2 banks that will safely allow the small toys to cross the river and reach the other side.

33. Speeding cars

Explore forces by testing the speed at which cars slide down different ramps.

Suitable for age: 4+

What you'll need: a tuff tray, toy cars, building blocks and other items you can use as ramps – for example, books, planks of wood or an unwanted drainpipe cut into sections, plus different surfaces you can add to the ramps – for example, carpet, felt or tin foil

  1. Create different ramps inside the tuff tray. Use the side of the tuff tray and building blocks to lift them to varying heights.
  2. Arrange some ramps so they slide into the tuff tray from shelves or ledges outside the tray.
  3. Cover some of the ramps with different textures that are more slippy. For example tin foil. What happens if you add water to the tin foil before the car slides?
  4. Cover some of the ramps with materials that offer more resistance. For example, carpet, felt or artificial turf if you have it.
  5. Can your child guess which cars will travel faster or slower? Will the height and angle of a ramp affect the speed? What about the surface of the ramp?
  6. Older children could record their hypothesis before putting it to the test.

Variations: Use boats and fill the tuff tray with a shallow level of water, so the boats can slide and make a splash landing.

Seasonal tuff tray ideas

Easter tuff tray ideas

34. Splatty eggs

Suitable for age: 2+

What you'll need: Tuff tray, shaving foam, yellow and orange plastic balls, utensils – for example, spoons and spatulas – and plastic plates

  1. Can your child get creative and make fried eggs in the tuff tray using shaving foam for the whites and coloured balls for the yolks?
  2. Add spatulas to the tuff tray. Challenge your child to pick up the eggs and transfer them to plates so they can serve them up for lunch.

35. Egg shakers

little boy playing with rice and plastic eggs in a tuff tray

Suitable for age: 2+

What you'll need: Tuff tray, rice, plastic eggs that split in two, spoons and pots

Can your child fill the eggs with rice and give them a shake?

36. Build a bunny

Suitable for age: 2+

What you'll need: Tuff tray, bowl of brown cereal (or white rice), colourful lolly sticks, googly eyes, coloured paper, bows

Can your child create a bunny using all of the different materials?

  1. Snip the coloured paper to create individual ears and nose.
  2. Draw the outline of a bunny's face on the tuff tray. Pop the other items around the tray.
  3. Encourage your child to fill the outline of the bunny with cereal.
  4. Can they use the lolly sticks to create whiskers?
  5. And use the extra bits to give the bunny a face?

Spring tuff tray ideas

37. Froglet fun small world

Suitable for age: 3+

What you'll need: Tuff tray, water, googly eyes, toy frogs, twigs, leaves, glass beads or pebbles

Fill the tuff tray with a shallow level of water and create a rich pond world. Use googly eyes as frogspawn, leaves as lily pads and twigs to create a bank for young (plastic) frogs to jump around on. Add pebbles and glass beads to add extra textures and interest to the scene.

Safety: Googly eyes and glass beads are a choking hazard for children aged under 3 years. Always supervise children when using small objects. Never leave children unattended around water, even for a few seconds.

38. Frozen flowers

pretty ice cubes with flowers inside for tuff tray game

Suitable for age: 2+

What you'll need: Tuff tray, ice cube tray, water, flowers, paintbrushes, pots of water

Prepare the frozen flowers: Add water to the ice cube tray and float a flower in each square. Pop it in the freezer to freeze for 2 hours.

Fill the tuff tray with frozen flower ice cubes and paintbrushes. Encourage your little one to paint water onto the ice cubes so they can melt the ice and pick out the the flowers.

Variations: You can freeze anything inside the cubes for your little one to rescue. Try small plastic dinosaurs or treasure like plastic coins or gems.

Summer tuff tray ideas

39. Tuff tray beach

Suitable for age: 3+

What you'll need: Tuff tray, play sand, blue rice, sea creature toys, play people, seashells, a small spade or scoop and small containers.

Bring the beach to you with this tuff tray idea that's sure to be a summer hit.

  1. Fill half of the tuff tray with play sand and half with the blue rice, creating a wavy shoreline between the two different materials.
  2. Create an exciting scene by adding sea creatures to the "sea" and seashells to the sand. Add play people to the beach and small sand tools for your child to have fun building sandcastles with.

40. DIY Sand Play Dough

Suitable for age: 3+

What you'll need: Tuff tray, sand toys and cutters

For the DIY sand: flour (11/2 cups), salt (1/2 cup), play sand (11/2 cups), cream of tartar (2tbs), coconut or vegetable oil (2tbs), boiling water (11/2 cups)

Inspire my Play provides this easy recipe. This sensory dough with a light sandy texture is perfect for moulding and building with. While it might take a little longer to prepare this activity, it has many learning benefits. "Sensory play activities that encourage children to use both hands, for example kneading or moulding different materials, encourage bilateral coordination, fine motor skills and cognitive development," explains Dr Amanda.

To prepare the sand:

  1. Combine the dry ingredients in a mixing bowl.
  2. Add the oil and 1 cup of the boiling water.
  3. Give everything a good stir. If it feels too dry, add a little more water.
  4. One the mixture has cooled a little, lift it out onto a work surface and knead it until you have supple dough.

Fill the tuff tray with the play dough and add the sand toys and cutters for your child to have fun with.

Autumn tuff tray ideas

41. Leaf faces

Suitable for age: 3+

What you'll need: Tuff tray, leaves, conkers, acorns, frames made from paper or card (or old photo frames with the glass taken out)

Scatter leaves of different shapes and sizes, conkers and acorns into the tuff tray. Inspire your child to use them to create funny faces inside the frames. Can they create eyes, nose, mouth, ears and hair? How about a moustache, hat, earrings or beard? They can keep changing the faces and creating new ones. Photograph their favourites.

42. Chalk fireworks

Suitable for age: 3+

What you'll need: Tuff tray, chalks

Celebrate firework night or Diwali with this tuff tray idea that's fun and easy to set up. Just pop some colourful chalks in the tray then little ones can use them to scribble firework shapes. This idea works particularly well with a black tuff tray. If you have a coloured tray, add some black paper.

43. Autumn collection

Suitable for age: 3+

What you'll need: Tuff tray, autumn leaves, conkers and acorns, masking tape, child-safe tweezers, cups

The Empowered Educator suggests this fun idea using leaves, acorns and conkers you have collected on an autumn walk. It's useful to have an idea that puts those treasured collections to use.

  1. Spread the autumn leaves, acorns and conkers across the tuff tray.
  2. Create a criss-cross pattern of masking tape across the top of the tuff tray, so you create a lattice with spaces that reveal the autumn treasures below.
  3. Hand your child the tweezers. Can they can reach down through the lattice, grab the autumn treasure and deliver each item safely into their collection cup?

Halloween tuff tray ideas

44. Sensory spooky pumpkins

Carving jack-o-lanterns is a spectator sport for younger children. Try this sensory activity to let them get hands-on with spooky pumpkin fun.

Suitable for age: 3+

What you'll need: Tuff tray, an assortment of clear plastic jars and tubs, a black marker pen (for you to use), enough orange rice to fill the tuff tray (find out how to make colourful rice for sensory play), scoops and/or spoons

  1. Draw fun pumpkin faces onto the clear containers using the black marker pen.
  2. Fill the tuff tray with a layer of orange rice and stand the containers in the tray.
  3. Show your little one how to scoop the rice and fill the lanterns. They can have fun pouring the rice from one container to another. They'll also love emptying them and filling them up again.

Variations: If you don't have time to dye your rice, create a great ghost sensory bin instead. Fill the tuff tray with white rice and draw ghoulish faces on the containers. You can also adapt this idea for Easter; turn the containers into chicks (glue on feathers) and fill them with popping corn.

45. Colourful spider's web

This wicked web from Kids Play Learn Laugh encourages little fingers to reach, squeeze and press pompoms onto sticky tape.

Suitable for age: 3+

What you'll need: Tuff tray, double-sided tape, colourful pompoms

  1. Create a web on the tuff tray with the double-sided tape. It's easier to keep the top side of the tape covered at this stage.
  2. Start by making a cross, overlapping 2 long pieces of tape stretching from one side of the tray to the other.
  3. Now stretch another 2 lengths of tape diaganolly across the tray, turning the cross into a star.
  4. Fill the gaps with horizontal pieces of tape to finish the web.
  5. Pop the pompoms in a bowl next to the tray.
  6. Peel off the cover from the tape so your little one can stick the pompoms all over the web.

Variatons: You scuttle plastic spiders into the tray to add more textures and spookiness to this sensory experience.

Safety: Pompoms can create a choking hazard for children aged under 3, but younger children will enjoy this activity if you're happy to supervise them closely. Just make sure the pompoms make it onto the web and don't go near their mouths.

Christmas tuff tray ideas

46. Decorate the tree

Suitable for age: 3+

What you'll need: Tuff tray, masking tape, interesting and colourful objects – for example, pine cones, dried orange slices, wooden shapes, pompoms, stars and bows

  1. Create the outline of a Christmas tree on the tuff tray using masking tape. You could also use chalk. The benefit of masking tape is that it won't rub off.
  2. Ask your child to decorate the tree using all of the colourful objects. Multiple children can work together to create a beautiful tree.

Variations: Give the shape of a gingerbread man to decorate instead, using cereal, colourful rice and buttons. Or, create cute Christmas jumper outlines for your child to design using pomspoms, present ribbons and bows.

47. Santa's beard

Suitable for age: 3+

What you'll need: Tuff tray, chalk pens, cotton wool

  1. Draw Santa on the tuff tray with the chalk pens, leaving his beard as an outline just waiting to be filled in.
  2. Ask your child to create Santa's beard by adding lots of cotton wool. Ho ho ho!

Variations: Use shaving foam instead of cotton wool for a different type of sensory fun.

48. Christmas counting

Suitable for age: 4+

What you'll need: Tuff tray, chalk pens

Give maths a festive twist and practice what your child might be learning at school.

  1. Draw 20 baubles. Fill 10 with the numbers 1-10 and write the words one to ten inside the remaining baubles.
  2. Does your child know which number words and numbers go together? Give them the chalk pens so they can draw lines to match them up.

Variations: Write equations into 10 of the baubles and the answers in the other 10 so your child can practice simple adding and taking away.

Winter tuff tray ideas

49. Winter railway

Suitable for age: 2+

What you'll need: Tuff tray, wooden railway including track and trains, characters and scenery, icing sugar

Set up a toy railway inside a tuff tray where you can use more sensory materials to add extra interest. To create a winter scene, sprinkle icing sugar snow. Make it Christmassy by adding Christmas trees, snowmen and Santa to the scene.

Variations: Adapt this for different times of the year. Add spring flowers or autumn leaves. Create a sandy beach for the train to travel to in summer.

50. Patterns in the snow

Suitable for age: 3+

What you'll need: Tuff tray, flour and different tools – for example, rollers, scrapers, cookie cutters and pastry cutters


Scatter the tuff tray with flour and give your little one tools to make marks in the "snow". Older children could practice letter and number formations by tracing into the flour.

Our pick of the best tuff trays

  • Kub Original (70cm), £59.99: This tray won bronze in the MadeForMums Awards for good reason. It comes in black and 2 stylish muted shades, has a height-adjustable stand and is easy to store away.
  • simpa Medium (70cm), £39.99: A great budget option. The simpa is available in lots of bright colours, adjusts to 3 heights and can easily be removed from the stand.
  • Inspire My Play PlayTray (43cm), £49.95: This smaller tuff tray has 6 removable compartments and a lid. It doesn't have a stand so you'd have to sit it on a table. But, the lid is useful for storage and it provides a second tray space for play.
  • Active World toddler height wooden active world unit (H:41cm, D:96cm), £249.99: If you have the space and the budget, this extra large tray sits on a cabinet. You can't adjust the height but it provides plenty of storage for all of your tuff tray activities. Active World also sell tuff tray mats (£22.99) to fit their tables, which are perfect for creating small worlds. We love the treasure island, lunar and builder's yard mats.

About our expert, Dr Amanda Gummer

Dr Gummer has a PhD in Neuropsychology, a Postgraduate Certificate in Higher Education and over 20 years’ experience working with children and families. She created the Good Toy Guide in 2012 and regularly appears in the media to talk about children and play.

Sara Conway

Author and journalist Sara edited the children's educational website Giggly. In between writing children's activities and helpful guides for parents, she's at home trying to keep her 7-year-old entertained.