If you're looking for ways to encourage your child to get involved in messy, sensory play and to learn through play without even realising they're doing so then a tuff tray could be the piece of play equipment you need. Perfect for summer entertainment in the garden or for any parents who love the idea and understand the benefits of messy play but don't want their house to suffer the consequences, tuff trays can be used in lots of different creative ways. Before you go ahead and buy one, read our guide below first. We've answered all your tuff tray questions, from what exactly they are and how to use them to whether they're worth the investment and how they can benefit your child's learning and development.


What are tuff trays?

A tuff tray (also known as a tuff spot) is a large octagonal heavy duty plastic tray with a lip around the edge originally used by builders for mixing materials and now very popular with parents, nurseries and schools. Tuff trays usually come with a stand to raise them up off the ground, but can be used without one.

Tuff trays are brilliant as they can contain loose messy materials without everything ending up on the floor or around your house. Many schools and nurseries have tuff trays as they allow multiple children to stand around them and can be set up with small world scenes or sensory play materials that encourage collaborative play and entertain them for hours.

What can you use tuff trays for?

These large octagonal plastic trays provide a contained space where children can play with sensory materials that might cause a mess elsewhere. Water, sand, mud, paint or homemade concoctions like crushed-up cereal, shaving foam or cocoa powder, all provide wonderful environments for children to explore.

Sensory activities are fun for little ones and they're a great way to help them learn. "Sensory play benefits children by aiding the development of their brain and nervous system," explains child development expert Dr Amanda Gummer. "These activities help to build connections in the brain and improve cognitive skills such as problem-solving, decision-making and creativity."

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There's no right time to start messy play. You might feel you want to dive in when your baby is young or wait until they reach toddler stage. Or, if you have an older child, there are still benefits to beginning sensory activities now. "I consider sensory play absolutely essential for children’s development, not just for the early years. It engages multiple senses, promotes emotional, social and physical growth and provides a fun and stimulating learning experience for all," says Dr Amanda. "Anything which stimulates the senses, encourages adventure, creativity and problem solving is really beneficial," she adds.

Is it worth getting a tuff tray?

The beauty of a tuff tray is its size and durability. They're made of plastic, which means they are hardwearing and can take any materials you throw at them. They usually detach from their stand, making them simple to hose or wipe clean. The size and shape of the trays make them perfect for multiple children – they're often used in nurseries and classrooms for this reason. If you have the space, they're also great in the home. The high lip around the edge of the tray is designed to keep everything contained. If you're nervous about the messy element of sensory play, having a dedicated area can make it more appealing to try these activities with your child. A tuff tray can also provide a versatile sand pit or water table.

If you don't have a tuff tray...

A tuff tray may feel like a piece of specialist equipment, but really it’s just a large plastic tray with a handy stand that’s perfect for holding messy activities. If you don’t have a tuff tray, you could just as easily use a water or sand table, or a gardening tray or under-the-bed storage box. A paddling pool is a useful stand-in for any water-based activities and for any ideas where the instructions suggest you bring the tuff tray down to floor level. 

What colour tuff tray is best?

This depends on who you ask. Many tuff tray fans favour a black tray as the materials stand out against the dark colour and you can write with chalk directly on to the surface. One thing to note with a black tray is the plastic can become very hot in the sun. If you're keeping the tray indoors, you might be more drawn to a colour that blends into the scheme of your home.

Things to bear in mind before getting a tuff tray

Tuff trays are a popular choice in classroom settings because they’re durable, adaptable and have space for multiple children. They sit on a stand that is usually height adjustable and they’re typically easy to pack away and store. If you’re thinking of buying one for your home, there are a few things to consider first.

Will the tuff tray fit into your space? These products are usually designed for 8 children so check the dimensions before you buy one.

Will you use it often? If you’re most likely to use a tuff tray for sand or water play activities, you might be better off buying a sand or water table. A tuff tray can be used for sand and water play, but products designed for this purpose usually come in a more child-friendly design.

Will it suit your home? Most tuff trays are designed for function rather than fashion, so consider whether the tuff tray will suit your taste.

Some other things to remember are that tuff trays – particularly those made of black plastic – can get very hot in the sun. They are not the most eco-friendly choice, as they are made of plastic. Although, they are durable, so you will be able to pass them on when you finish using them. And the easiest trays to clean are the ones you can remove from their stand. 

What can I put in a tuff tray?

overhead view of a black tuff tray with sensory play setup

When it comes to filling a tuff tray, anything goes. Although, it goes without saying, the materials you put inside the tray need to be safe for the age of your child. Sand and water are popular choices and provide plenty of opportunities for building, pouring and measuring. You can also be creative with materials that excite different senses. "Sensory play engages your child's touch, smell, taste, sight and hearing in activities that encourage exploration and experimentation," says Dr Amanda. Try crushed-up cereal to provide a crunch, cocoa powder to create a soft environment with a chocolate scent, or have fun with gloopy textures like cornflour mixed with water.


You can also consider the personal preferences of your child and the objects and materials that are well suited to their age. "Babies love the feel of soft materials and different fabrics, whereas older children will enjoy getting stuck in with different sounds and pouring and messy toys," says Dr Amanda. And you can invent worlds based on your child's favourite toys and characters or the time of year. We've included inspiration for over 50 dinosaur, farmyard and seasonal play ideas for all ages of child here.

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:41cmD: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.