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12 creative tuff tray ideas for fun and learning

Looking for tuff tray ideas? Help your kids learn and develop while having lots of fun with these sensory trays

A tuff tray with a wooden jigsaw insert
(Image credit: Etsy)

Want to try a tuff tray but no idea where to start? These tuff tray ideas are for you. The simple plastic trays have gone viral recently thanks to their multiple uses and – most importantly – their ability to contain the inevitable mess made by young 'uns when they're playing/painting/potion-making.

Tuff trays are much more than mess-preventing containers, though – they're an excellent educational tool, too, helping your kids learn everything from fine motor skills to geography and numeracy. 

Some tuff trays are best suited to the outdoors and should be installed as part of your garden ideas for kids. These are the sensory trays that use sand, mud, and other materials you don't want in your home. Other trays are perfectly fine to use indoors, too – they just give your kid a bit more focus with a designated play area.

Tuff tray ideas for fun and education

1. Teach them about cooking with a potion-themed tuff tray

A tuff tray with a cooking theme with pinecones

(Image credit: @littlewildolive)

We love this idea from Sam at @littlewildolive (opens in new tab), who created a setup for curious kids made up of leaves, grasses, pine cones, and more. Don't mind a bit of mess? Try making mud pies, or incorporate lots of jugs of water colored with food coloring for a potions masterclass. Can also be incorporated into mud kitchen ideas.

2. Help develop sense of direction with a map tuff tray

A tuff tray with a farm theme using sand and cereals

(Image credit: Mrs Underwood)

Teacher and blogger Rebecca Underwood (opens in new tab) made this cool tuff tray that represents a village and a farm using cereal, sand, and grains. The tray is neatly separated into four parts, which can help teach kids direction and reading maps. We also really like that this sensory tray is dark blue rather than black – it looks very pleasing. 

3. Stimulate their imagination with color

A tuff tray using purple rice and fairy figurines

(Image credit: Etsy)

Rice is one of the best materials to use in a tuff tray – kids love the texture, and you can create an infinite variety of themes with this filler. Use food coloring to create bright and imaginative landscapes that will captivate your child's attention. Add fairies and gnomes to create an enchanting fairytale landscape. The wooden tray is from Etsy (opens in new tab)

4. Teach them about different professions

A tuff tray with a firefighter theme

(Image credit: Mess It Up)

Who didn't like playing doctors/firefighters when they were a kid? This sweet tuff tray from Mess It Up (opens in new tab) has a firefighter theme – you can create a similar colorful flame using cornflakes or rice.

5. Learn about the human body with an anatomical tray

A tuff tray with an anatomical theme

(Image credit: Etsy)

This brilliant tuff tray kit from Etsy (opens in new tab) is suitable for children over three and is a great way to introduce kids to the human anatomy. It comes with plastic minis of human organs and is accompanied by a laminated illustration. Very useful for making those early biology lessons a bit more fun.

6. Create a beach scene with sand

We are always dreaming of balmy beach days. That's why we're loving this idea from Michelle at @tufftrayaday (opens in new tab), whose feed is jam-packed with tuff tray ideas. She's used blue food coloring for the sea and added cornflour to deepen the effect, and the result is a tuff tray we wouldn't mind getting stuck into either…

7. Train fine motor skills with a sorting sensory tray

A pink tuff tray with textile pompoms and egg crates

(Image credit: Mrs Underwood)

Perfect for helping young children develop fine motor skills, this colorful tuff tray Idea from Mrs Underwood uses egg crates and textured textile pom poms in a variety of colors. Wonderful for training dexterity, this one will keep them entertained for hours.

8. Create a board game that's educational too

A black board game tuff tray that uses chalk

(Image credit: @katiesclassroom)

This ingenious idea from @katiesclassroom_ (opens in new tab) is a great way to get kids learning while they play – and who doesn't love a good old-fashioned board game? Use a white pen to create your own, or try covering your tuff tray with paper painted with blackboard paint for an easy, fuss-free way to play more games – snakes and ladders, anyone? This could easily become one of the best garden games for summer.

9. Encourage artistic expression with a paints and crafts tray

A pink tuff tray with paints and cutouts of flowers

(Image credit: Mrs Underwood)

Whether your kid already loves painting and craft or you want to introduce them to artistic expression, a tuff tray will help to keep paint splashes to a minimum and also help them focus. We really like that this idea by Mrs Underwood also includes cutouts of flowers and glue for making a collage. Multi-media art for kids? Lovely.

10. Create a nature-based sensory tray

Engaging in their senses is a brilliant way to get kids learning about the world, so create a sensory experience using your tuff tray to teach them about nature. This one from @ks1_team (opens in new tab) includes vegetables so kids can feel the different textures, herbs for smell, and wooden and metal spoons for sound – earplugs at the ready!

11. Create a beautiful seasonal tray display

If your kid is artistically-minded, work with them to create a tray that's a homage to the season, like this beautiful design from @littlebellescreations (opens in new tab). You could exclusively use materials related to fall – think conkers, crunchy leaves and pine cones – or create a seasonal scene with household items. Set a theme and let their imaginations run wild.

12. Help them develop logic and numeracy with a puzzle

A wooden tuff tray with a built-in jigsaw puzzle

(Image credit: Etsy)

Tackling a whole range of skills in one gorgeous piece, this tuff tray from Etsy (opens in new tab) features a jigsaw insert. What we really about it is that the jigsaw is double-sided –abstract on one side and road-theme on the other, so you also have the opportunity to teach kids about road rules. Add small figures to encourage them to count. This sensory tray idea is a brilliant all-rounder.

Anna is Content Editor at Real Homes. She moved to the world of interiors from academic research in the field of English Literature and photography. She is the author of London Writing of the 1930s and has a passion for contemporary home decor and gardening. At Real Homes, she covers a range of topics, from practical advice to interior and garden design. 

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