Messy Play Tuff Tray Ideas for Nursery and Primary School

Tuff trays are a teacher’s best friend. Through messy play children have the opportunities to explore through their senses in a contained, dedicated space. Messy play in a tuff tray pulls their focus and contains mess for reasonably easy cleanup. 

All children benefit from messy play, and will often find ways to turn any playtime into messy play themselves. This type of discovery play assists children in grasping and refining core skills that will form the basis of more mature learning later on. Motor skills are practised as little hands learn how to manipulate different materials. Basic trial and error, problem-solving, understanding patterns, and different states of matter all come from messy play. 

In nursery and early years education, messy play with tuff trays might take a regular daily or weekly spot in the timetable. Keeping themes new and exciting maintains a level of curiosity and development as the children conquer each new messy play landscape. In this article, we’ll go through some tuff tray messy play ideas perfect for a nursery or the classroom.

EYFS and Preschool Tuff Tray Ideas

Messy play can begin any time but usually starts when children are approaching two years old. This is when a child’s fine motor skills in dexterity are developed enough to have control over activities in a tuff tray. Tuff tray ideas for 2-year-olds should involve objects and materials in simple groupings such as colours and textures. Open-ended play should be promoted where children can manipulate the contents of the tuff tray any way they want.

EYFS tuff tray ideas at this stage of development don’t need to be structured as specific games or tasks, giving children the freedom to explore and build confidence using the tuff tray should be the central goal. This familiarity will help them to feel comfortable approaching more complex tuff tray games and activities as they grow older. 

In this list of 20 sensory tuff tray ideas for babies and little ones, teachers can get inspiration for tuff tray ideas EYFS children will find exciting and challenging on just the right level. Simple household materials can be used with a bit of imagination to make unique tuff tray ideas early years appropriate. Activities include the use of tin foil, jelly, rice, bubbles, and sand. 

A Mini Tuff Tray and Stand is a great option for younger children, encouraging them to stand while allowing them full access to the tuff tray. 


Springboard Supplies Mini Tuff Tray and Stand


When children enter primary school most will have already spent time playing with a tuff tray at home or in a nursery, and almost all will have had several opportunities for messy play. At this stage, introducing some more complex themes and tuff tray ideas will help to push the children to build on skills they’ve already learned. Here are some tuff tray ideas year 1 students might enjoy and benefit from. Use tuff tray play to make connections with topics the students are learning or are about to learn like phonics, numbers, or patterns.

Provide tools to refine dexterity and fine motor skills in preparation for handwriting practice such as tweezers and paintbrushes. It’s also important to make sure children can access all areas of the tuff tray, so having a Height-Adjustable Tuff Tray Stand is a good option, meaning you can change the height for different children or classes. 

Springboard Supplies Height-Adjustable Tuff Tray Stand


Easy Tuff Tray Ideas by Theme

Find resources on some of the most popular themes for tuff tray activities here. 

Autumn Tuff Tray Ideas

Create an autumn sensory box filled with things from nature that show Autumn is in full swing. These could be conkers, brown leaves from different types of trees, pine cones, twigs, apples, blackberries, and so on. Children could use magnifying glasses to inspect the items and say how they look and feel different in Autumn as opposed to Spring. For example, the leaves in Autumn are brown and hard and snap easily. 


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Ask the children to create an autumn scene using the items in the tuff tray, let them use the objects to make a picture, or draw a scene directly onto the tuff tray and ask them to place the objects in the correct places. For example, the brown leaves on the floor, the spiky conker cases on the trees. 

Halloween Tuff Tray Ideas

Following this tutorial on how to make a Halloween spaghetti for messy play, different colourings can be used to make different coloured slimy spaghetti. You could also make a sticky spider web on a tuff tray by wrapping white wool across the top of the tray in a spider web pattern and coating it in Pritt Stick. Children can experiment with which materials stick to the web more than others. Encourage the children to think about a real spider’s web and which creatures might get stuck on one. 

Dinosaur Tuff Tray Ideas

Find seven fantastic dinosaur-themed tough tray ideas here which employ different textures and substances to make creative dinosaur landscapes. Use these instructions to create a jelly swamp or a cornstarch swamp (or both to see how they are different). You could also freeze some dinosaur figurines, along with some twigs and leaves, in ice, or bury them in mud and see if the children can excavate and identify the remains. 

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Hungry Caterpillar Tuff Tray

Be inspired by this Hungry Caterpillar tuff tray complete with all sorts of different foods and natural habitats. Children can take the hungry caterpillar on a journey through the tuff tray landscape, eating up the different foods. You could use toy foods or find real versions that can be sampled along the way. To help to distinguish between real and play foods perhaps don’t include a mixture of both. This activity could be accompanied by reading the Hungry Caterpillar book together.


Springboard Supplies Classroom Play Food Set

Minibeast Tuff Tray Ideas

Learning about minibeasts (spiders, woodlice, butterflies, bees, and other small insects) helps children to understand the importance of all elements in the food chain. How plants are pollinated and how decaying matter is broken down into the soil. It’s important for children to be aware of small insects in their environment, to not be afraid of them and to understand that respecting them means caring for their environment.

Taking tuff tray play outdoors means less of cleanup is required and children can focus more on explorative play. Consider a Tuff Tray Cover for each tray, meaning play can be paused and returned to the next day without anything being disturbed by the elements. 


Springboard Supplies Tuff Tray Cover

For minibeast outdoor tuff tray ideas you could create a mini habitat contained in a tuff tray and hide toy insects in different spots for children to discover.  Consider hiding a butterfly in amongst some flowers and burying a centipede in a little soil. 


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Farm Tuff Tray Ideas

Lets children enjoy the messy environment of the farm through tuff tray messy play. Using a basic farm set-up like this Wooden Farmyard Play Set provides children with the animals and buildings that make up the farm. Place the farm in a tuff tray and add in extra materials like mud and water, hay for the cattle, you could even use Weetabix as hay bales. 


Springboard Supplies Wooden Farmyard Play Set

Help the children to sort materials and play out a working day on the farm starting with mucking out and cleaning the pigsty, then bringing in fresh hay for the horses and cows. Add a vegetable patch by sticking some Brussels Sprouts, broccoli, and baby corn into some soil and have the children harvest the crops.

Animal Tuff Tray Ideas

There is any number of simple tuff tray ideas to get children thinking about animals. You could opt for super simple tuff tray play through sorting animals into different groups (all insects together, all mammals together, or all farmyard animals together, all tropical animals together). For old children consider making a zoo with different materials to separate each section, or provide all of the materials together and task the children with creating a zoo by organising the materials and animals.  

Our World Map with Animals & Buildings is a great tool for animal-themed tuff tray play. Place the map on the bottom of the tuff tray and have children collect different animals and materials to create the correct environments around the world for each place. You could provide sand and grains for hot countries, grass for Europe and even give them ice cubes to put in the antarctic.


Springboard Supplies World Map with Animals & Buildings


Construction Tuff Tray Ideas

Our Outdoor Wooden Tuff Tray Stand is perfect for building a huge construction site where children can move matter around, play with sand and water, and build structures. Pile sand onto the tuff tray and provide ample water for sandcastles to be built.


Springboard Supplies Outdoor Wooden Tuff Tray Stand

You could incorporate some building blocks or toys to help the children create sturdy structures in their sand and water landscapes. Consider something like this Bamboo Building Blocks Class Set to give kids more messy tray ideas.

Summer Tuff Tray Ideas

While on the topic of sandcastles, Summer tuff trays offer children the opportunity to enjoy the warmer months outside in the playground when everything is in bloom, use Summer as a theme for tuff spot ideas to help children to explore the seasonal changes that happen in summer and all the fun things they might do with their families. 

Create a fun pretend ice cream making station, with ice cream made from shaving foam or play dough and give the children paper cups and accessories to decorate the ice creams with. Create a beach scene with sand, shells, see week made from coloured tissue paper, and water. You could even prop up one side of the tuff tray a little to create a slope with the water in one end and help the children to make ‘waves’ crashing on the shore. 

Water Tuff Tray Ideas

A sturdy, waterproof tuff tray like this Black Tuff Tray and Adjustable Stand is perfect for water messy play activities in the playground. Fill the tray with water and add in objects to make islands like large rocks or even piles of soil or sand. Use some floating boat toys to help children navigate the water and even include some sea creatures hiding at the bottom waiting to be discovered. 


Springboard Supplies Under the Sea Counters
Classroom activities

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