Tuff Tray Activity Ideas For SEN

What is a tuff Tray and What Activities can I use It for?

Tuff trays are an invaluable resource for early years and SEN settings, providing endless opportunities for sensory and messy play perfect for developing young minds. These durable plastic trays, filled with a variety of tuff tray activities and manipulatives, allow children to explore different textures, work on hand-eye coordination, and develop important skills as outlined in the EYFS framework through open-ended creative play.

Messy Play - Food Toddler and Baby Tough Tray Use

Designed initially for mixing concrete and plaster the tuff tray is very thick and durable plastic over 1m in width. this provides a contained but accessible area for messy play that is very safe to use with EYFS and SEN children.

Tough Tray activity Divider for Multiple Activities

11 Educational Benefits of Using a Tuff Trays in EYFS or SEN classroom

  1. Develops fine motor skills. Children manipulate the pieces in the tray which helps develop their hand muscles and coordination.
  2. Improves hand-eye coordination. As children arrange and rearrange the pieces, it improves their ability to use visual inputs to make precise movements with their hands.
  3. Teaches problem-solving skills. Children have to figure out how to arrange and fit the different pieces together, developing their logic and reasoning abilities.
  4. Supports cognitive development. The creative play that tuff trays enable stimulates children’s minds, helps grow dendrites in the brain, and develops cognitive functions.
  5. Develops creative thinking. The open-ended nature of tuff trays encourages children’s imagination and creative exploration.
  6. Teaches shape and size concepts. Children learn to identify, sort, and group different shapes and sizes of pieces in the tray.
  7. Promotes cooperation and sharing. When multiple children play with the same tuff tray, it teaches them to cooperate, take turns, and share the materials.
  8. Allows for repetition and practice. Children can constantly rebuild and rearrange the pieces, allowing them to repeat skills and concepts.
  9. Supports language development. Children often talk about what they’re building and doing with the tuff tray pieces, fostering their language and vocabulary.
  10. Provides calming sensory input to promote self-regulation strategies. The textures, shapes, and sensations the tuff tray provides can be relaxing and focusing for children.
  11. Improves the connection between child and teacher as you are sharing a low-demand non-transactional interaction.
Tough tray Space Activity Animated

Safety Considerations When Using Tuff Trays:

  • Make sure all the pieces in the tray are non-toxic. Do not use random household items.
  • Only use pieces that are large enough to prevent choking. Very small parts should be avoided.
  • Supervise children closely while they are playing with the tuff tray. Make sure they are not putting the pieces in their mouths.
  • Keep the tuff tray pieces clean. Wash them regularly.
  • Replace any worn or broken objects immediately.
  • Only use tuff tray contents for the appropriate age or stage. Very young children may need simpler trays with larger pieces.
  • Remove the tuff tray from use if it cracks or snaps. After a few years in the sun they become brittle and sharp. (Tip – Hang them in the shade, they usually have a small attachment on the rim)
  • Consider using a mat under the tuff tray to reduce damage from a hard floor.
  • Pre-teach safety during lessons and activities using the tuff tray. Remind children not to put the pieces in their mouths and to use them properly.
  • Consider allergies when

So constant supervision, use of properly designed and stage or age-appropriate tuff tray pieces, hygiene, and safe storage are all key aspects of keeping tuff trays safe for classroom use.

Tough Tray Messy Play EYFS Activity - Shaving Foam

Common Sensory Activities and Materials to Use with Tuff Trays

  • Blocks – Various sizes and shapes of foam or wooden blocks are classic tuff tray toys. Children can sort, stack, and build with them.
  • Plastic animals – Adding animal figures gives children opportunities for pretend play, making animal sounds, and sorting by size, colour, or type.
  • Shape sorters – Pieces with different shapes that fit into corresponding shaped holes teach shape recognition and spatial concepts.
  • Nesting cups/containers – Stacking cups of increasing size develop fine motor skills and the “inside/outside” concept. Water can be poured between them teaching capacity and volume.
  • Magnatiles – Magnetic tiles that stick together allow children to construct and destroy structures easily.
  • Beads and laces – Children can string beads, noodles, or bottle laces to develop coordination and pattern-making skills.
  • Textured pom poms – Children can sort and stack pom poms of different textures, colours and sizes.
  • Ball pit balls – Foam or plastic balls are good for sensory play, developing grasping skills, and cause-and-effect understanding.
  • Lego – Lego or Duplo bricks (for ages 2 and up) give children building opportunities, following instructions, and cooperative play.
  • Soft objects – Plush toys, scarves, fabric squares, etc. can provide calming sensory input for children.
  • Theme-based materials – Objects related to a current theme or unit of study can enrich and extend learning from that theme. They can extend imaginary play linked to your topic.
  • Plastic Toys – Usually toys designed for under 3s are robust enough and provide opportunities for more open-ended play.
  • Messy Play – Water beads, gelli baff, shaving foam, crushed-up cereal are all commonly used materials in tough trays.
Gelli Baff - Messy Play SEN

A mix of blocks, shapes, objects of varying sizes, textures and themes typically work well. The more open-ended the materials, the more opportunities children will have for creative, imaginative play and learning through the tuff tray.

Tuff Tray - Water Play Activity

Alternatives To Tough Trays

The Tough tray is a popular teaching resource for a reason but there are alternatives that may be better suited to an activity depending on what and where you are using it. Square or rectangular trays are better suited for classroom desks. If you are using dry materials any tray with a lip to contain them will work. We have this small tray table that fits neatly in the room and can be easily set up for an activity station. We often use it to link with a book to extend the learning.

Tough Tray Alternative: Tray Table for Small World Play
Tough Tray Alternative: Tray Table for Small World Play

It is often easier for clean up with 1:1 or paired learning to use a smaller tray. This enables you to create a quick learning activity in a smaller area. We just use a Poundland plastic tray for shaving foam. This tray is good as it is a little flexible.

50 Tuff Tray Activity Ideas

Incorporating literacy and numeracy skills into tuff tray activities is an excellent way to make learning fun and interactive. Here are some ideas for each:

Literacy Sensory Tray Activities

Letter Recognition and Phonics:

    • Add magnetic letters to sand or water play
    • Include letter stamps with playdough
    • Hide letter stones in sensory materials for children to find and identify

    Vocabulary Building:

      • Label items in the tuff tray with word cards
      • Create themed trays based on specific vocabulary sets (e.g., farm animals, ocean creatures)
      • Include picture-word-matching activities

      Storytelling and Sequencing:

        • Provide story stones or picture cards for children to create narratives
        • Set up scenes from familiar stories for children to retell
        • Include puppets or figurines for role-playing stories

        Writing Practice:

          • Use shaving cream or sand for fingerwriting
          • Provide letter formation cards for tracing in sensory materials
          • Include small chalkboards or whiteboards for writing related to the tray theme

          Reading Comprehension:

            • Add simple instructions or recipe cards for children to follow
            • Include question cards related to the tray theme for discussion
            • Provide simple books related to the tray theme for children to read

            Tuff Tray Activities for Early Numeracy

            Counting and Number Recognition:

              • Add numbered objects for counting (e.g., numbered shells in an ocean tray)
              • Include dice for counting games
              • Hide numbers in sensory materials for children to find and identify

              Sorting and Classifying:

                • Provide objects of different colours, shapes, or sizes for sorting
                • Include sorting mats or containers labelled with numbers or categories
                • Add natural materials like leaves or pebbles for classification activities


                  • Include measuring cups and spoons in sand or water play
                  • Add rulers or tape measures for measuring objects in the tray
                  • Provide balance scales for comparing the weights of different items

                  Patterns and Sequences:

                    • Create patterns with colored beads or blocks for children to continue
                    • Include pattern cards for children to recreate using objects in the tray
                    • Set up simple coding activities using arrows and objects

                    Basic Operations:

                      • Add numbered pebbles or shells for simple addition or subtraction games
                      • Include ten-frames for number bonds activities
                      • Provide dominos for number recognition and simple addition

                      Shape Recognition:

                        • Hide foam shapes in sensory materials for children to find and name
                        • Include shape stampers with playdough
                        • Add 3D shapes for exploration and discussion of properties

                        Data Collection and Graphing:

                          • Encourage children to sort items and create simple pictographs
                          • Include tally sheets for counting and recording findings
                          • Provide simple bar graph templates for children to fill in based on tray contents

                          Time Concepts:

                            • Add clocks or watches to role-play scenarios
                            • Include sequencing cards to discuss the order of events
                            • Set up daily routine activities for discussing the time of day

                            Money Skills:

                              • Add play coins and notes to shop or café role-play scenarios
                              • Include price tags on items for simple addition activities
                              • Provide play cash registers for practising transactions


                              • Encourage guessing how many objects are in a container before counting
                              • Include different-sized containers for volume estimation activities
                              • Add a mix of heavy and light objects for weight estimation games
                              Instagram is a great source of Tuff Tray ideas

                              Additional Tuff Tray Activity Ideas

                              1. Water play – Include cups, tubes, pipettes, boats, bubbles, sponges, droppers, etc.
                              2. Playdough – Provide tools like rollers, cutters, moulds, and stamps.
                              3. Moon sand – Mix sand and cornstarch to create a moldable texture.
                              4. Soil sifting – Add seeds, pinecones, leaves, rocks, etc. to dig through.
                              5. Magnets – Bury magnetic objects in materials for kids to discover.
                              6. Nursery rhyme scenes – Recreate characters and settings from favourite rhymes.
                              7. Ocean habitat – Add plastic sea creatures, shells, blue gelatin, driftwood, etc.
                              8. Construction site – Include hard hats, tools, orange cones, and toy vehicles.
                              9. Car wash – Provide soapy water, sponges, scrub brushes, and toy cars and trucks.
                              10. Zoo habitat – Use plastic animals, logs, plants, muddy areas, hiding spots, etc.
                              11. Dinosaur dig – Bury plastic fossils and skeletons in sand or stones for digging.
                              12. Ice excavation – Freeze toys in ice for kids to chisel out as it melts.
                              13. Campsite – Add rocks, sticks, pinecones and let kids create an outdoor scene.
                              14. Forest floor – Mix in artificial leaves, sticks, wood cookies, acorns, pinecones, etc.
                              15. Lava field – Use red dyed rice or lentils to create a volcanic landscape.
                              16. Garden center – Add seeds, dirt, gardening tools, and let kids “plant” and dig.
                              17. Construction materials – Add blocks, gears, nuts, bolts, washers for building.
                              18. Fairy garden – Add mini buildings, furniture, fairy figurines, flowers, mushrooms.
                              19. Dress up – Provide costumes and props for role playing different characters and careers.
                              20. Sorting and patterns – Use beads, stones, shells, leaves, pinecones, etc.
                              21. Messy play – Add pudding, shaving cream, mud, oobleck, colored rice, etc. Provide cars, hands, tools to interact with the textures.
                              22. Nature detective – Add magnifying glasses and a variety of natural objects to examine.
                              23. Transportation – Provide toy vehicles like cars, planes, helicopters, boats, and road signs.
                              24. Farm animals – Add rubber or plastic farm critters, fencing, toy crops, tractors, etc. Let kids act out scenes.
                              25. Garage – Add toy cars for repair scenarios with tools and parking chalk lines.
                              26. Science lab – Provide beakers, funnels, droppers, goggles, and let kids create experiments.
                              27. Veterinarian – Include stuffed animals and toy medical kits for checkup role play.
                              28. Carpentry shop – Include plastic hammers, saws, wood pieces for pretend woodworking.
                              29. Ice cream shop – Use foam scoops, bowls, sifters, and let kids create “ice cream” mud pies.
                              30. Greenhouse – Add pots, gardening tools, packages of seeds and let kids plant seedlings.
                              31. Post office – Provide mail carrier accessories, envelopes, and writing materials.
                              32. Grocery store – Add empty food packages, shopping baskets, cash register and play money.
                              33. Car garage – Include toy wrenches, pumps, ramps, signs for auto shop role play.
                              34. Toy wash – Add soapy water, sponges, drying towels for cleaning dirty toys.
                              35. Bubble bath – Add bubble bath liquid, whisks, containers for pretend bathing.
                              Tuff Tray  Sensory Ideas For EYFS and SEN. Baby playing with colourful toys.
                              Tuff Tray Sensory Ideas For EYFS and SEN

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