What is a Tuff Tray?
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.
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.
11 educational benefits of using a tuff tray in the EYFS or SEN classroom:
- Develops fine motor skills. Children manipulate the pieces in the tray which helps develop their hand muscles and coordination.
- 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.
- Teaches problem-solving skills. Children have to figure out how to arrange and fit the different pieces together, developing their logic and reasoning abilities.
- Supports cognitive development. The creative play that tuff trays enable stimulates children’s minds, helps grow dendrites in the brain, and develops cognitive functions.
- Develops creative thinking. The open-ended nature of tuff trays encourages children’s imagination and creative exploration.
- Teaches shape and size concepts. Children learn to identify, sort, and group different shapes and sizes of pieces in the tray.
- Promotes cooperation and sharing. When multiple children play with the same tuff tray, it teaches them to cooperate, take turns, and share the materials.
- Allows for repetition and practice. Children can constantly rebuild and rearrange the pieces, allowing them to repeat skills and concepts.
- Supports language development. Children often talk about what they’re building and doing with the tuff tray pieces, fostering their language and vocabulary.
- 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.
- Improves the connection between child and teacher as you are sharing a low-demand non-transactional interaction.
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.
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 opportunities for building, 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.
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.
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.
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.