14 tuff tray ideas, including cutting, counting, and creating - your kids will love them

Tuff tray ideas can be the gift that keeps on giving and we have all the info you need on it - including amazing inspiration.

Tuff tray ideas illustrated by black tuff tray with yellow construction toys cars on
(Image credit: @tufftrayexploringandlearning)

Been looking for tuff tray ideas? We hear you. They're one of those ‘open-ended toys’ we hear about so there is a bit of work on your end before your kid can go for it. 

We know that as a parent, you are a relentless researcher. First off, it will be the best travel strollers, then things to do with toddlers, followed maybe by the best toys, and eventually - at the teenage stage - the best dad jokes - parents research, a lot. And we’re here to make that a bit easier for you - especially when it comes to the humble tuff tray. 

Editor's note

Where we mention food throughout these tuff tray ideas, we know that the cost of living crisis is proving a challenge for many families, so where possible swap out cereal for play sand or - for older kids - real soil from the garden.

The empty simplicity of a tuff tray can be a bit daunting, where do you start? But trust us when we say that the sensory play, the learning, and overall fun that can be had with a tuff tray make it worth the 10 minutes of set up time. There's a reason every nursery and school across the country uses them. And choosing to gentle parent will definitely bring out the best in your child when it comes to development through supported mistakes.

Mum-of-two Jas tells us it was her best investment yet. "Messy play is so important and loved by my two boys. We have water play in there - the non-toys really come into their own here, give them cups, wooden spoons, pans, and sieves from the kitchen. Lots of what you use in the mud kitchen can be used with the tuff tray too." Scroll on to find out what a tuff tray actually is and some great inspirational ideas.

Tuff tray ideas

1. Maths tuff tray ideas

Maths and counting lend themselves brilliantly to tuff tray ideas, this setup from efysreceptionteacher is a brilliant example.

  • How to set it up: Make sure the tuff tray is clean and dry, then take a chalkboard pen and write the number you've chosen repeated in different colours/sizes. Then, depending on the number of children using, collect matching groups of loose parts (for example a collection of counters, Dice, building blocks) enough so that the children can add them to each circle to show what an amount of 4 looks like.

Another maths idea is from tufftrayobsessed this one is a double whammy, the fine motor skills are getting a workout with the cutting skills AND little ones can really flex their counting skills. A great one to try.

  • How to set it up: This was done as a 'planting' theme. To look like soil, take five empty plant pots and stuff with brown tissue paper. Next, write on the front of pots 1-5 to coincide with what will be planted. Then, print off sheets with the seeds on, each with a different amount of spots on - like dice. Finally, make sure the tuff tray is clean and dry, then take a chalkboard pen and write out the direction - this is usually perfect for kids aged 6+ or those that can read independently. Add a pot with scissors and invite the kids to 'get planting'. 

2. Water play tuff tray ideas

This is a World Oceans Day theme from tuff_tray_ideas_uk inviting children to help clean the water. We love it as it uses ordinary household items - spy the empty ketchup bottle - for play. And it opens up the conversation about keeping our oceans clean and looking after the environment.

  • How to set it up: The very first step - for an added twist - is, the night before fill some ice cube trays with water and tiny plastic ocean animals, and freeze them overnight, these will be great for the kids to 'rescue'. The next day fill the Tuff tray with water, washing up liquid ice cubes the frozen animal 'icebergs', and blue shaving foam for the pollution. Leave out accessories to save like, a spray bottle with salt water in it and spoons to help melt the animal icebergs. Fishing nets, empty crisp packets, cups - anything the kids can scoop with. Then challenge them to rescue the animals and clean up the ocean. 

Tufftrayadventures shares this easy-win water play - simply add washing up liquid and invite the kids to wash up everyday stuff. Another easy tuff tray idea to try. No direct learning here, just having fun splashing about and cooling down. It's great for scooping and pouring, gross motor skills, and teaching responsibility.

  • How to set it up: Fill the tuff tray with water and washing-up liquid. Throw in a collection of things to be washed and lots of cleaning utensils - like cloths, sponges, scourers, brush on a stick. And invite the kids to wash,  scrub and rinse. Especially a winner when it's hot outside and little ones need to cool off. 

3. Dinosaur tuff tray ideas

**dino-lovers klaxon** If your kid knows a brachiosaurus from a T-rex then this is the one for them. A setup shared by play.to.learn.with.katy.

  • How to set it up: Make sure the tuff tray is clean and dry, then add dinosaur figures, and natural loose parts such as pine cones, sticks, stones, and circular rounds of wood. If you have anything that will add height, even a cereal box then do it, it creates drama and helps kick-start imagination. This one looks like it has felt on the bottom to show mud, water, and grass. It's a nice-to-have but not necessary, your kid will love this setup as is.

Another great idea for dinosaur tuff tray ideas comes from tufftray_adventures. And is great for sensory/messy play, imaginative play, developing counting, and exploring big and small sizes.

  • How to set it up: Fill the tuff tray with dry uncooked rice on one side and shredded cardboard (great if you've had a delivery recently you can use the packaging) on the other, add some natural resources such as green leaves and set the scene with a few dino figures and eggs. Stand back and watch the story unfold... 

4. Alphabet tuff tray ideas

We love this setup but tuff_tray_ideas_uk  the caption reads; "A nice simple set up this morning for some phonics letter practice. Find as many items as you can that begin with the letters on the board. These can be any letters but the phonics programme starts with the letters ‘TAPS’ so is a good starting place for beginners ." 

To write on your tuff trays easily, and know it wipes off just as easily try these chalkboard pens from Amazon.

  • How to set it up: Make sure the tuff tray is clean and dry, then take a chalkboard pen and divide the tuff tray up into four with lines, then add oversized letters in each section to spell out T A P S. Then, to get the kids started, add one or two items that match the letter and invite them to loo around and find more. Remember to prompt them to move things while searching. 

And also this setup from tufftrayobsessed the caption reads; "Roll and read - sh 🎲 Games like this are super simple to throw together yet really effective when you haven’t got time to make/find resources… like when you planned on making the tray up at lunchtime then get asked to cover dinner duty!"

  • How to set it up: Make sure the tuff tray is clean and dry, then take a chalkboard pen and write the digraph (two letters together that make the same sound no matter the word, like sh. M-a-sh/c-l-a-sh) all around the surface in different colours. Add a bowl with counters in so each child can choose which one they'll be and leave a dice to roll and play - An oversized dice is a nice-to-have, but a normal-sized dice works just as well.

5. Construction tuff tray ideas

This construction tuff tray idea from tufftrayswithsoph is a great one, food is an option or you can use play sand, and maybe build some 'rocks' from lay dough. Get some natural resources in there such as sticks and leaves and real rocks. The addition of signs is a great curiosity point, too. 

  • How to set it up: Make sure the tuff tray is clean and dry, then print off or design some safety signs to tape up around the tuff tray, add piles of different consistency cereals and some construction play vehicles. Invite the kids to get involved. 

Another great construction idea from tufftrayexploringandlearning the caption reads; "Today’s tuff spot tray! Digger land! I’ve been inspired a lot by Pinterest and everyone’s tuff tray ideas! We used the cable reel I made yesterday! And the children loved it!"

  • How to set it up: Make sure the tuff tray is clean and dry, crush some Weetabix biscuits up to resemble sand/gravel. Add interest with blocks to move and height with something similar to this cable reel that's been added. Add some construction vehicles and they're good to go. If you're not keen on using food, play sand it just as effective.

6. Easter tuff tray ideas

Easter is a great time to hit the themed tuff trays, with so much inspiration to play with. Preschool_ideas_with_claire shares an amazingly easy tuff tray idea which work with Easter theme, and fine motor skills with cutting and rolling. The caption reads; "Easter Tuff Tray 🐰 An invitation to decorate Easter eggs using playdough, buttons, pom poms, Easter cutters, mini eggs, and match sticks."

  • How to set it up: Make sure the tuff tray is clean and dry, then take a chalkboard pen and draw egg shapes on the surface, some plain, some with designs. Then leave playdough and accessories on there too - including loose parts and scissors and step away.

tufftrayobsessed shares a collection of their favourite Easter tuff tray ideas, and we love them as they all embrace so many skills, counting, cutting, and creativity.  The caption reads; "I’m starting to think about this years Easter trays so thought I’d put together a roundup of trays we’ve made in the past." Now all you have to do is pick one.

  • How to set it up: Make sure the tuff tray is clean and dry, add your 'here's one I made earlier' craft, then take a chalkboard pen and write the instructions down - this is probably better for ages 7+, or those children who are reading well independently. Next add all the equipment they're going to need - onto the tuff tray - such as bowls with the sticky googly eyes, pencils for decorating and tissue papers and pritt stick. And make space for the creations to take shape. 

7. Christmas tuff tray ideas

This inspired Christmas tree tuff tray idea comes at you from tufftrayobsessed, and we love it! The caption reads; "Can you decorate the Christmas tree? 🎄 Our nursery class has enjoyed this one so much!" The tweezers work brilliantly on kids' pincer grip (needed for holding pencils) and it's festive and fun.

  • How to set it up: Make sure the tuff tray is clean and dry, then take a chalkboard pen and write the invitation 'can you decorate the tree?' next draw your oversized christmas tree. Finally add a few bolws with the pompoms, gold beads, left over Quality street wrappers and cut up tinsel bits - add tweezers to really work their pincer grips.

Another strong Christmas vibe is this idea from eyfsreceptionteacher- a simple Christmas craft but not at a table, presented on a tuff tray, with glue and all the decorations they need for their stocking. 

  • How to set it up: Cut red card into 'stocking' shapes position around tuff tray. Add a crisps and dip plastic bowl with sections for you to add the bits for decorating - such as cotton wool, pom-poms, cut out Christmas cards, glitter etc. Add glue sticks and scissors and step back and let the kids get stuck in.

Tuff tray - what is it for?

A tuff tray, sometimes referred to as a tuff spot is a heavy-duty, plastic builder mixing tray. It typically comes in an octagonal shape - though other shapes are available - and they usually come with an easy-to-assemble stand, which raises it off the ground and can be altered to three heights. However in recent years, as studies from teachwire show how important messy play is for developing minds and bodies it has been adapted as a learning and playing aid for kids. Tuff trays are easy to use and help contain different materials as the raised sides help keep everything on the tray, making it perfect for sensory play.

A tuff tray offers lots of benefits such as:

  • Contains the mess in one place
  • Can be used indoors or outdoors
  • Can be easily wiped clean
  • Will be used for years
  • Invited group play
  • Builds imagination
  • Can help with counting and reading

What to look for in a tuff tray

Ideally you want a tuff tray with a stand, it gives it a much longer life span if it can grow with your tiddler through to aged six/seven years old. In terms of how much you'll pay for one, prices vary depending on the size of the tuff tray. 

  • 100cm with stand you’re looking at £60 approx
  • 70cm with stand, more £40
  • If you decide to go without the stand it starts around £24

Most tuff trays come in a hexagonal shape, and if your kid goes to nursery they will probably recognise these. Though there are some circular and square ones available if you prefer.

Tuff tray with stand - the best to buy


Original Universal Tuff Tray Cover | View at Amazon

The tuff tray accessory that will make your life so much easier. Just cover it and leave it out - no emptying or moving into the garage or house when the kids are just going  to play with it the next day. A definite investment for parents, right there. 

If you need more inspiration to add to tuff tray ideas, try our mud kitchen ideas, or if it has all proved a bit much and you'd rather have a lie-down, take a look through our best movies for kids on Netflix or 72 things for kids to do

Stephanie Lowe
Family Editor

Stephanie Lowe is Family Editor at GoodToKnow covering all things parenting, pregnancy and more. She has over 13 years' experience as a digital journalist with a wealth of knowledge and experience when it comes to all things family and lifestyle. Stephanie lives in Kent with her husband and son, Ted. Just keeping on top of school emails/fund raisers/non-uniform days/packed lunches is her second full time job.