Teaching and learning

10 ways to use Tuff Trays in the Early Years

All the fun, with half the mess
July 7, 2021
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What do builders and children have in common? They’re both experts at making a mess. Thankfully, builders are also experts at cleaning up after themselves — and we can learn from them to make toddlers’ messes more manageable.

We’re talking, of course, about Tuff Trays. 

Once used exclusively by builders for mixing messy materials, it didn’t take long for parents all over the world to realize that these durable, plastic trays are also ideal for containing the mess that arises from creative play. Thanks to their width and depth, Tuff Trays are perfect for art projects, water play, fun with kinetic sand, and so much more. Whether you set them up inside or outside, they’re the ideal size and shape for containing messy projects, making clean-up a breeze. 

As your children grow they might use Tuff Trays in different ways, but they’ll never really grow out of it. Of course, when faced with infinite possibilities, it can be hard to know where to start. With this in mind, we’ve gathered together our 10 favorite ways to use Tuff Trays in the early years. 

1. Create a mini-farm

The Tuff Tray activity: Get toddlers thinking creatively by having them build their very own mini farms from toys and materials found around the home and garden.  

What you need: 

  • Tuff Tray
  • Sand, dirt, gravel, stones, leaves, and greenery
  • Toy farm animals, vehicles, buildings, and equipment
  • Toy fencing or twigs and sticks to make your own
  • Stale cereal (optional)

How to do it: 

Start with a treasure hunt around the house and garden for toys and materials that will be suitable for building a mini-farm. Twigs can become farm gates and fencing, and leaves can become grass for toy cows to graze on. There’s really no limit to what children can come up with if they get their imaginations working. If you have any stale old cereal in the house, it can be put to good use as farm terrain, and your little ones are sure to love the crunching sound they produce when the animals and farm vehicles travel over them. The Tuff Tray helps to hold it all together neatly, and makes it easy to move your farm from one location to another. 

Source: Life With Tiny Humans

2. Mess-free painting

The Tuff Tray activity: Finally, you can make painting a mess-free experience (or close to it) with the help of your Tuff Tray. It’s painting as you know it, just with way less cleanup afterwards.

What you need: 

  • Tuff Tray
  • Smaller containers for holding the paint, brushes, and other materials
  • Poster paints
  • Paper
  • Paintbrushes
  • Water (for cleaning the brushes)
  • Cookie cutters, old cardboard rolls, marbles, and other fun painting accessories

How to do it: This can be an indoor or outdoor activity, depending on the weather and your own personal needs. If your child will be painting inside, it’s worth setting up an old sheet or drop cloth under the Tuff Tray. Though the tray will contain most of the mess, you’re always better safe than sorry. Adding some paint, glitter glue, stencils, and child-friendly markers is a great way to broaden the range of what children can come up with.

Source: The Work-Life Blend

3.Baby ball pit

The Tuff Tray activity: Fall into a pit with brightly coloured balls! This is a simple idea that’s best for younger children, but older ones can still get a lot of enjoyment from this mini ball pit.

What you need: 

  • Tuff Tray
  • Colorful plastic balls

How to do it: All you have to do to get this activity going is fill the Tuff Tray with colorful play balls. Babies love sitting amongst the brightly colored balls, rolling among them or tossing them about. For toddlers, you can add complexity to the mini ball pit by hiding secret objects among the balls for them to find. 

Source: TTS Group

4. Deep-sea diving 

The Tuff Tray activity: Teach your children about the creatures of the deep as they create their own underwater world. 

What you need: 

  • Tuff Tray
  • Water
  • Stones, pebbles, and shells
  • Ocean-themed toys and figurines

How to do it: This is another activity that can involve a real-world treasure hunt if you live close enough to a beach. If not, you can take your treasure hunt to your local thrift stores, toy stores, and even your own backyard. Once you’ve collected enough underwater critters, stones, and shells, fill your Tuff Tray with water and allow your little one to design the ocean floor. You can take the opportunity to teach them the names of the animals, and answer any questions they may have about the ocean and all the creatures that live there.  

Source: Little Hotdog Watson

5. Tuff Tray sandpit

The Tuff Tray activity: A quick and easy portable sandpit you can customize to suit your child’s changing moods and growing mind. 

What you need: 

  • Tuff Tray
  • Your choice of sand (e.g. beach sand, colored sand, kinetic sand)
  • Beach toys

How to do it: Tuff Trays make fantastic sandpits, offering easy portability and versatility. Kinetic sand is ideal for sensory play, and a great base for a mini beach trip. You can also add coloured sand in a thin layer that allows children to draw shapes and patterns in the sand, too. This is great for practicing letters, words, shapes, and numbers. Pile more colored sand or beach sand in, and you have a traditional sandpit that’s ideal for making castles, moats, and sand sculptures. 

Source: Little Learners UK

6. Potions class

The Tuff Tray activity: Create a Harry Potter-style potions class on a Tuff Tray in your backyard, encouraging children to interact with nature and teaching them about safety with plants and herbs. 

What you need: 

  • Tuff Tray
  • Containers, mixing bowls, and utensils
  • Ingredients gathered from the garden

How to do it: This is an activity that requires supervision and participation from grown-ups, but having the Tuff Tray helps to contain the mess. The little ones will have endless fun creating mud pies and potions and treats for their tea parties. However, this activity is also an excellent opportunity to start teaching children about safety matters when outdoors and the differences between edible and non-edible plants. 

Source: Real Homes

7. Color mixing in the Tuff Tray

The Tuff Tray activity: Allow your children to experiment with color while learning about volume measurements and developing their motor skills. 

What you need: 

  • Tuff Tray
  • Bottles, tubs, and containers
  • Water
  • Food dye
  • Funnels

How to do it: Fill some clear containers with water and add food dye in the primary colors (red, yellow, and blue). Fill the Tuff Tray with a collection of funnels and empty containers, and allow the children to experiment with what happens when you blend colors together to create new ones. Creating new colors is like magic to little ones, and as they handle the containers, they’ll be developing dexterity and gaining an understanding of how we measure the volume of liquids.

Source: Little Learners UK

8. Big beautiful bubbles 

The Tuff Tray activity: The perfect activity for warm sunny days — get set for endless fun creating oversized bubbles with your Tuff Tray. 

What you need: 

How to do it: Check the instructions on your bubble mix and fill the Tuff Tray with the required ratio of water and bubble mix. Then get your giant bubble wand and start creating bubbles. The children will have fun chasing the bubbles, and will probably also want to have a go at creating them. Most exciting of all, if you have a hula hoop bubble wand, they can stand in the Tuff Tray inside the hoop, and as you pull it up, the bubble will form around them.

Source: Little Hotdog Watson  

9. Create a building site

The Tuff Tray activity: Never step on a stray LEGO again with a dedicated Tuff Tray building site.

What you need: 

  • Tuff Tray
  • Building blocks

How to do it: While LEGO mats do keep children concentrated on one building area, they do nothing to prevent the spread of stray blocks. With its flat bottom and upturned walls, the Tuff Tray is the ideal building site for toddler construction projects. If each child has their own Tuff Tray, you’ve got a nicely zoned construction area that will cut down on clutter and hurt feet. 

Source: Little Learners UK

10. Tuff Tray Garden 

The Tuff Tray activity: Teach your children to value the natural world by having them nurture their own plants from seed to full growth. 

What you need: 

  • Tuff Tray 
  • Seeds
  • Pots
  • Soil and potting mix
  • Gardening tools and gloves for children (optional)
  • Labels for the plants

How to do it: Tuff Trays offer an excellent opportunity to create small, self-contained gardens that don’t require a big yard — and you can even move them around. Do some research to ensure you pick the right seeds for the season and the right soil, fertilizer, and potting mix for the plants. You’ll also want to ensure you know how much water and sunlight the plants need to thrive. Then it’s time to set up the Tuff Tray and help your little ones plant and nurture their garden

Source: TTS Group

The big ideas

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UK Nursery Covid-19 Response Group Recommendations

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Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

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