Over the last few years, tuff trays and sensory play have gone hand in hand for those with little ones. Whether it's elaborate setups that you're into, or whether you enjoy the versatility of a tuff tray... they offer an easily accessible play opportunity for small children. Either simply on the floor, or on an adjustable height stand, tuff trays really can add so much to play.
We first discovered tuff trays in the first lockdown in 2020, when Joey was about to turn 2. He really enjoyed play setups, using existing toys, ice, mud, paint.. you name it. He loved it. He loved structured play - anything where I could offer him suggested ideas for what to do next. Think 'break the dinosaurs out of the ice!' and 'paint the toy cars/clean them in a car wash'. It was especially useful to help give him 1-1 time when Zack came along!
Zack, now nearly 3, however, plays with the tuff tray in very different ways... He hates structure. He hates suggestions! So for Zack we try to make sure we offer variety and open ended play.
Since then, I've had lots of time to think about the 'perfect anatomy' of a tuff tray, just what should be on one? My suggestions are...
Something noisy - from hand bells to xylophones, if you can fit it on a tuff tray, and it can be picked up... it's a winner!
Something crunchy - Instagram would have you believe that everyone is blending up cereal and adding it to tuff trays these days... I can assure you they aren't! But adding a crunchy texture can help your little one with their exploration. Whether it's to help with their weaning journey, or to encourage them to get messy, think about what you could add. We love dried rice or pasta!
Something metal - the shininess and coldness of metal objects can be a really fun addition. It can just be something simple like a spoon, a rolling pin, a whisk...
Something shiny - similar to above! We love adding a little handheld mirror or a desk top mirror from the kids room. If you've still got a foil blanket from your sensory box for babies, then this could be ideal for this! Pans are great too.
Something wooden - think wooden spoons... wooden blocks... but make sure you're happy for them to get wet if you've got wet things on the tray!
Something smelly - adding some paint? Adding some water? Why not pop some smelly essential oils in to really boost the sensory elements? We love adding lavender or orange essential oils. Lavender really helps bring a sense of calm, and orange can help increase energy levels!
Something wet - paint, water, washing up liquid, bubbles, baked beans... you really can add anything you've got lying around to make it even more fun. Depending on what you've added, you can add extra items like paint brushes, spoons, sponges etc.
Something that moves - Zack and Joey absolutely love using plastic toy cars on the tuff tray, rolling their wheels through paint and all sorts. Things that roll, like spiky balls from our sensory box for babies, are great to roll on play dough, or home made dough etc. If we have a water based setup, we enjoy adding ball pit balls!
Something that lights up - flashing spiky balls, fairy lights, torches... maybe create a specific light up tray with lots of different items on! Little ones LOVE lights at all ages! Zack really loves glow sticks too, so we add those at any opportunity when we know the light's fading.
Something messy - Joey always used to be really reserved with messy things, he much preferred messy items to be contained within the tuff tray. He really enjoys wet chalks, jellibaff, paint and coloured ice on the tuff tray. Zack, however, loves anything he can get his hands on, including soil, stones, grass...
Ultimately, tuff trays are a great confined space for lots of exploratory play. Lean in to whatever your child seems to enjoy! You can also add themes - think seasons, special occasions.. we love a Christmas tuff tray!