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Tuff trays - Christmas ideas

For those of us who love a tuff tray, Christmas is yet another great opportunity to get your tuff tray out and let your little one explore the festive season. We mostly use our tuff tray in the warmer months, on a stand outside, However, it's a great resource, especially when you're looking to offer a theme or focus on particular skills. We currently use it for lego as it's great to just *contain* little bricks, whilst giving them a little bit of a setting for a scene.

With Christmas around the corner, and the decorations starting to go up, it felt like a great opportunity to once again put a Christmas themed tuff tray together. We do it each year but this year, I let Zack (age 3.5) lead the way. He asked to put the foil blanket and lights on the base as he remembered (apparently!) that that was his favourite bit from the tuff tray last year. So off he went with the twinkly lights flickering away, as he explored our Christmas sensory toys that had been in the loft all year.

I usually try and provide the following:

  • Something noisy

  • Something crunchy

  • Something metal

  • Something shiny

  • Something wooden

  • Something smelly

  • Something wet (when outside)

  • Something that moves

  • Something that lights up

  • Something messy (when outside)

So what did Zack want on the tuff tray? His favourite things were:

  • Handheld bells and wrist rattles - no household with a baby is without rattles, babies and little ones adore them for the loud noise from such a little shake. Zack loved our handheld bells from our Favourites box.

  • Foil blanket - a pure staple for sensory play at home. We wouldn't be without them. As a base for the tray they provide a reflective surface where everything feels like it's doubled and busier. It provides more interest as well as a crinkly texture to play with when picking things up and putting things down. Brilliant to scrunch between fingers and toes!

  • A dried orange slice and cinnamon stick in a hessian bag - absolutely brilliant for first smells as they are quite distinct. Being in a little bag makes them safer for little ones, but Zack didn't like the texture of the orange so it helped him explore it without directly touching it.

  • Christmas figures - we love our set from Lanka Kade, they require some looking after (you can't get them wet!) but they always look fantastic and tick the 'something wooden' box

  • Flashing spiky ball - Zack will always pick these as he loves them, whether it's throwing them or hitting them against a surface to make them flash, I'm not sure he'll ever grow out of them! They are good for helping little ones understand different textures and for encouraging problem solving!

  • Homemade sensory bottle - We made our own sensory bottles when Joey was a baby and they've really stood the test of time as they are still with us today. Zack decided the plain water with silver glitter in was 'the most Christmassy' so he added that to the tray and declared that "Christmas is really here now". You could add sequins or other festive colours to your homemade sensory bottles.

  • Handheld foil pom pom - The gorgeous, bright colours of these pom poms are brilliant to capture your little one's attention. For Zack it was only brief but he told me he planned to take it with us when we next saw our baby nephew, so I have no doubt that's in a random bag in the house now! They're really interactive for babies and their siblings as they are easy and simple to control and spark joy instantly.

  • Pine cone - "It's from outside Mummy!" The novelty of bringing something in from outside always delights kids, especially if it's unexpected. With the snow recently, I doubt any of the pine cones we normally see near us would have been dry enough but my helpful drawer upstairs of sensory items proved handy once again. Zack enjoyed talking to me about all the layers and attempting to describe what it looked like. Joey (age 5.5) then tried to draw them when he was home after school as he found the shapes unusual.

  • Pop-it - A trusty staple for us now, the kids thoroughly enjoy pop-it toys (as do I!) and have them in all shapes and sizes. Zack rummaged through our collection and found a star shape which he deemed to be festive enough.

  • Feather - Once again from our festive Favourites box, Zack picked a gold tipped, white feather that was quite solid (as apposed to our soft and fluffy feathers in our Premium Sensory Box). He didn't play with this as much as the other things but once again mentioned that he'd use it to play with our baby nephew when we next saw him as he declared "all babies love feathers".

  • Touchy, feely books - The books Zack selected were the classic 'it's not my' themed books and are no doubt something he's grown out of really, but he enjoyed adding them and talking to me about the textures he was feeling. Even if something seems too young, it can often be made more age appropriate with a talking, writing or drawing activity alongside it to extend the play. I know that Joey would enjoy writing his own version of that book for example.

Some other items we could have included, and have in the past, are knitted stockings, tinsel, baubles and fake snow. Tuff trays are incredibly versatile and once your children are old enough to guide you in the activity, it opens up a whole other world of conversation with them about how they see the world. I find it fascinating comparing the types of thing Zack will talk to me about, versus the types of things Joey would have at the same age, and even now he's older.

For older children, tuff trays for younger children offer a great opportunity to have some time playing independently or expanding the task. Joey would love nothing more than writing a list of items on the tray, or drawing the items, practicing vital year 1 writing skills. It also offers a chance to practice memory with memory games - a favourite in our family is putting items on a tray, covering with a tea towel and removing one, whilst the child has to say what items are missing. It's brilliant for helping those critical thinking skills as well as practicing memory skills.

Christmas doesn't have to be a time full of sensory overload, though, so do pay attention to how your baby or child is responding to all the various stimulus. If you find they are getting overwhelmed, then it's best to step in and try and reduce 'the noise' for them when it comes to the sensory aspects. In years gone by I've found that Joey didn't always enjoy the foil blanket as the base of the tuff tray, he would ignore the tray as he found it overwhelming, so taking that element away once again made it more fun and manageable for him. It's all about responding to your little one, their likes and needs, and having fun along the way!

Merry Christmas!

Lauren x

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