Outdoor learning and sensory play using the tuff tray

I bought our tuff tray a few years ago when the girls were very small. It’s been one of the most useful things I’ve bought for the children and has been getting a lot of use recently as we’ve been mostly keeping our outdoor activities restricted to the garden. It’s brilliant for setting up small world play scenes, for providing a flat surface for art activities or helping keep messy learning activities contained. Here are some of the activities we’ve used our tuff tray for:


(top l-r) Sophie recreating Columbus' voyage to the Americas in the tuff tray; Sophie playing with oobleck in the tuff tray; (bottom l-r) a small world farm set up in the tuff tray with coloured rice and cereals to make different areas; Sophie's name made using leaves and petals inside the tuff tray - "Outdoor learning and sensory play using the tuff tray"


Small world play


The farm took a little effort to set up but was brilliant for some sensory small world play. I set up our Playmobil-123 farm set in the tuff tray and then used various crushed cereals (Weetabix, choco hoops, baby porridge) and lentils to create farm areas. I also dyed some rice by putting it in a ziplock bag with some green paint, squishing the bag until the rice was all covered and then pouring it out into a tray to dry. Once it was dry, the green rice was perfect for creating a grassy area in front of the farmhouse.


A farm scene set up in the tuff tray with coloured rice and various cereals used to create different areas


Playmobil-123 farm animals inside pens and a farmhouse in the background in our small world farm set up in the tuff tray


Sophie and Thomas loved playing with the animals and with the different textures of dry food making up the farm areas. Needless to say it did all get mixed up fairly quickly (although surprisingly it was Sophie who was eager to mix it all up rather than Thomas!). It was lovely to watch them both sitting and playing together though.


Sophie and Thomas playing together with a farm scene set up in the tuff tray


Explorer ship

Sophie had fun making an explorer ship and recreating Columbus’ voyage to the Americas in the tuff tray. We used sand to create the land areas and added water for the sea. It was a fun way to bring history to life.


Sophie sailing her explorer ship in the tuff tray with the Americas made out of sand


Moon landing

Recreating the first Moon landing using a junk model rocket and lunar module and landing it on a lunar surface made of moon sand was another fun way to bring history to life.


A toilet roll rocket, a tin-foil lunar module, a miniature American flag and a tiny astronaut on moon sand in a tuff tray



Shadow drawing

Before we got a little garden table for the children, the tuff tray was great for providing a flat surface for drawing and doing art projects. It also makes a nice flat surface to sit on too! Sophie was quite happy sitting in the tuff tray one sunny afternoon doing some shadow drawings of the Playmobil-123 figures.


Sophie doing shadow drawing of Playmobil-123 objects

Nature word art

The tuff tray makes a great backdrop for nature art. Sophie collected leaves and petals and used them to spell out her name (along with her age at the time) in the tuff tray. This is a great activity for helping children practice their letters. You could also do this with shapes or use natural objects to make pictures.


Sophie's name spelled out in petals and leaves on a tuff tray


Nature collage

Making nature collages was a popular activity with my girls, although I’ve yet to try it with Thomas. I taped a large sheet of card onto the tuff tray, drizzled glue all over it and the girls then stuck various nature items they found in the garden to the cardboard. It’s an interesting one to do for different seasons and see how the collages vary.


Four cousins working together to create a nature collage in the garden in Spring


Learning activities


The tuff tray is brilliant for keeping messy activities (mostly) contained and is easy to clean afterwards. We used it recently to keep oobleck contained while Sophie had fun playing with it. We left the spilled oobleck to dry and then just brushed it off. I’d quite like to try filling the tuff tray with oobleck next time so Sophie can try jumping and standing on it.


Sophie squishing the oobleck into a ball


Parts of a flower

The tuff tray has been useful for nature learning activities as it helps keep the items we’re looking closely at contained, while providing a flat surface for filling in worksheets. It was ideal for taking a closer look at parts of a flower.


Sophie sticking a tulip petal to her ‘parts of a flower’ sheet


Does it float or sink?

We’ve done this activity before and both times it’s ended the same way! We started off with a bowl of water in the middle of the tuff tray, and various objects placed around it along with chart to tick off which items floated or sank. There was a fair amount of spillage in the tuff tray by the time Sophie had finished doing this. Naturally we then ended up tipping the contents of the bowl into the tuff tray and using it as a splash pad. The children had a wonderful time and got thoroughly soaked in the process!


Thomas and Sophie exploring which things float and sink


Sophie and Thomas splashing in a tuff tray filled with water


Now that Thomas is able to engage more in small world play, I suspect the tuff tray is going to be used more and more to create various scenes. I’m planning on creating a dinosaur scene next using the mixed up rice and cereals from our farm small play and have a few ideas for some more learning activities that would make use of it too.


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4 thoughts on “Outdoor learning and sensory play using the tuff tray

  1. That really is a great product. My girls used to love Playmobil so that is a great setup and lots of other fab ideas. We still seem to get a mess when there’s glue involved so maybe they are still not too old for it! #countrykids

  2. The blog is very interesting. I like the way you use tuff tray to create various scenes. It is a great idea for kids to learn and have fun.

  3. Thanks for sharing this great blog post! I’m definitely going to try some of these activities with my kids. I love the idea of using the tuff tray for nature collages. I think my kids would really enjoy that.

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