Inside: Need outdoor tuff tray ideas? Here’s an unfussy outdoor sensory play activity using flour that you can set up for your toddler or preschooler in just a few minutes.

A re you overwhelmed by the idea of setting up an activity for your kid?

When my son, Henry, turned 2, I bought him a tuff tray (also called a tuff spot). I immediately googled play ideas to do with a tuff tray, and whoa. The results are basically works of art.

Entire village scenes. Miniature animals sculpted from clay. 

First, these sensory play trays belong in a museum, and I am not sure I have the artistic talent (or time) to pull off one of these small world scenes.  (Plus, the cost of the supplies.)

And second of all, if I did manage to create one, no way am I just handing it over to my son to destroy. 

So, what to do instead?

I’m here to tell you that 1) you can set up an unfussy tuff tray activity in less than 5 minutes, that 2) costs you nothing. (Because you’ll use things you already have at home). 

But, has every bit of educational value as that small village of wild horses nibbling grass by a stream.

Want to see how?

Why Kids Need Messy Play

Before we dive into how to set up the activity, let’s talk about what your kid is getting out of tuff tray activities and sensory bins.

Why are they so popular? And what exactly do you need to include to make them beneficial? 

One thing that tuff trays do really well is contain messy, sensory activities.

easy tuff tray ideas for sensory activities

Sensory play encourages children to engage with their environment using their senses, such as touch, sight, taste, sound, and smell. 

Think about it – how do we learn about the world? Our senses are a critical gateway to getting information.

It’s the foundation of cognitive development, gross motor skills, social skills, language skills, communication, and emotional development. 

Here are some critical sensory play benefits:

  • Cognitive: Sensory play helps children develop problem-solving, critical thinking, and decision-making skills. As kids explore different textures, materials, and sensations, they learn to make connections and associations, enhancing their understanding of cause and effect.
  • Physical: Sensory play helps children develop fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. Manipulating objects, like squeezing, pinching, and pouring, strengthens their hand muscles and improves dexterity.
  • Social: Sensory play fosters social skills as children learn to share, take turns, and cooperate with others during group activities. It also encourages communication as children express their thoughts and feelings about their sensory experiences.
  • Emotional: Sensory play provides a safe and supportive environment for children to explore their emotions and develop self-regulation skills. It can be calming and soothing, helping children cope with stress and anxiety.

And messy play, a subset of sensory play, is particularly effective in stimulating sensory exploration and creativity. 

Outdoor messy play activities for preschoolers could be as simple as taking a walk barefoot through the grass or making nature soup in mud play. Even digging in the sand at the beach on a hot day in summer is a beautiful sensory experience.

outdoor play activities for preschoolers

Allowing children to get messy and engage with materials with different textures, consistencies, and properties will enable them to freely explore and experiment without fear of making mistakes. 

Messy play encourages children to be curious, imaginative, and inventive, fostering a love for learning and discovery that lasts a lifetime.

So, the key is not a beautifully staged artistic scene.  The key is giving your child materials with texture to touch, sift, squeeze, plop, and explore.  Plus, some tools to work with.

2 Tips for Wrangling Messy Play (without losing your mind)

The problem with messy play, is well….it’s messy.

Like many parents, if you think “flour sensory play” and “tornado toddler” and then think no way, hear me out. 

montessori outdoor activities

You know how critical sensory play is for your kid’s development, and here are 2 ways you can make messy play manageable. 

  1. Outdoor Play. Yes, your kid will likely need a good hosing down afterward, but the mess is minimal because it’s all outside. Outdoor sensory activities are easy clean-up and your kid gets to spend valuable time in nature.
  2. Use a Tuff Tray (or other contained space).  A tuff tray, also known as an active world tray, is a large, shallow, and durable plastic tray designed for various activities. And it’s perfect for messy sensory play because your kid gets IN the tray. And it’s a contained space for the activity, making it easier to clean up after playtime. Simply wipe the tray clean or hose it down, and it’s ready for the next adventure.

It wasn’t easy to find a tuff tray in the US and I ended up buying mine from ebay. If you can’t find one, a good tuff tray alternative would be a small kids’ pool (inflatable or plastic). 

Materials For A Sensory Activity

You’ll find plenty of sensory materials right in your kitchen.

Last month, I ordered a bag of flour for the ridiculous amount of muffins that we bake. When it arrived, the corner of the bag was torn with flour spilling out.  I didn’t feel like it was safe to eat, but I couldn’t bring myself to throw it out yet. And I knew I’d figure out fun things to do with flour. 

simple tuff tray ideas

Then, this Saturday morning, Henry, wanted to play outdoors and the weather was perfect. Then, I knew exactly what to do with the old flour sitting on our shelf.

I used flour because it’s what we had (and I didn’t feel bad because we couldn’t eat it). You could also use old cereal, uncooked rice, dried beans, oatmeal, or pasta.    

Steps for Setting Up A Messy Flour Sensory Activity

Ok, here’s your full step-by-step tutorial.  You ready?

  1. Add some kitchen accessories to your tuff tray or sensory bin. Like measuring cups, a large bowl, a spoon or other kitchen utensil, and scoops. I also really love adding muffin tins and ice cube trays.
  2. Add flour. (If your kid likes to put flour in their mouth, make sure to make it taste safe by heating it, using the instructions in the FAQ)

That’s it! It’s seriously the lowest-prep activity ever.

And my son played by himself for 30-45 minutes in the morning. He scooped flour with spoons, spread it with his fingers, filled trays, and poured it over his feet. He added rocks to the flour and stirred it around with sticks. 

messy play tray ideas

Then after his nap, he requested it AGAIN.

Though, as with all messy play activities, the all end up the same way. Being squished and stomped by feet. And, in this case, covered in flour. Which is all part of the fun.

Bonus Activity Idea

After my son was finished with the flour sensory bin, I brought out a mini broom dustpan, and he was so excited to sweep up the flour to save for the next play session.

Then, with a light dusting of flour on the tuff tray, we drew pictures with our fingers in the flour. And he asked me to write letters so he could practice tracing them. So this turned into a completely organic writing activity as well. 

Frequently Asked Questions

Is flour taste safe?

Raw flour can contain harmful bacteria and is not taste-safe uncooked. But it’s easy to fix it by heating it up to kill the bacteria, either in the oven or microwave. Heat your oven to 350 degrees and spread the flour on a cookie sheet.  Bake for 5 minutes.  Or add 1-2 cups at a time to the microwave for 1 minute.  You want the temperature to reach 165 degrees, so use a food thermometer to double-check.  After that, your flour is taste safe and can safely be used with toddlers and little ones who still put things in their mouths.

What age range is suitable for tuff tray activities?

Tuff tray activities can be enjoyed by children of various ages, from toddlers to older kids. It’s important to choose materials and activities appropriate for your child’s developmental stage and safety.

What age range is suitable for tuff tray activities?

Tuff tray activities can be enjoyed by children of various ages, from toddlers to older kids. It’s important to choose materials and activities appropriate for your child’s developmental stage and safety.

Can I reuse the flour from the flour sensory play activity?

Yes, as long as no water or other liquid was added to the flour, you can store it in a ziplock bag or container in a dry area.  Reuse it over and over.

How can I encourage my child’s creativity during tuff tray play?

Allow your child to take the lead and explore freely. Offer open-ended materials and tools, and avoid giving too many instructions or constraints. If your child engages with you, encourage imaginative play, problem-solving, and storytelling.

Can I involve my child in the cleanup process?

Yes, involving your child in cleaning up after the tuff tray activity promotes responsibility and independence. Encourage them to help wipe the tray or collect and sort the materials for storage. Make cleanup a fun and collaborative experience.

flour sensory play

It’s Playtime: Time To Get Messy

So, embrace the mess and create this simple sensory activity. Not only will your little one have a blast exploring different textures and materials, but you’ll also witness the joy and excitement on their face as they dive into the world of sensory play. 

And let’s not forget the best part of all. While your preschooler is happily engaged in their tuff tray adventure, you can enjoy a few precious moments of peace and quiet. 

So go ahead, leap into messy play, and discover the rewards of nurturing your child’s creativity and curiosity. You’ve got this, and remember, a little mess never hurt anyone!

What’s Next?

  • Sign up for my newsletter. Get one activity play idea, once a week, giving you some serious inspiration for what to do with your toddler or preschooler that week. I send out freebies and special treats, all for my email list.
  • Read the rest of my blog. It’s home to lots of play & learn activities, arts & crafts projects, activities to build your kiddo’s cognitive skills, and Montessori activity ideas and info.
  • Shop my printable activities. Explore nature-themed printable activities for your toddler and preschooler to help them learn through play. All hands-on activities — the healthiest way for your young kiddo to learn. And designed with watercolor artwork, so you’ll love adding it to your beautiful home.

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I'm Stefanie—Founder & Designer For Little Moon

If you’re a toddler or preschooler parent who dreams of having a kid who is captivated by learning — but are too busy raising your tiny human on exactly 3 hours of sleep to research educational activities — nice to meet you, I’m your new solution.

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