Exploring mini beasts – A Tuff Tray invitation for pre schoolers

Like most three year olds Arlo is absolutely obsessed with bugs and so now that spring is blooming the garden is full of them and they are a great natural resource to explore. We have been moving around the pots and digging up the borders for the last few weeks and so have found quite a few creatures in the garden. This afternoon I set up a tray and lots of resources for him to explore. We spent all evening in the garden – the lighter evenings are fabulous for fun now the clocks have gone forwards.

You will need:

  • Tuff tray (eBay)
  • Mini beast insert (Tiger Moon)
  • Bug hunting kit (B&M)
  • Soil
  • Scraps of paper
  • Mini beasts hunt (Twinkl resources)
  • Toy creatures (various)

I began with this tuff tray insert from Tiger Moon, a wipeable mat which rolls away nicely when not in use and then I added a bug catching tool kit, which was from one of the high street bargain shops for £3. The mat itself has bugs hidden in the picture so I covered this with soil – this I itself would be enough providing tools to scrape and reveal, but I like to go wild and hoped we’d find some real bugs in the garden.

I wasn’t sure if we would actually find outdoors because sometimes you just aren’t that lucky when you’re looking – I have quite a few little creatures in the toy stash and so I quickly hid these in the compost piles and added handfuls of crimped paper on the tray too for an added texture. This made it immediately obvious what the focus of the activity was – Arlo spotted the tray from the window and almost tripped up because he couldn’t get out of the back door fast enough – he dove straight in with his hands exclaiming every time he found something.

As we are close to Easter I also decided to hide some bugs hidden in eggs around the garden. This is a great alternative to hunting for chocolate at this time of year and a way to re-use the plastic eggs – I keep them handy all year round so Arlo knows exactly what to do. I tried to hide them in places where we might happen upon real bugs and we were not disappointed. As soon as he spotted the first egg which wasn’t too far from the tray he went zooming off around the garden, running back to the tray every time he found one to show me and match it up.

Our tiger moon insert had some lovely enlarged bug pictures so I planned it to match a toy to every single one and these were great to to point out the features of each bug, and at just the right time a woodlouse decided to grace us with his presence and make acquaintances with his portrait.

I also printed off a twinkl resources tick sheet and attached that to a clip board and also propped up one of his favourite bug books and so with each new bug we identified it counting the legs and looking at the body parts and colours and I read out some facts. I like to add books to our activities so that we can bring them indoors after the play activity and pull them out as a refresher because once we have done something like this it becomes a hot topic and Arlo likes to pull out books from the shelf himself to explore when he’s got an idea too.

We spent quite a bit of time matching and counting out our toy bugs, sorting them from largest to smallest and by colour before the woodlouse appeared and we decided to go looking for some real creatures – Arlo didn’t have to look far, he lifted up a patch of astroturf and was delighted to find all sorts underneath. Worms, slugs and even a centipede were all bought back to the tray gently to inspect.

The highlight of Arlo’s afternoon was however finding a ladybird, which stuck around to play with us for quite a while, even inspecting our new bug house which has now been given a prominent spot in the garden. We also have a nice little collection of snail shells which Arlo wants to keep as treasures.

We can’t wait for a bug filled summer – Next week we’re going to plant the seeds of all sorts of flowers and plants we’ve had some very interesting conversations today about how important it is to look after bugs and creatures, I don’t know where he gets half of his information from but he’s beginning to grasp an understanding of ecosystems now.

You never know quite where a tuff tray set up is going to end up, but it’s always an enjoyable experience to create an invitation to play with so many open ended avenues for little minds to explore. It’s not just about making a mess, it’s about inspiring conversations and introducing new concepts.

The mini beats tuff tray insert is currently on offer for £12 at Tiger Moon. Click the logo to head to the website.

Tiger Moon Kindly provided the mini beast tuff tray insert for review however all thoughts and opinions expressed are my own.

Construction challenge with ice

I have been filling the tuff tray with water every night in the hope that it will freeze over, as I wanted to make a giant version of this Ice skating messy play tray. Today we managed to get a thick enough sheet of ice to play with – first things first we did some stomping to break the ice up.

Then taking care with the pieces we stacked them up to build a structure. I helped with a basic square shape and then Arlo decided to add in an extra room and a roof to the structure before finding animals to inhabit the space.

It was easy enough to stand up the ice as we had a couple of inches of snow to play with and set up on top of a random hay bale we have in the garden . Arlo ran around the garden fetching his diggers and other tools to continue the big build. His major architectural achievement came from adding in a slide for his penguins.

This was the perfect little small world Antarctic which provided lots of outdoor amusement. We ended up getting a couple of bowls of water to create a water slide and then a tiny little jacuzzi for the polar bears before heading back to our ice cream mud kitchen for more outdoor play in the snow. Check out the short clip below to see how Arlo interacted with it all

A frozen arctic themed tuff tray

I decided to set up an outdoor tray to get a bit of fresh air – this one is not for the faint hearted! As the temperature has dropped so much I filled the tray with water late last night and i dropped in some snow flake decorations left over from Christmas, and it worked perfectly – frozen solid when I checked this morning.

You will need:

  • Water
  • Various tubs and containers
  • Snow flakes
  • Foaming soap
  • Animals
  • Food colouring

I popped a few bowls and tubs in the freezer overnight filling them with ice – plus one with blue food colouring mixed in with our beloved arctic animals. This was my “back up” just in case the tray didn’t freeze and these could have been an activity all of their own. The first thing Arlo said when he saw this tray was “we need more stuff” – running indoors for his tool set and bits and bobs to get stuck right in.

I covered the entire tray with foaming soap for added texture and colour, hiding lots of the ice at first. With it being so cold I added a couple of washing up bowls of warm water beside him and Arlo set to work – brute force worked to break up the ice with a hammer and picking it up to throw at the ground to smash – but he quickly realised it was also just as fun to add warm water and melt the ice making patterns and swirls.

I had made “igloos” by submerging one bowl of water inside another to freeze and I hid animals underneath these in the hollows and foam so there was plenty more to explore once he finished freeing the ice animals and checked out the rest of the tray – I decided take a step back at this stage and let Arlo lead the play and it became an ice rescue mission.

He was quite happy for a while playing with squeezey fish and trying to get me with water sprayed from their mouths. He rescued all of his arctic animals and ran to put them indoors at this point “for later” – and also decided that he needed to top up the tray with more water from the garden tap so ran back and forth with a washing up bowl for a while.

We ended up with a delightful soup of smashed ice, warm water and foamy bubbles – and mixing and pouring this concoction was fun for Arlo….. some of this ended up in the mud kitchen. I love seeing a tuff tray look well and truly obliterated at the end of a very busy hour. With it being so cold there is still lots of ice left over and so I’ve left this one in the garden to see if it re-freezes overnight and we can get more play tomorrow – maybe an ice rink?

Arlo hid all the animals in an orbee spa indoors and we settled down together to spend our Sunday afternoon watching an episode of David Attenborough’s frozen planet, chatting about all the different animals we have discovered this week. It’s been a fab start to the year with this winter theme – we aren’t ready to say goodbye quite yet so will continue exploring and sharing as we adventure though play – tap the image below to check out more of our fun activities.