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.

Arctic indoor sensory bin activity

Continuing on with our Antarctic and winter themed play activities today I decided to make Arlo up a messy sensory bin of icebergs…. but instead of using a tuff tray outdoors I used a storage container which has a depth of about 20cm which is enough to contain the mess for indoor play.

You will need:

  • A storage box
  • Slime
  • Orbeez
  • Various plastic containers
  • Plastic Animals
  • Water

This was an activity which required a little bit of forward planning but because Arlo loves ice I’m in the habit of freezing things most evenings anyway. My initial idea was to just make huge ice blocks but I fancied a little bit of colour and so I threw some left over orbeez from a previous activity in to some plastic cups, cups, ice cube trays and as many containers as I had space for in the freezer.

They freeze quite nicely in to blocks and then it was simply a case of mixing up our slime stuff and popping our icebergs in to the container before placing the animals in and around, and the letting Arlo loose to play.

I know that Arlo loves this slime stuff and playing with water and cups etc as we usually use it in the bath – so I made this mixture up with half the water required and also provided cups and a jug of warm water – this meant that as water was added the ice bergs melted – the orbeez were released in to the mix and we ended up with a colourful sensory experience.

The best thing about using these under bed storage boxes is that they come with lids so after the play this morning we covered it all up, and then came back to it again this afternoon. I like to try and make the most of these big sensory bins when we use lots of materials so I’ll pop this stuff in to his mud kitchen or on his tuff spot outdoors tomorrow for some more messy play fun.

A snow dough tinker tray

Continuing on with our winter themed activities I have made a batch of snow dough, Thai is slightly different to our usual play dough recipe and has a texture which is a bit like kinetic sand. I added glitter and provided Arlo with a tinker tray and invited him to build snowmen with me.

You will need:

  • One cup of oil
  • Two cups of cornflour
  • Glitter

The secret here is to add the cornflour to the oil and not the other way round because it’s easier to mix it all up. Cornflour is the stuff we use to make oobleck and it’s non Newtonian texture means that it creates an unusual dough texture – its crumbly and flaky but makes fab snow balls. I use baby oil but if you have little ones who still mouth things then you can use vegetable oil just as well. Mixing the ingredients together is a part of the fun for little ones so roll your sleeves up together and get stuck in.

For alternative themes you can add food colouring and scents/flavours to your dough to create a more sensory experience.

I like to use “tinker trays” when we play with dough, they are party platters from Asda. I fill the compartments with random bits and bobs to suit the theme – so with the idea of building a snowman in mind I rummaged around and I found matchsticks for arms, pipe cleaners for a scarf and then various buttons, plus beads and sequins for facial features – and some cotton wool and buds just because they were to hand.

When we do things like this it’s always interesting to see how Arlo interacts with the pieces. I like to make an “example” ready for him to copy and give him an idea of where to start. Sometimes he pushes me aside and wants to completely get involved. Other times like today he sat beside me and gave me orders…. but didn’t want to actually touch anything at first.

He asked for a dog and so I moulded a shape and then he took over and added the button nose, Google eyes and pom-poms himself. He’s come back to the table two or three times to have a play and quite likes the matchsticks but insists that he doesn’t like snowmen so we’ll have to see where we end up. I’m going to try a different type of dough with cornflour later this week so we’ll see how we get on with this.

Ice skating messy play tray

This is another really simple ice tray play and one which requires very little set up – inspired by our trip to Warwick Castle where we saw a real life ice rink!

You will need:

  • A flat baking tray
  • An ice cube tray
  • Water
  • Small plastic animals
  • Gellibaff slime
  • A large play tray

Overnight I froze water in a flat baking tray and popped some plastic animals in to an ice cube tray, with half submerged and half not. These set hard and in the morning I mixed up a sachet of gellibaff to create a base on our play tray and make a slightly raised hill to rest the sheet of ice upon. I used a bit of warm water to make the ice slippy and test out our skaters and then I let Arlo loose.

Of course Arlo wanted to race the ice skating animals down the slope and so he took them all neatly off to prepare, experimenting carefully comparing the flamingo to the gorilla and the walrus to the owl – I’ve no idea which animal ended up winning the ice skating race but it was fun trying. As the ice melted away this ended up being another small world environment for the animals and the play continued until we had to clear the tray away to eat at the table.

Nature printing Tuff Tray

After the success of our previous nature themed tuff tray I decided to set this one up again.

Last time I covered the whole tray in brown paper but we didn’t end up using it to full effect, but I’m glad I provided some sheets of craft paper alongside paints squeezed in to paper plates and some bamboo sticks, pine cones and straw.

As you can imagine, on a warm and sunny day Arlo didn’t take too long to get stuck in – feet first! We sat around this tray exploring all the different materials – using the bamboo straws as stamps on the craft paper actually worked out even better than expected, we have some lovely prints on our craft paper which I have saved for a rainy day.

The paint on the bamboo sticks also became a happy accident and we decided to give our bug hotel the rainbow treatment!

So I set to work painting the cones, we all enjoyed painting in rainbow colours too. This is actually quite a good activity for little ones, Arlo had to concentrate and really work the brush and paint in between the spaces for full coverage.

Check out our finished bug hotel here

Nature painting tuff tray

A really simple painting invitation to play.

You will need:

  • Paper plates
  • Brushes
  • Paint
  • Collected materials – pinecones and leaves etc.

We have been collecting all sorts of random bits and bobs on our nature walks, from pebbles, to pinecones and leaves because Arlo takes his scavenger hunting very seriously.

So finally putting all of the bits and bobs to good use I covered Arlo’s tuff tray in brown paper (it’s bright blue and I wanted a neutral canvas) and I then gave him a box with all the materials he needed.

I helped him squeeze out all the colours on to paper plates

Mum tip: I always split the paint colours up like this to help avoid the almost inevitable brown splodge effect when complimentary colours get mixed up.

Then Arlo dived right in with a brush and a pinecone. Painting pine cones is actually really hard work as you have to get the brush in to all the little books and crannies. So this kept him busy for quite some time.

We also moved on to painting other found materials – these giant leaves made a beautiful canvas and we all got involved, sitting around the tray and painting with all of our colours.

Not a bad way to spend an afternoon in the garden!

Messy Play – spaghetti

I often use spaghetti for messy play. It’s great to add texture. I always felt safer using edible foodstuffs when Arlo was tiny because everything would always end up in his mouth.

You will need:

  • Spaghetti
  • Food colouring
  • Vinegar
  • Olive oil

I’ve tried various different methods and this is the one which works best for me. Boil and drain off the pasta as normal, before adding it to a big bowl.

Add in a splash of olive oil to prevent the pasta sticking.

Add in a splash of vinegar – I’m not 100% on the science but my colours always seem brighter when I use it.

Add in your food colouring and mix well. Start with a small amount as you can always add more…. it’s surprising how well it takes.

Then voila – it’s done and you can use this for all sorts of different things…. so for example the green makes amazing seaweed. Arlo recently discovered for himself that spaghetti is also fun to snip and so I left him to practice his fine motor skills with his safety scissors for a good twenty minutes.

Mum tip: if you plan ahead you can store this overnight in air tight containers.

FireMan Tuff Tray

This is the most simple idea which I have seen doing the rounds lately….. and requires minimal set up compared to our recent tuff tray set ups like our car wash, construction and dinosaur swamp so worth trying out:

You will need:

  • Water based paint
  • Paint brush
  • Tuff tray
  • Hose pipe
  • Water spray
  • Fire characters

So here’s a time lapse of me creating the set up – I literally squeezed paint straight from the bottles on to the tray and then spread it around with a brush – it didn’t take too much artistic ability to get a flame.

Then I propped the tray up vertically and also balanced some little characters on the top of the tray for target practice.

Then that’s it…. I let Arlo loose with the hose pipe and he knew immediately what to do.

It didn’t take long for him to put out the fire once he figured out how to control the hose pipe, he also reached for his squidgy bottle to complete the job – great for his dexterity and building muscles in the hands.

He then used the stream of water from the hose pipe to blast the characters off the top – it took him a while to get his aim but once he figured it out this was highly amusing for him.

Mom Tip: wait for the paint to dry before starting to make this last a little while longer

If you don’t have a tuff tray then try this out by using chalk, water based paints or anything that you can think of that will wash off on a fence, wall or pavement.

Tuff Tray – Car Wash

This article features a product I was given free of charge in exchange for social media content. All views and opinions expressed are my own.

I put all Arlo’s favourite toys in to slime last week and we ended up having to set up a washing activity because he wasn’t too impressed with all of his dinosaurs getting the Tuff Tray experience.

I decided to combine the need to clean his favourite paw patrol cars with a play activity and this was the result.

You will need:

  • Silly string
  • Washing up bowl
  • Fairy liquid
  • Sponge
  • Flannel
  • Nail brush
  • Scrubbing brush
  • Foaming Play soap
  • (The purple foaming play soap pictured was given to us by Kids Stuff Crazy).
  • Along side the tuff tray I set up one of Arlo’s toot toot sets and so the task I set him was to clean all the toys so that they could go to play in the garage….. and he had great fun dunking all the toys in water.

    He quickly discovered the spray bottle. These are available in most supermarkets and places like Wilko in the gardening section, and we often use these in play activities. Pressing the nozzle helps develop finger strength and requires some co-ordination.

    This was a particularly successful activity and kept Arlo occupied in the garden for a long time. Using his paw patrol toys sparked some imaginary play as he was essentially on a little mission of his own and quite happy to play independently.

    The best bit is that after all of this is that we had a sparkly clean set of paw patrol toys and the clean up was super swift – We rinsed all of the materials in the washing up bowl and then Arlo put the hosepipe on the Tray before we stashed it away for the next play activity.

    Mum tip: check all the cars you’re using and make sure they aren’t battery powered because they all ended up submerged in water!