Developing a tuff spot provision

Ok guys, you've all been here before. Tuff spots/black trays/builders trays - whatever you call these little beauties, you know how useful they can be.

They're incredibly versatile resources and if anyone doesn't have one then your first job, obviously, is to go and get one.. like now!

I want to talk about the different uses of these trays and what can be done to develop particular skills.

Click any image to see the original and credit is provided against each.

Using a base for small world:

(Credit: Pinterest -

Using as a base tray for small world is particularly common as items can easily be containing within the tray. Often these are easy to set up and extra resources can be added which are a little too messy or delicate for a table top.

(Credit: Pinterest -

The obvious downside of setting up your small world in this tray is often it looks inviting for the first child or two who comes into your setting, but then it looks a glorious mess for the remainder of the time.

If you're setting up your tuff spot for small world take particular care to think about the longevity of the play. Does it matter what it looks like after an hour? Do the children get the same amount of learning from the tray who go to it last?

(Credit Pinterest - no user but click to see original)

Using a base for messy play:

Pinterest -

A more common approach to a tuff spot tends to be to use it for messy ingredients. Shaving foam and gloop/ooblek (cornflour and water) being the most common I've seen but there are a plethora of alternatives such as:

Coloured rice

Coloured pasta and Spaghetti


Custard Powder

Chocolate milshake

Baby oil and flower

(Various doughs)




Hair gel or mousse

Coffee or tea.

Powdered Milk

- Basically raid your food cupboards!

(Credit - pinterest me!)

When it comes to getting messy in the black tray, the same rules apply for the small world. Is learning at 9am as good as at 11? Does it just turn into a gigantic messy that is unusable?

Some of the best messy activities I have had in the black trays over the years have been when I've allowed the children to make the most of the resources (such as rice, pasta, baby oil) themselves when they feel it is necessary. You end up with some pretty fabulous creations.

(Again, credit me!)

Establishing a provision:

I personally believe that a tuff spot tray is essential in any classroom regardless of what age range you're working with. I once talked to a Year 5 teacher who wanted to introduce one to encourage descriptive language. But I'd consider an absolute essential for Early Years settings (my continuous lobbying of Ofsted in this issue is sadly proving fruitless!).

Like with all provision, you need to establish the 'core,' 'continuous' or 'basic' provision. Below is a photo of the black tray shelves that I set up in my nursery last year:

This is a simple set up of plastic spoons and containers, metal spoons and containers and wooden spoons and containers. Its not the best but it is a good start as the children were able to select and sort without worrying about placing them back precisely where they belong.

In previous years I have used plastic boxes and places objects such as tea strainers, mini tongs, arrangement of different types of spoons, tea pots, kettles, bottles, ice cube trays, chocolate box trays etc.

This was all catering towards a 'messy' tray approach. I used to include small world into the provision as an enhancement when this was relevant to interests or to the topics. E.g. dinosaurs and cars appeared many times and small Christmas characters appeared which linked to our nativity.

Me, now:

Well this year I'm in Reception and space is extremely tight! So instead of having an established tuff spot area, I place an activity out for the children as part of their morning activities (we have 20-25 minutes of 'focus' work at the very start of our session which usually involves guided reading, puzzles, name writing etc.)

These activities are usually stocked with simple tools such as those above but I've also been dabbling with some of the more old school resources which I might have discarded in the past.

Things such as:

large pieces of cards and paperclips

Beads and strings

Threading penne pasta onto pipe cleaners

Threading cheerios onto pipe cleaners

Threading through printed card/laminates

Recent Posts:
  • Grey Facebook Icon
  • Grey Instagram Icon
  • Grey Twitter Icon

© 2020 To James Tunnell. NurseryNook® is a registered Trademark in the UK. Share with love!