Embrace the Mess!

Having been on a personal ‘tuff tray’ journey myself, one which opened my eyes to the countless possibilities and benefits associated with using this versatile resource, I felt inspired to share these with others in the sector.


50 Fantastic Ideas for Tuff Trays is a simple guide for those looking for creative, sensory ideas for early years children. The tuff tray activities are linked to learning outcomes and offer next steps for practitioners to take ideas and motivation from.

Sharing my passion for these multi-sensory enhancements was the easy part, however, what the book does not provide the reader with is the aptitude to be able to embrace mess in the setting! Okay, so we work in the early years and we all know that children and mess are two interrelated things. We know it, but do we support it? Are we skilled at it? Do we actually completely allow mess to unfold in our provision? Real mess. The type which involves combining resources, moving items from one space to another, scattering, taking things apart, mixing, tipping and basically creating disorganised chaos. You see, ‘mess’ is a deposit of play and it takes a certain level of expertise to be able to  embrace it!


It may seem like a very simple requirement, yet so many struggle to truly allow the mess to manifest. Take me for example: I like order, organisation and everything in its place! I have this instinctive drive to clear and tidy up. Well unfortunately, order and organisation do not marry well with children in the early years setting which is the reason why we must condition ourselves to embrace the mess.  It is this capacity to allow disarray which will allow you to fully get the most from your tuff tray activities.

During a child’s play, if we continually spend our time ‘tidying up’ after them we are not supporting their work, we are in fact doing them an injustice. We are inadvertently controlling and leading their free play. In our need for neatness we are sending a message that reveals we do not value their innate prerequisite to explore.


It is simple fact that early year’s children like to transfer, transport and combine things. I have never prepared a tuff tray that has not had extra resources added along the way by the children. It’s how they choose to discover, to investigate and to learn. Dinosaurs in the foam soap, teapots in the paint, dolls in the play dough. It is meaningful to them. It’s interesting and the best way for children to acquire new levels of competence.


Albert Einstein stated that “Play is the highest form  of research”! I love this quote and I am fairly certain that he was referring to the child’s own aspirations  to explore and not play discovered in our measured and meticulous need for order and tidiness.

So, how do we obtain this skill? Well firstly we must not have expectations of how things should look or how they should evolve, this way we can never be disappointed when our anticipations are not achieved. Next we must acknowledge that we are indeed the ‘tidy upper’ the ‘put this away first’, the ‘don’t add that to that’ or the ‘everything has a place’ type of practitioner! Once we have done this, we ‘stop!’ It’s that simple. Stop yourself from intervening, instructing or taking over the children’s play. Allow them to work.


Of course, when supervising young children we have to contemplate certain risks so there will always be the ‘clearing for safety’ considerations and every setting will have different challenges such as space, cohort sizes and premises to name a few, but for wherever possible, we must allow the mess or ‘free play’ to unfold. Embrace the untidiness and see the magnificent learning which is going on amongst the disarray. When you do this, your children will truly get the most out of your tuff tray enhancements and provocations.

I hope you enjoy the book and the undoubtable jumble of chaos and wonder!


Sally Wright’s 50 Fantastic Ideas for Tuff Trays is out now!

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