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6 hands-on sensory tray activities you’ll LOVE

Sensory Hex Tray Blog

Bring on the tray play! Versatile, engaging hex trays give children endless learning possibilities. Also known as a tuff tray or sensory table, the humble hex tray is an open-ended, moulded plastic tray typically in a natural sand colour with a hexagonal shape inspired by the shape of honeycomb (you can also get a charcoal hex tray). 



Why tuff trays are a crowd favourite 


These trays are great for both indoor and outdoor use. (Our ‘hex tray’ features UV-stable plastic which is fade resistant). Use it on a tabletop, on the floor or with a metal stand. Add playmats (textures, roadway, rainbow, chalkboard) or bring your own imagination to the table!!! Self-contained hex trays make the perfect platform for messy play, small world play, sensory exploration and nature play. We’re looking at sensory exploration in this blog as it’s such an important part of early childhood development, allowing children to explore using their senses of touch, sight, smell, hearing and sometimes taste! Hex trays are ideal for creating sensory experiences due to their shallow compartments and ability to contain various materials including water (keep a towel or two handy)! Let’s dive into our sensory activities. 


Explore the deep blue sea 


Transform your tray into a mini underwater world. Some important days in the calendar give you a great reason to make a splash! World Reef Awareness Day on 1st of June is focused on protecting the world’s coral reefs. Then World Oceans Day will be celebrated on 7th of June this year to raise awareness about the critical role our oceans play in sustaining life on Earth. These days give you a wonderful opportunity to teach about our world’s shared oceans and our personal connections to the sea. Fill compartments with blue-tinted water, add sea creatures, shells and stones. Encourage children to explore marine life, discuss ocean habitats and learn about sea creatures’ characteristics. Introduce concepts of buoyancy, sink and float, and understanding of the marine ecosystem. 


Activity 1: Sensory ocean tray 

In this messy play experience, we combine small world wonder with elements of STEM magic. 


Ocean Hex tray


You’ll need:   

Hex Tray & Stand (SUN201K)  

Blue Craft Dye (EC102)    

Ocean Counters (LER0799)   

Watercolour Sponges (NAR089)   

Plastic Slip Syringe (SER1016003)   

Grassy Stones (TH9130)   

Transparent Shells (GUW8081)   

Zip lock bags (sandwich size)   

Muffin pan or freezer-safe bowls   

Shaving Foam  

Bicarbonate of soda  



Let’s make it!   

  •  Add a few ocean counters to a zip lock bag and fill with water. Secure tightly and lay flat in the freezer until frozen solid. Repeat for desired quantity.
  • Add ocean counters to a muffin pan (or bowl) and fill each section with water. Carefully place in a freezer until frozen.
  • Shake 2 x 1kg boxes of bicarbonate of soda into the hex tray.
  • Time to set the scene! Arrange the transparent shells, remaining ocean counters and grassy stones in the hex tray.
  • Remove the muffin pan from the freezer and let sit for several minutes; the ice shapes should slip out easily now, and to the hex tray scene.
  • Remove the frozen sandwich bags from the freezer, carefully remove the bag from the ice, discard the bag safely and add the ice bricks to the hex tray scene.
  • Add a splash of blue craft dye to a jug of water and gently pour into the hex tray over the bicarbonate of soda.
  • Add desired amount of shaving foam into the hex tray.
  • Add a few cups of vinegar (we used double strength) into a bowl accessible for children to fill syringes with and squirt into the water. Done! You’re ready to explore.


TOP TIP – If you’re enjoying this messy play experience indoors, keep a towel nearby for quick clean ups as the morning/afternoon progresses.  



Celebrate World Environment Day 


This event on the 5th of June has become the largest global platform for environmental outreach. Join the movement! Use your hex tray to explore climate, weather patterns, global warming, animal habitats, marine pollution, overpopulation, sustainable development, wildlife and plant life. Create a miniature landscape representing different climates, from deserts to rainforests. Use natural materials like sand, moss and small plants to illustrate ecosystems. Discuss the importance of preserving the environment and the role each child can play in conservation efforts. 


Activity 2: Wonderful world sensory tray 

Create a small world sensory tray with creatures great and small roaming the earth! 


  World Environment day Hex tray


You’ll need:   

 Hex Tray & stand (SUN201K)  

 All Weather Magnifying Glasses (GC4600)  

 Blue Magic Sand (CS1501)  

 Green Magic Sand (CS1502)  

 Natural Magic Sand (CS1500)  



 Animal & insect figurines   

 Pebbles (PNP055)  

 Pine leaves (SH9512)  

 Wooden farm fence (LB0021)  



Let’s make it!  

  •  To make the ‘soil’, add ½ cup of cocoa to the natural-coloured magic sand and give it a good mix through.  
  • Add all the different coloured sand and straw to the hex tray (we’ve sectioned the tray into wild animals, domesticated animals, ocean animals and insects, with each different coloured surface representing the land, sea, grass, and farm.  
  • Create a happy habitat by adding rocks and plants etc. to form a small world scene. Get creative! You might have some shells or flowers etc. on hand to add different colours, textures, and aromas.  
  • Carefully place the animals into their habitats along with magnifying glasses and you’re ready to play!  



Sensory Stories: Use your tray table as a storytelling prop for sensory narratives. Fill compartments with materials representing elements of a story about our world, such as cotton balls for clouds, blue water beads for the sea and small figurines for characters or animals. Encourage children to engage in imaginative play as they manipulate the sensory elements to retell the story or create their own narratives. 



Sensory nature play  


Using found objects in nature for sensory exploration is awesome, particularly in autumn and winter! Fill compartments with vibrant leaves of various shapes and colours. Encourage children to touch, feel and sort leaves based on texture, size and colour. Stimulate senses and promote descriptive language as children engage in tactile experiences with nature’s seasonal beauty. Explore the textures, scents and colours of each of nature’s treasures. 


Activity 3: Nature sensory tray 

Bold colours in autumn and winter offer an enticing invitation for children to explore. 


Nature Hex Tray


You’ll need:  

Hex Tray & stand (SUN201K) 

5kg bag of white rice 

Red vegetable dye (AFS126) 

Yellow vegetable dye (AFS140) 

Baking trays  

Baking paper 

Large zip lock bags 

Branch circles

Pine Cones

Natural leaves

Insect counters (TEB6013) 

Masking Tape (DP0504) 

All-Weather Jumbo Tweezers (GC4604) 

All-Weather Magnifying Glasses (GC4600) 

Eco paper cups (JM850) 


Let’s make it!  

  • Add coloured rice to the bottom of the hex tray and decorate with the natural resources, leaves and insect counters.  
  • Adhere lengths of masking tape over the top of the tray, creating a maze for children to work through.  
  • Place a pair of tweezers, magnifying glass and paper cup at each station for children to search and collect objects. Done! You’re ready to explore.  


How to colour rice:  

  • Add 4 cups of uncooked white rice to a large zip lock bag.  
  • Mix desired amount of vegetable dye powder with 1 tablespoon of vinegar and dump into the bag.  
  • Seal the bag well, then shake it around until the rice is coated in colour.  
  • Pour the coloured rice onto a baking tray lined with baking paper and spread out evenly. 
  • Leave to dry thoroughly for a day or so depending on the weather. To speed up drying time stir the rice around on the tray a few times to ensure air can access each grain as it dries, or place in the sun etc.  


TOP TIP – If children are helping to shake the bag of coloured rice, it can be a good idea to double bag (place the sealed zip lock bag of rice into another zip lock bag and seal again). 



Bring early literacy to life 


Transform your hex tray into a literacy wonderland to support phonics and early reading skills. Fill compartments with letter tiles, phonics cards or literacy manipulatives. Engage children in hands-on activities to match letters, form simple words and explore letter-sound relationships. Encourage storytelling and imaginative play to enhance language development and literacy comprehension. 


Activity 4: Alphabet fishing sensory tray 

With this tactile activity, children will be reeling in their alphabet catch in no time. 


Alphabet Hex tray


You’ll need:  

Hex Tray & Stand (SUN201K)  

Cotton Sensory Sand 6kg (EC234-6) 

Magnetic Letters (QT5452) 

Fishing Rods (ZZ001S) 


Let’s make it!  

  • Tip the cotton sensory sand into the hex tray and spread evenly. 
  • Evenly spread desired number of magnetic letters over the sand.  
  • Place the fishing rods around the outside of the hex tray, inviting children to fish a letter. Done! You’re ready to explore.  


TOP TIP – Younger children developing their hand eye coordination might enjoy working with magnetic wands to fish out the magnetic objects.  



Colour sorting & sensory exploration  

Use your tuff tray to introduce the concept of colour recognition and sorting. Fill compartments with an array of colourful objects such as buttons, beads or pom-poms. Prompt children to sort objects by colour, count each group and discuss colour shades and variations. Foster cognitive development and early mathematical concepts through hands-on colour exploration activities. 


Activity 5: Colour sorting sensory tray  

This tray activity combines tactile exploration with classification skills and fine motor dexterity. 


Colour sorting Hex tray


You’ll need: 

Hex Tray & Stand (SUN201K) 

Sorting Bowls & Tweezers Set (TEB6332) 

Sea Life Counters (TEB6012) 

 Vegetable Dye 

Assorted Pom Poms (SH1374)  

Popping corn 


Baking tray 

Baking paper  



Measuring cups  

Measuring spoons 


Let’s make it!  

  • Add the coloured corn, pom poms and sea life counters to the hex tray.  
  • Place the matching Sorting Bowls & Tweezers around the 6 sides of the hex tray as ‘stations’ to invite children to collect the corresponding-coloured items. Done! You’re ready to explore. 


TOP TIP – The vinegar coats the colouring onto the corn evenly and acts as a preservative to stop the corn from spoiling. It’ll last for ages! When you do finally finish, why not try sprouting the kernels in the veggie garden!  


How to colour corn:  

  • Pour a 400g bag of popping corn into a large jar/jug (old coffee jars work well).
  • Add 1 cup of water and 1 cup of vinegar (or 1/2 cup of double strength vinegar). Add a little more water if needed to completely cover the corn in liquid. 
  • Add 1 tablespoon of vegetable dye/food colouring to the jar and give it a good stir.  
  • Leave to soak for 24 hours, pour into a strainer, and give a good rinse under the tap (the coloured water can be used for painting if desired).  
  • Pour the corn onto a baking tray lined with baking paper and leave in a warm sunny spot to dry thoroughly (stir the corn around to ensure all surfaces are dry) and then store in an airtight container/zip lock bag until ready to use.  



Texture Play: Fill compartments with a variety of textured materials such as colourful sand, rice, pasta, cotton balls or kinetic sand. Encourage children to explore the textures using their hands or even their feet for a more immersive experience. Discuss the differences between smooth, rough, soft and hard textures, fostering descriptive language and tactile awareness. 

Calming activities: Create calming sensory experiences using soothing materials like lavender-scented rice, soft fabric scraps or water with a few drops of essential oil. Encourage children to engage in calming activities such as running their fingers through the rice or feeling the texture of the fabric, promoting relaxation and emotional regulation. 



Exploring pre-writing & First Nations symbols  


Activities that explore cultural perspectives are fantastic to incorporate into your tray time. Fill compartments with symbolic items like animal figurines, traditional artwork or Indigenous symbols. Encourage children to explore the significance of each symbol, engage in storytelling inspired by Indigenous culture and practise pre-writing skills by tracing symbolic patterns. Develop fine motor skills and cultural appreciation in an inclusive learning environment. 


Activity 6: First Nations symbols sensory tray 

This activity combines fine motor skills development with the exploration of literacy using Aboriginal symbols cards. 


First Nations Hex tray


You’ll need:  

Hex Tray & Stand (SUN201K) 

Red, Yellow and Black sand (EC706, EC708, EC701) 

Easi Grip Brushes (CS2566) 

Aboriginal Symbols Cards (RICA1302)


Let’s make it!  

  • Empty the 3 containers of coloured sand into your sensory tray and gently smooth out.  
  • Place an Aboriginal Symbols Card and Easi Grip Brush at each ‘station’ for children to recreate.  
  • Use the Easi Grip brushes (or fingers for tactile memory) to recreate the symbols.  
  • Enrich the experience using language. Talk about the symbols; what they look like (is the symbol created with wavy lines, circles, dots, curves etc.), what does each symbol represent (meeting place, water, animals etc.) Can you tell a story using the symbols? What symbols can you find in the learning environment? Done! You’re ready to explore. 


TOP TIP – Younger children will benefit from the chunky barrel of the Easi Grip Brushes while older students will find a thinner brush more comfortable to handle. 



And so over to you for tuff tray time! We’re so excited to know what activities you use your tray for to encourage sensory exploration, messy play and small world play in your centre. What’s your favourite activity? Which will you be trying first? 




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Sensory Play For Children…. Why Is It Important?

Sensory Integration With Shells Toddler Arms Resting In Frame

Children gain information from the world around them from the moment they are born. They use innate reflexes to respond to external stimuli such as the sucking reflex to feed. As they grow and develop, babies and children continue to process and respond to their environment using their senses. Often we see very young babies using their hands and mouths to explore the texture of objects that they come into contact with. It is often underestimated how valuable these early interactions can be for children. As they touch and explore sensory objects, these young children are learning about texture, shape and the physical properties of these objects. They begin to distinguish one object from another as they develop their earliest skills in classification and differentiation. This begins to make us realise that children’s earliest interactions with the resources we offer are creating the foundations for future learning.

Red Glowing Sensory Blocks With Children Handling Blocks

Early Years

What is happening for a baby is much more complex than what we perceive. When a toy is held in front of a baby they are using their senses to try and determine not only where that item is in space, but also where it is in relation to their body. They develop the understanding that they have arms and legs to reach for and grab items that can then be placed in their mouths to determine if they are hard, soft, smooth or rough. They use repeated cause and effect as they practise and develop the ability to see, interpret information and then respond appropriately. As they practise these skills, their attempts at grabbing and holding objects become increasingly successful.

Sensory Integration

As children grow, these interactions begin to become more complex. The addition of language enables children to expand their vocabulary and develop the ability to describe what they see, feel, touch, hear and taste. Words such as cold, fluffy, smooth, soft, rough and hard all enable children to further differentiate between objects and materials. They begin to develop greater sensory integration, meaning they are able to understand and respond appropriately to sensory input. This is a tricky skill that becomes increasingly developed as children grow. The more exposure children have to sensory experiences early on, the more developed their sensory integration will be.

Sensory Integration Shells And Pine Cones With Toddler Arms Resting In Frame

Sensory Experiences

Did you know that sensory experiences are calming for children? If you speak to psychologists, occupational therapists, play therapists and the like, you will discover the amazing impact that sensory experiences can have for children with additional needs. However, in saying that, all children benefit from the same experiences and this can play a large impact on the development of self- regulation, an increasingly common challenge in early childhood today. Through engaging in sensory experiences, children are gaining an adequate amount of sensory input in order to obtain an optimum sensory, or regulated state. This state means that we do not become either over or under-stimulated by sensory input, feeling calm and ready to respond effectively to the world around us. In order to understand this further, let’s have a look at what exactly are the sensory systems.

Sensory Systems

Did you know that there are actually seven sensory systems? We all know the usual five senses of hearing, sight, smell, taste and touch, however there are an additional two senses that can affect the way in which we respond to our environment, the vestibular and proprioceptive senses. The below table gives us a brief description of these seven senses.

VISUAL Our visual system helps us to see what we need to see and filter out what we don’t need to focus on. This system is often used for tasks such as finding items in a busy room, attending to school or work tasks, reading books and matching or sorting items in our daily lives.
TACTILE These sensory receptors are located in our skin and mouth and tell us when we’ve touched something and what it is that we’ve touched as we discriminate between its size, texture, shape and temperature. This sense also helps us to respond to light touch (which can often be alerting, or alarming for some, such as a spider crawling on our arm) and deep touch (which can often be calming such as deep pressure or massage).
AUDITORY This is not only being able to hear, but to hear accurately as we determine which sounds are important and those that should be tuned out. The auditory system is a survival system, and when auditory processing is disordered, it can make people feel disorientated, disorganised and overwhelmed.
GUSTATORY This sense provides information about the different tastes of foods and sends these messages to the brain. For example, biting into a peach which we did not predict to be sour can be recognised by the brain and signal to us that it is not ready to eat.
OLFACTORY This is our sense of smell and this also influences taste. This sense is affiliated with the part of the brain responsible for emotional memories.
VESTIBULAR This is our sense of balance and motion and is located in the inner ear. This sense is activated through the movement of our head, and is also being increasingly activated by the downward force of gravity to give us a sense of where we are in space. It provides information about speed and direction of movement. Vestibular input can produce a variety of responses such as calming, organising, alerting or disorganising depending on the type of movement and sensitivity of the individual.
PROPRIOCEPTIVE This is our sense of body awareness. It lets us know where a certain body part is and how it is moving. This system helps us understand how much force we are using and whether we need to use less or more force in order to successfully complete a task. It is activated any time we push or pull on objects as well as any time the joints are compressed together or stretched apart (such as jumping up and down or hanging on the monkey bars). Proprioceptive input tends to have a calming and organising effect on the body, particularly when feeling overstimulated or overwhelmed.

Young Boy On Sensory System Rope Swing

Sensory Materials

Children learn about themselves and their world by engaging closely with materials. The more interaction a resource can offer, the more possibilities for learning. While many children have different learning styles and respond differently to a range of learning environments, we know that most children not only gravitate towards, but also highly benefit from, sensory experiences. Hands-on learning is becoming increasingly spoken about not just in early childhood, but also throughout children’s schooling years. This is due to the fact that children can become better able to retain and understand concepts when they can use hands-on learning and investigation. They can use their own cognitive processes to experiment with and make sense of the information they are receiving. We know that the more senses a child can use, the greater chance they have of being able to interpret, make sense of and retain information. Not only can children see what is happening but they can physically feel and touch the process as it occurs. They begin to realise that what they do and how they manipulate objects can have an impact on their world. Below are some wonderful examples of sensory experiences that provide learning opportunities for children.


These mirrored discs for example, can offer a child the ability to explore shape, identify cool and smooth textures, use trial and error to experiment with the movement and stacking of the shapes, and also observe their own reflection as part of their journey into self identity. The wonderful shape and properties of these discs mean that children can explore light and reflection as they angle, rotate and manoeuvre them.

Girl Looking In Sensory Mirror Ball

Sand & Water Play

Mud, sand and water play, aside from being amazing natural and easily resourced materials, offer countless opportunities for learning. Children can use their senses to touch, mould, manipulate and experiment with this resource.

Girl Mixing Mud In Bowls

Numeracy Skills

When filling and emptying containers, they build upon mathematical concepts of full and empty, while also learning about size, shape and the properties of each of these materials. This is not to mention the language and social skills that can be obtained when engaging in these experiences with their peers.

Child Pinching Clay In Hands

Clay & Dough

Clay, playdough and other types of dough are very popular among children and offer a medium for creative expression. Children can manipulate and explore their malleable properties as they create shapes, objects and representations. They can often be used and reused as children can use trial and error, while also developing persistence to achieve the desired outcome. Younger children enjoy the calming sensation, while also building upon and developing their fine motor skills. Older children apply cognitive thinking as they create a shape and consider transferring thoughts and ideas into three-dimensional creations. They contemplate how long, how many sides, whether rounded or straight and then further consider characteristics and attributes when creating real-life objects such as animals or people.

Natural Elements

Natural elements are one of the greatest opportunities for children to develop their sensory dispositions. Not only are these resources sustainable, they also offer such a wonderful range of possibilities. Creating natural sensory trays for children of all ages invites them to build connections to nature and allows us to bring the outdoors inside. Children can notice and become familiar with the differences between a dry and fresh leaf and what this indicates in the natural world. They can explore the supple properties of a flower, from the petals to the stem and see for themselves the characteristics which may have been explored in books or through discussions.

Natural Fauna Elements In Woven Basket With Handle

Learning Opportunities

There are many other resources that offer amazing sensory play for children as the list is endless. Offering children opportunities to engage with sensory materials on a regular basis allows children not only to develop self-regulation, but also develop greater sensory integration. In a world where we need to recognise the role of hands-on learning as a key component in education, it is now more than ever that we need to understand why sensory play is important for children.

What sensory materials do you offer your children to provoke wonder, ignite curiosity and stimulate the senses? We’d love to hear from you!

About Mel

Mel Ishkhanian has over 15 years experience in the early childhood industry and is currently employed at Explore & Develop Narraweena. She has a bachelor degree in Early Childhood education and engages in frequent professional development in order to keep up to date with current theory and research within the industry. As Educational Leader of the service she applies current research into practice and strives to connect the service to both the local and wider communities. With a passion for treating children as capable and confident beings, she applies theories of play, the 8 ways of Learning Pedagogy and is also influenced by the Reggio Emilia principles. Check out regular social posts by Mel @explore&developnarraweena.