What is Small World play?

So, what is small world play? I was recently explaining the concept to my 19-year-old daughter and showed her some pictures from school. She then complained loudly that she wished there was ‘cool stuff like that’ when she was a pre-schooler!

What is Small World play?

Small World play means creating miniature life scenes using toys or props to represent real-life environments. Kids bring their imaginations to the setting and from there, they can create scenarios involving the things you’ve given them. There are no rules to the play – it’s more about creating an invitation to stimulate imaginative play, and the players can use the items in any way they choose, guided by the invitation you’ve provided.

construction small world play
Small World play lets kids explore real life situations.

How does Small World play benefit kids?

Small Worlds enable kids to get into character and act out scenarios using their imaginations. They may be scenarios the child has experienced themselves, seen on tv or in a story, and through this kind of imaginative play, kids can safely imitate everyday actions and respond to the play invitation with support.

Small World play can help kids build on their idea of self, who they are and where they fit into their world. Some kids might find it easier to express their ideas and feelings while in a dramatic role play situation, because it gives them a place to explore their feelings and practice real-life scenarios.

Real world scenarios

During a Polar Small World play setting recently, a three-year-old girl carried out a conversation as a ‘mother’ penguin to her baby about not wandering off because she might get lost and Mummy wouldn’t be able to find her. This was a perfect opportunity for me to tell the baby penguin that if she got lost she could find a grown-up to help her find her Mummy again, and my small friend told me that it was “ok to go to the person at the register and tell them you’re lost, even though they’re a stranger”. She was practicing something she had been taught in a safe play scenario.

What things can we use in Small World play?

When we incorporate items from the natural environment into Small World play, we help kids to explore elements of the world around them, whether local, (like using leaves from the tree in the yard outside), or global (like making fake snow for an Arctic environment).  This lets players explore areas of the world that are inaccessible to them in any other way. Very few kids will ever get to see penguins playing in the snow, but through Small World play, they can imagine and represent their own ideas of what that would be like. Reading books or watching videos about the topic in advance can enrich the play – even something as simple as setting up a few relevant pictures nearby can add to the scenario and help kids to fully engage with the activity.

Most Small World play ideas include a sensory element to stimulate the players’ senses. The choices for this are literally endless –

  • dyed spaghetti
  • fake snow
  • dirt/sand (real or fake)
  • dyed rice
  • water
  • wood shavings
  • grass/leaves
  • mud (real or fake)
farm small world play
Sensory materials engage little players

Having taste-safe options is important with younger players, but it’s easy to find recipes online for taste-safe options.

Play objects can be anything from toy cars to plastic animals to bottle tops – if it’s something you can play with, it works for Small World play!

Who can play?

While the adult is responsible for creating the invitation to play, it is up to the players to work out how to play within that scenario can sometimes be hard to step back and let kids lead the play, especially if you have a clear idea of how you would use the objects, but this is where Small World play comes into its own. Once you set it up, the kids are free to explore it any way they choose. The adult then engages and supports the play while the kids lead.

What skills can kids learn?

Language skills – questioning, descriptive language, vocabulary, characterisation

Mathematical skills – sorting, classifying, counting, sharing out objects

Social skills – sharing, turn taking, negotiation, confidence, self-esteem

Fine motor skills – manipulating small objects, taking care not to disarrange the scene by controlling their hand movements

Is Small World play messy?

It can be! But weighing up the benefits against the negatives, Small World play is worth it! If you are concerned about mess, move the Small World play outside or onto an easy-clean mat. If you support your players by encouraging them to keep the materials within the Small World area, they will learn how to engage and play with care.

How old do the kids need to be before you can introduce Small World play?

If you have mixed ages within your group, ensure you supervise carefully. Smaller items in the play space can present a choking hazard. Make sure to use taste-safe materials, but in my experience, even quite young children enjoy and benefit from Small World play. My group are aged 2-3 years and do really well keeping the play objects out of their mouths, but it takes time and your guidance to help them understand the boundaries of safe play. Some of our base materials always end up on the floor, but that’s an easy clean up with a dustpan and brush. Persist with them – it’s worth it!

Small World play is a fantastic way to grow kids’ imaginations and give a scaffold for their creative thinking. It also encourages their natural curiosity. I guarantee you will see engaged, excited players any time you invite them into a small world!

small world play toys
Props add interest to Small World play

I have some truck-obsessed small humans in my group, so I decided to go with a construction theme for this week’s Small World activity. All I needed was a big bag of taste-safe dirt, some construction vehicles and signs as props. I set this up on a table, but one of my small friends is only just 2 and was struggling to reach so we moved it to the floor. He spent the next hour stretched out on his belly shifting loads of dirt back and forth. If you think 2 year-olds have short attention spans, try this! The hard part is getting them to pack up at home time!

Sign up below if you would like this set of construction signs and the recipe for this taste-safe dirt to get you started with Small World play.

Annie rotunda

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