Google ’Small world play ideas’ and you’ll see a lot of builders’ trays filled with slime and coloured rice. There will be some figures, of course, and many of the activities look like great fun.
But what a pain to set up!
Do you really have the time to do it? And what a mess afterwards!
You saw something that looked like fun on Pinterest and created a beautiful scene but your child had other ideas. There was pouring and sprinkling, scattering and splashing.
You were planning a sensory play activity, weren’t you?
All you wanted was something to amuse your child, to keep her engaged for an hour or so. You may even have had dreams of five minutes to yourself, for that longed-for cup of tea.
So what went wrong?
Small world play is about telling stories. It’s about characters meeting and interacting. It’s a chance to rehearse and revisit everyday life and to live vicariously through others, to explore dangerous situations, have adventures and imagine possible futures.
It’s fine to use coloured rice and slime – it adds to the fun – but it’s not strictly necessary. Your child can get everything she needs from a couple of peg dolls and her imagination.
The trick is to offer places and paths between them. A path implies a story. From A to B, not just physically, but in terms of the story arc. Where are the characters going? What are they doing? What challenges will they meet?
You don’t even have to make a path. One is implied whenever you have a figure and a destination. A car at one end of a bookshelf; a doll at the bottom of the stairs.
Small world play mistakes
One of the reasons small world play can go so wrong is that your child is simply not old enough. She has not yet made the transition from sensorimotor to symbolic play and she is more interested in the properties of objects.
How many pigs can I squeeze into the house of sticks? How about the wolf? And these piles of bricks and straw? And the wolf’s ladder?
She is not yet ready to tell the story.
This is why adding sensory materials gets so messy. Your child is more interested in sensory play. She hasn’t yet reached the stage where she can follow, let alone retell or invent, a story.
There was nothing wrong with your setup. It was always doomed to fail.
Wait another year or two and try again. Your child will be delighted.
More about small world play
Read more about small world play and its benefits and the best toys to offer.
Or read on for some visual inspiration. There are no fancy set-ups. Just toys in everyday places. It’s fun to do more, to create something beautiful, but often your child needs nothing more that a couple of figures and a corner to play in.
You don’t even need four and twenty blackbirds. Just one will do, as long as you know your nursery rhymes.
Is there a more enticing mini world than a train set? You can incorporate blocks, cars, roads and trees, boats, cranes, farms and animals. Even more than a doll’s house, it’s the archetypal small world activity.
Rainbows are fun but not strictly necessary. Create a route using blocks, books or pebbles. Will you find your way to the centre? And who – or what – will be waiting for you when you get there?
Mazes tap into a desire to understand enclosures – and how to get out of them.
Small world on a bookshelf
There’s not much space but I bet you have no trouble coming up with a plot for this story.
And where are these elephants going?
Instantly transform your play with these simple backdrops. One minute you’re in the woods, the next you find yourself in a fairytale castle.
It’s like going to the theatre.
Buy something readymade or, even better, make your own. Take three sheets of A4 card, tape them together along a long edge and you have a fold-up screen. Now draw or paint your background onto three sheets of A4 paper and stick them to the screen.
Small world in your pocket
You only need a single figure for small world play. Take it with you wherever you go. The world is your stage.
A world in a small space
Have you read The Indian in the Cupboard or The Borrowers? Do you remember the rhyme There was an old lady who lived in a shoe? Small people inhabit small spaces. Where could yours live?
Playing with light
Have you tried small world play in the dark or with an unusual light source? It’s a quick way to add some atmosphere.
Windowsills are perfect. The light is both atmospheric and ever-changing and there’s a sense that the figures are somehow outside. Can you feel the cold of the glass as you get close?
Small world tabletop decoration
If you decorate your table at Christmas or Easter, you might find a way to bring it to life for small world play.
Small world heaven. How many stories have been told here, how many lives lived?
You can’t buy a set for every possible setting but sometimes a set can spark the imagination and keep the fires of play alight.
Invitations to play
Rather than setting up the small world, offer the figures with some props to suggest a theme.
What will she make with it?
With blocks, there’s no limit to the play potential. If you can imagine it, you can build it.
Pine cones are the original small world tree. What else could you collect on your next walk through the woods? How might your figures use acorn cups or bark?
Trains don’t have to be on tracks. Move away from the railway and see where the line takes you. Down the hall, to freedom!
Make roads with wooden boards
A road can take you anywhere. Wooden boards such as these are nice but a row of paperbacks works just as well, or a wide ribbon – or even parallel lines of masking tape or chalk. Maximise the fun by journeying from one room to another.
Make props with craft materials
Raid the craft trolley for paper. Scrunch it, tear it, cut it, glue it. What will you make?
Today, it looks like snow.
Make rivers and waterfalls, ice caps and lava. There’s no limit to what you can do with fabric. One of the best small world materials ever.
Have you ever taken your toys into the garden? They love having adventures amongst the bushes.
When it’s time to get the decorations out, don’t forget to put some aside for small world play. Your toys love Christmas, too.
What could be simpler than a contained space? A home for peg people? For Bilbo Baggins? Or perhaps it’s a rabbit hole. Hold on, Alice!
Play in three dimensions
Build upwards with blocks and trays – and guinea pig’s house!
Small world play mats
Get creative. You don’t need to buy a ‘farm’ mat for your animals. Here we see a puzzle. But you could also paint a mat or even make one from plywood and plaster of Paris.
A toolkit for making small world scenes would contain wooden blocks, fabric, natural materials, the contents of your craft trolley – and playdough. Shape it into anything. It’s the universal prop-maker.
Make your own accessories
These mice are planning a hike. Let’s make them a map.
A display case
A display case like this, or even a tinker tray, immediately creates relationships between figures. Who lives next to whom? Are they friends? Who comes to visit?
In the wild
The type of plant suggests the story. Are you climbing The Faraway Tree? Or lording it over the other animals on Pride Rock? In the picture, the tiger in the grass is on the hunt, but for whom? Think back to archetypes and the hero’s journey. Choose the right combination of figures to maximise the play possibilities.
On the wall
Great for Instagram – and also for small world play!
Wobble boards are great for training the vestibular system – for improving balance – but they also make excellent small world props. Will yours be a road, bridge, cave or pit?
A wheelbarrow full of water has frozen over. And look who’s coming out of hibernation. His friends are here to skate. What a fun twist on a simple theme!
There’s a whole world of stories in a castle, from tournaments to battles, to feasts and troubadours.
If you like your castles less permanent, why not make one at the beach – or your sand tray!
Or just sprinkle a little sand on a small world scene in the garden.
I don’t have the time to do it these days but when my children were younger, I used to make ‘small world’ birthday cakes. Edible fun – but watch out for the battery-powered train – the candle is real!
These simple small world play ideas are just right for your child. No complicated set-ups. No big clean-up at the end.
Your child is interested in telling stories. Everything else gets in the way. Sure, slime and rice can be fun, but they are for another day.
Sensory play can wait.