Small World Play

Have you heard of small world play? In this type of play, children can build, create and imagine, all in a small, safe and manageable ‘world’ of their own making. It’s imaginative play, only it’s more contained, often in a space that your child can return to again and again.

Small world play with Ostheimer stag and trees

What is small world play?

Small world-play is a way of creating (and recreating) scenes and settings, both real-life and imaginary, in child-size proportions. Like its close ally imaginative play, small world play allows children to explore and consolidate things they experience and learn in real life, and to see the world from the perspective of others. But unlike imaginative play, small worlds are, as the name suggests, smaller and more contained, often with clear boundaries between where the play ends and the rest of the world begins. Doll’s houses, play farms and other settings inspired by the real world are classic examples of small world toys. But children can just as easily make their own small worlds in places of their own devising; a shoe box, on a Lego base, under a table or in a quiet corner of a room. There are no rules.

Small world play for language development

The benefits of small world play

You’ll notice that small world play is especially popular with toddlers and younger pre-schoolers. This is because it’s a great way to explore and expand on the language skills they are acquiring so rapidly at around 18-24 months. Listen to your child as they play with their small world and you’ll probably hear a constant narrative as they act out the very exciting events that are taking place in their small world setting. So if you are trying to help a child with sounds and words, encouraging small world play will reap rewards.

Toddlers prefer to play by themselves, engrossed in their own plots and explorations but as the grow, children start to play alongside each other and eventually collaboratively. Nowhere is this more evident than with small world play, where preschoolers will happily co-create scenes and stories, learning to share and consider others as they go.

Resources for small world - sand

Resources for small world play

You don’t need any special resources for small world play! The chair legs under the kitchen table can be the trees of a forest, the flowerbed a jungle full of tigers and parrots. Having said that, a small box of props can come in handy as it enables children to rapidly realise their vision.

  • Cardboard boxes and tubes: raid the recycyling box for ready-made buildings, mountains and tunnels.
  • Cotton wool: makes excellent snow, clouds and sheep

Best of all, take the play outside

  • Sand: for deserts and underwater supermarkets (where mermaids shop)
  • Stones and sticks: for mountains, forests and distant planets

What are the best small world toys?

Here are some suggestions for your small world toybox:

  • Wooden blocks: blocks are open-ended and can become anything you want them to be; a school one day and a castle the next. The classic, unpainted block is perfect in this role, providing a blank canvas for your creations. The pieces recede into the background, leaving space for your figures to act out the story. Alternatively, choose colourful blocks to add a touch of fantasy to the scene.
  • Silks: you might use play silks already in dressing-up games but have you considered using them in small world play? Blue silks make wonderful skies and rivers, green for grass, red for fire and so on.
  • Vehicles: so that the good people of your small world can get around
  • Play figures: Ostheimer people and animals come in lovely natural poses but you can use any figures
  • Doll’s house furniture: go for simple, familiar pieces like those in Maileg’s mouse-house range
  • Wooden trees: it’s surprising how greenery brings a small world to life. For a softer, quirkier look, felt trees add a touch of magic.
  • Nesting toys: such as the Grimm’s Rainbow, which can be a tunnel, a cave or a row of houses.

Small world tip: When choosing what resources to keep in your small world box, favour those that encourage dialogue. A train set is brilliant fun and great for small world play but played with on its own, most children will make a choo choo sound and push it round the track. But add some passengers and a driver and suddenly there is a reason to talk, to narrate a story and imagine possible events.

A ready-made small world set by Moulin Roty

Small world play ideas

Choose your subject

Big or small, real or fantastic, it’s up to you. The idea is to create a meaningful context in which to identify certain words and phrases. Choosing something your child is already familiar with is a good idea, so that they can build on what they already know and feel confident. Zoos and farms are always good as most children love animals and know of some already through family pets or trips.

Keep it simple

Whatever scene you’re creating, try to limit it to just one space and around two or three characters or animals. Too much going on will dazzle them. Concentrate instead on finding a good mix of materials and textures, especially natural ones. For example you might create an underwater scene in a shoe box, with sand for the sea-bed, a natural sponge and a few shells.

Maileg kitchen - a miniature doll's house

Try a doll’s house

While it’s not as open-ended as wooden blocks, a doll’s house is a toy for small world play they will return to over and over. And, if you’ve already got a doll’s house, you’ll know that boys love to play with them as much as girls.

The best doll’s house doesn’t need to be an elaborate Victorian mansion or a glitzy show-home and you can find many gender-neutral doll’s houses and modern, Scandi-style play houses that are pared-back enough to allow flexibility. A simple wooden structure with rooms can be a palace or a factory.

When they play with figures and props in this setting, children often recreate scenes from everyday life. Even when the play is about fictional characters, it’s almost always – on a subconscious level, at least – about the child’s own experiences. Observing doll’s house play allows you to see what your child understands of power dynamics and gender. Who takes out the bins? Who does the cooking? Whose house is it? It’s also a chance for children to enjoy role-playing situations not normally open to them: answering the door to the postman (or a tiger!); going to work; cooking dinner.

A doll’s house also has the benefit of being self-contained, so children can leave their game and go to school or have dinner, and pick it up again later on, extending their imaginative narratives and the possibilities that come with them. As an added bonus, it’s a great place to store all those dolls.

Small world play with peg people and bridges

Use Pinterest for inspiration

Pinterest is a great place to look for small world ideas if you’re new to the concept. But don’t go overboard. Here at 100 Toys, Pinterest is our sworn enemy. The activities look nice – and can form a brilliant jumping-off point (what’s known as an ‘invitation to play’) – but how much of the set-up was your child’s idea and how involved was she in making it? If the answer is ‘not much’, then think again. Your creation may be a big hit (which is brilliant, but it still took you too long to make to be sustainable on a daily basis) or it isn’t, in which case it will be ignored, subverted or swept away. Was it worth the effort?

By all means make something collaboratively with your child, but do so at their instigation and let them guide the play. See this post about sustained shared thinking for how we can work alongside children to help them explore and expand their ideas.

Final word

Small world play comes naturally to children. Whether you give them an elaborate doll’s house or leave them to make their own fun in the garden with sticks and stones, they will instinctively create scenes and stories. All you have to do is allow the time and space for small world play to flourish. A box of useful resources will help, but it’s not strictly necessary. If you do buy toys, a handful of figures is a great place to start.

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