Why encourage small world play?

What a wealth of opportunities for learning small world play offers! From imitating real life situations, to retelling and extending on stories heard, children can start developing empathy and learn to articulate their thoughts by taking on different roles. Playing alongside their peers, provides opportunities to practice negotiating and questioning skills as the play evolves.

By providing a variety of characters and resources, children can start to explore similarities and differences between themselves  and the cultures and traditions of others therefore helping them find their own place in the world. I particularly like using natural resources to enhance small world play as the variation of textures, smells and form open up opportunities to extend vocabulary and make a closer bond with nature. Natural resources also tend to require gentler handling and this is a life skill in itself. 

Of upmost importance is that small world play should be child led and , even if a scene has been provided by adults, it is the children that decide the direction play will take. This open-ended situation is perfect for developing a child’s self esteem as there are infinite possibilities, scenarios and stories that can unfold controlled only by their imagination. There is no wrong or right way to play and therefore no pressure on a child to perform in a certain way, what better way to build confidence in risk taking and resilience. 

Creating Small Worlds at Home

There are lots of ‘small world’ toys on the market but actually it is really simple and more effective from a play and learning perspective to create ‘worlds’ using things that you collect yourself. The main thing to remember is the less a ‘toy’ or prop does, the more a child’s imagination will need to do: don’t add batteries, just add a child!  So a cardboard box with maybe a door and window cut out, could be many different kinds of dwelling and is actually a far richer play thing than an expensive toy house manufactured to be one thing. 

Here is a list of items that I find we use again and again at home for creating small world play:

Coloured scarves 

Log slices

Pine cones

Peg people




A tray

Hamster houses

A selection of animals

Sometimes I set up an invitation to play for my children to find (I probably have way too much fun doing this!) and sometimes I provide a basket of props and see where their imagination takes them. If feeling brave,  I have added in some dried rice or water to extend the play value but I have to brace myself for the mess on those occasions!