The Ultimate Small World Play Guide - Sticks & Stones Education

The Ultimate Small World Play Guide

The Ultimate Small World Play Guide

Small world play is one of my favourite types of play. In fact, saying small world play brings forth so many wonderful memories of my own childhood. I had a favourite small bear.  She had a rich life in my imagination. I once had a gorgeous mid-century modern doll’s house that was on a turntable. It was all sorts of awesome. But for some reason my parents decided it needed to move on and I didn’t need it any more. I still haven't forgotten or forgiven them decades on. Don’t mess with an imaginative girl’s play! 

Much of what I played with as a child, was made by me using recycled household items, cardboard, masking and plastic tape and paper.  I also continued with this love and have been making doll’s houses for my preschool classes. They’ve been pretty standard in design - four boxes stacked to look like a two-story house. If I weren’t a contract teacher I would most certainly get more fancy with a mid-century modern twist or retro decor! 

Cardboard box dolls house

I’ve also written a blog about cardboard doll’s houses which ties into small world play beautifully. You can read that blog HERE. This blog, has taken me weeks and weeks to write, and just as much time to edit, if not longer. I’m currently looking at over 25 pages of writing and countless photos. I’m pretty passionate about this topic if you can’t tell. So, without further ado, please enjoy this guide. 

What is small world play and why is it important?

Between the ages of two and three, children start to enter the symbolic stages of play. This is where their imagination starts to kick in and you’ll notice a great deal more pretend play. Children might pretend to make a cup of tea or coffee for their family, carers or educators. I’ve lost count of the cups of coffee I’ve had made for me in early learning services. Children may dress up a doll or favourite stuffed animal. Don’t worry if your child seems to be disinterested, it may just take a bit of time. 

A small world play tray set up using a bunnings plant saucer, a handmade felt mat and some natural loose parts such as stones, seed pods, driftwood, and natural gum leaves, featuring  our wild republic Australian  nature tube.

As children mature, their play becomes more complex as they can think in a more abstract fashion.  This is where they can recreate play based upon real life scenarios and then create stories and act out scenes from their imagination. Children drive their own imaginative play, and small world play is a wonderful vehicle for this. 

If you’d like some inspiration before getting started, you might want to have a look at some awesome small worlds on our Small Worlds Pinterest Board. This is  where you can have a look at amazing small world set ups from us as well as from other bloggers.

I hope this Sticks & Stones Education play guide to small world play inspires you to have a play with small worlds. 

Small World Play is a type of play that:

  • encourages children’s imagination, 
  • nurtures children’s interests 
  • promotes creative thinking and the generation of ideas,
  • encourages discussions and rich conversation, 
  • builds knowledge about the world around us: people, animals and creatures and places and spaces on our planet and beyond. 
  • encourages children to engage in fantasy and imaginative play such as fairies, unicorns, gnomes and witches. 

Small world play, put simply, is children’s play in miniature. It allows children to play out both familiar and made up scenarios using their imaginations and their memories. Children can act out scenes from their daily life, stories they may have heard, fairy tales or situations that may even frighten them or make them anxious.

These miniature play scenes can include realistic figurines of animals, people, creatures, scenery. Adding in open ended, repurposed and found objects only serves to enrich children’s play and creativitiy. Small world play usually has a theme driving the child’s interest such as transport, outer space, dinosaurs, construction, fairies or farms. 

farm small world play playdough kit

Small world play can be a very rich play experience that nurtures children’s learning. It may not seem like they are learning, but they are. That’s the beauty of play. It’s learning in disguise. In fact it’s child directed learning, the secret business of children. There are endless play opportunities for small world play, but there are some traditional and timeless themes that we will touch on in more depth in this publication. 

Through the vehicle of small world play, children become the story tellers, masters of the little landscape and miniature world. The combination of quality early learning resources and toys, beautiful found natural materials, colourful play silks, repurposed fabric scraps and scarves; children can transport themselves mind, spirit and almost body to mysterious and amazing lands far far away in their imaginations. 

Small world-play is a way of creating imaginary scenes or recreating familiar settings such as the home, urban landscape or a farm. Small world play lends itself to both real life and fantasy worlds. This type of play is the perfect play tool to support children in exploring complex issues and emotions as well as consolidate knowledge and to see the world from the perspective of others. 

The brilliance of small worlds is they are on a small scale, highly portable, can be played up or down, in or out.  They can be inside a box, a drawer, on a shelf or a suitcase or in a tray. The options and opportunities are endless.

small world play resources made from felt and wood

Small world play is a type of play where children act out scenes from real life or stories in a miniature landscape, much like a stage, using small figures and miniature objects.  Small world play resources, toys as well as anything from your own home, garden or classroom will work.  Children’s imagination is unlimited which is why it’s a truly inexhaustible subject!

Small worlds are often set up using common interest based themes such as farms, construction sites, treasure hunting pirates, ambling dinosaurs on a prehistoric earth.  Adding in sensory elements such as water, sand, pebbles, kinetic or cotton sand, leaves enriches the play.

Beautiful felt and wooden toys by Papoose toys in a garden setting. The felt toadstools, log fire, toadstool tree stumps, and hand felted garden gnomes look right at home in this garden. You can use felt and wooden toys to make a fairy garden outside.

The benefits of small world play:

What are the benefits of small world play and why is it important to a child’s development?

Small world play is the ideal vehicle to encourage and nurture children’s creative imaginations. Children can engage with natural and artificial materials, made for purpose small world play resources and repurposed recycled items from around the home. They can explore how the materials interact and play out scenes from real life or an imaginary world. They can explore social situations with family or friends, expand their vocabulary and develop their language and conversational skills. 

Children learn through play, and small world play supports children’s development in a multitude of ways.  Emma O’Leary is a mother and a Speech & Language Therapist. She has a blog called Life with Tiny Humans had this wisdom to impart to us about small world play: 

“Small world play is an excellent opportunity for kids to expand their ever-growing language skills. From exploring new vocabulary to organizing ideas, and developing sequencing skills, small world play can support children in becoming effective storytellers as they narrate their miniature adventures”.

The Emotional Development Benefits of Small World Play

Small world play gives children the opportunity to explore and experiment with emotions big and small in a safe way and in a safe space. Children, while in control of the characters and the setting, are able to act out any situation and explore the possible feelings that may be on their mind. As adults we often do the exact same thing, but within our own minds rather than with characters in a small world setting. We practice for interviews, we play out scenes that have happened to us in order to better prepare for next time. Or we might practice difficult conversations in a mirror while getting ready in the morning.

The Personal and Social Skills Development Benefits of Small World Play

Small world play is an amazing type of play that encourages children to use their imaginations. It gives children an opportunity to build their social capacities, develop conflict resolution skills among children their own age, as well as older and younger. When playing together children need to decide upon the roles of the characters, the plot of their stories as well as the sharing and distribution of resources. It’s quite a complex process, all achieved through child-led play! 

Children learn important life skills through small world play. These important skills will support children’s growth and development throughout their childhood, their later schooling and life. Creative thinking starts in early childhood and serves us for life! Through small world play, young children are learning:

  • how to form relationships with one another, 
  • listen to each others ideas and opinions, 
  • take turns both in conversation and sharing resources, 
  • respect others’ work, 
  • and advocate for themselves. 

Reasoning, Problem-Solving, and Numeracy Development Benefits and Small World Play 

Children learn how to solve problems through experimenting, trial and error and reasoning.  Small world play can offer children opportunities  to develop their knowledge of numbers and their  numeracy skills through sorting, classifying, arranging and re-arranging. When sharing, children might have to create sets or count out the animals to share with their play partners.   Children learn in their own unique ways and at their own pace all through play. 

Small World Play helps Children Develop their Understanding of the World

Small world play offers children an opportunity to explore the world. They can explore family life and act out situations closer to home, or they can travel the world and learn about life in other countries. 

They can cross dimensions and dance with fairies or swim with mermaids; travel into outer space and swerve around the planets in their rocket; go back in time and learn about history, or they can imagine they’re all grown up and living their best lives. 

Children can practice life before it happens - visiting a doctor or dentist or specialist. Life isn’t always a straight path. We learn about life and love and death through life experience. Small world play allows children a safe space to explore these concepts and brave their fears. 

How to get started with small world play.

In this guide, I’m going to share my favourite resources to create amazing small world play worlds. No two worlds will be the same. Have you heard the saying that no one can step into the same river twice? Well, every time a child engages in small world play it will be a whole new world! 

The ideal resource collection for small world play is a balance between purchased small world play resources, recycled and repurposed household items, natural loose parts and educational staples such as blocks. A collection of rich resources can inspire hours and hours of engaged open-ended play. 

Small world play is one of the reasons that Sticks & Stones Education was born.

A love of small world play, loose parts and natural resources. This love has remained through the years and drives many of the choices I make for the business.

I love setting up small worlds for the children I teach and also photo shoots for the business. I love putting together the elements and seeing if they work. I gain inspiration from the amazing resources I am privileged to sell, some amazing creators and of course the children themselves. 

I personally love a balanced mix of old and new, repurposed and recycled and the more traditional toys and resources for small world play scenes. Below are some ideas that might spark your imagination.

loose parts play with natural elements for small world play at sticks and stones education

Step 1: Decide upon your theme

Deciding upon a your theme sounds simple. If you can't pick, we have a list below for you to choose from.. I do suggest you choose a subject for your small world that your child child or students have experience with or an interest in. If you're drawing a blank, I've got you! I've made a list of some common for a first topics. Small world animals are often a safe bet as most children have some knowledge of or interest in them or you could try and act out a favourite familiar story like ‘Going on a Bear Hunt’).

There are three options for you to choose from:

  • You can choose a subject or theme that is based upon the interest of your child or students.   
  • You can choose a subject based upon popular theme such as fairies, dinosaurs, farms etc.
  • You can choose a topic based upon a story book read to the children, or even a fairy tale or movie. 

Choosing an interest of the children is a great starting point though. It allows children to use their own knowledge and ideas, and then build upon that interest.  Starting simple though is something I suggest; keep it simple then build upon that to extend the play and learning.

When you’re starting, keep it as simple as you can. I also suggest you start with resources that can be used in a few different interest based scenes. When choosing materials, using a variety of tones or shades as well textures will enrich the play.

Some common small world play themes are:

  • Dinosaur
  • Jungle 
  • Polar 
  • Pirates
  • Garden
  • Insects 
  • Fairy 
  • Fairy gardens
  • Unicorns 
  • Mermaids
  • Gnomes 
  • Construction Site
  • Beach 
  • Ocean & Sea 
  • Farm 
  • Australia 
  • European/American Woodlands
  • Fairy tales
  • Favourite story books such as Going on a Bear Hunt, Room on a Broom

Step 2: Brainstorm your Ideas + Gather Supplies

Brainstorm your ideas based upon your chosen theme, and then collect your materials. Be inspired by what you have on the toy shelves, in the kitchen, garden or anywhere else within reach. Part of the fun of small world play is setting the scene! Children love to be involved in creating small worlds and like to hunt for items they might want to use.

Remember that you can add elements of sensory play too like sand, water, play-dough, straw, uncooked rice, rocks, … and that you might need a box, compartment tray of some sort or coconut bowls to contain your items.

Step 3: Set the Stage, Choose the Base

This landscape or base is the beginning of designing your world. This is the stage for children’s play. There are different types of bases you can consider such as whether the scene will be a dynamic sensory experience or a more static surface such as fabric on a table top.  

There are so many wonderful materials you could use as your base such as:

  • Sensory base 
  • Fabric base 
  • Felted play mat 
  • Container such as a wooden box or a cardboard box
  • Flat surface, such as a table top, floor or a shelf.

If you chose a sensory base, add it to a container. If you're using a loose base like sand or gravel or peas or beans, a container is necessary. Your container can be a tray with a 1 inch lip, or even a kmart play tray with a high side (which is a drink's tray that's been adopted by the play community!). Tuff trays are popular for larger scale small world play, or my favourite planter tray from the hardware store. They're so affordable and can be used in different sizes. Each child can even have their own tray at the one table. 

Consider textures and colours when designing the base.

Rich textures and colours make this a rich play space, but it also adds to the teachable moments.  These different bases can be mixed and matched it means that children’s play can be enriched and extended over many many sessions.

You could start with a simple sensory base of sensory sand or cotton sand and use for example Australian animal figurines. When you notice children perhaps losing interest, but you feel they would benefit from further play with the animals as they are still interested in the animals, you could swap out the sand for wheat, split peas or red lentils and add in small scoops and pots and see how that enriches the children’s play. Adding in other elements like seed pods, gum nuts, eucalyptus leaves on branches can again, enrich children’s play and add deeper sensory connections with the play. 

Step 4: Set the Scene

Think of the landscape you're trying to replicate. There may be trees in different sizes, shrubs, grass patches, mud patches, hills, mountains or volcanoes. Try and create different heights to make the space visually interesting. A great design often has odd numbers: one mountain, three trees, five shrugs etc. This is not only a concept of design, it gives a great pathway to numeracy and counting experiences. 

Step 5: Choose Your Characters

Are you going with an animal themed small world? Or are you having dolls or human figurines? Are the characters who are the people figurines, fictional character figures or based upon real people? Or maybe you're going to mix it up and have both! If you need some inspo, check out the list. 

Step 6: Add Children

Now that you have your base and landscape scenery set up and chosen your characters, you simply add children. Also, remember that the play may seem chaotic and messy and this is part of learning! Also if you find it too overwhelming, start simple and then add in more complications.

What are the top resources for small world play? 

For the Base:

There are so many wonderful materials you could use as your base such as:

  • Natural sensory bases: pebbles, gravel, sand, garden soil
  • Food based sensory bases: dried black beans, pinto beans, kidney beans, chick peas, peas, brown, green, red lentils
  • Colourful bases such as rice, chick peas, white beans dyed with food colouring
  • Water  in its natural state, or dyed with food colouring with bubbles added.
  • Fabric base: recycled scarves, fabric scraps, fat quarter quilting fabric in different colours, patterns and tones. 
  • faux grass, faux grass patches 
  • Felted play mat: plain felt squares or themed hand felted play mats such as dinosaur, ocean, Australian outback
  • cotton sand, kinetic sand
  • Nature safe slime, Oobleck in colours that match with the play theme. 

For the Scenery:

There are so many wonderful materials you could use as your scenery such as loose parts and small world play resources. The loose parts are  the embellishments that enrich the play. We have a dynamic blog on loose parts, but in the world of small world play we suggest the following:

  • wood and felt trees 
  • tree replicas 
  • hand-made pom-pom shrubs
  • felt pom-poms
  • tree branch slices 
  • pebbles, stones, rocks, 
  • branches, twigs and sticks
  • wooden unit blocks, house blocks, tree blocks, blocks with tree images, people, animal images, wooden houses
  • small baskets, coconut bowls that can be used to create mountains. 
  • fabric that can be used for scenery
  • play silks in earthy tones, ocean tones, rainbow, cosmic galaxy or fairy fantasy shades.
  • patches of felt in browns, greens, blues 
  • patches of blue or white vinyl for rivers, ponds or ice bergs
  • patches of faux grass, squares of fabric
  • sea shells, faux sea shells
  • cork roads, rubber roads or felt roads and railway tracks, railway or road tape, masking tape to make roads, or printable roads, wooden fence palings painted as roads, 
  • for larger outdoor spaces try tyres, pebbles, and mulch

For the Characters:

There are so many options for these 

  • Dinosaur and prehistoric animal figurines
  • Jungle animal figurines
  • Polar animals figurines
  • Pirate figurines and treasure!
  • Insects, bugs, bees and spiders
  • Bee, lady beetle, beetle, spider, sea turtle life cycles.
  • Fairy figurines, wooden and felt fairies, fantasy fairies, fairy puppets
  • Fairy gardens
  • Unicorns figurines
  • Mermaid figurines, ocean figurines
  • Gnome figurines, wooden and felt gnomes
  • Construction vehicles, emergency vehicles, cars and trucks
  • Ocean & Sea figurines, marine animals 
  • Farm animals
  • Australian animals
  • European/American Woodland animals such as squirrels, deer, moose, wolves etc
  • Fairy tale characters 

How to Organize Your Small World Resource Collection 

For your small world play scenes you might find that you keep the bases out, but change out the loose parts, the scenery and the characters. 

The loose parts like the tree branch slices, shells, pebbles, mini pine cones, gumnuts, stones and other natural materials can be kept in baskets or bowls. You may have some of the elements on a low accessible shelf for the children to choose their own, or you might rotate them in and out based upon the children's interests and engagement or your desire to set up some provocations in relation to some learning or concepts you're exploring.

You can store your themes in labelled storage containers in a cupboard or storeroom. The labels can be fancy, or they can be hand written on masking tape. Whatever system works for you, use it! This is handy if you are going to do toy rotations or if you need to use the resources between classrooms, or indoor and outdoor learning environments. 

Oh My Goodness! This was an epic one to write. Over 11 pages of researched and written text plus images and graphics. I hope you've found this blog article useful! And one day this will be a digital downloadable resource! 

- Gaby 

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