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.

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 they grow, children start to play alongside each other and eventually collaboratively. Nowhere is this more evident than with small world play, where pre-schoolers will happily co-create scenes and stories, learning to share and consider others as they go.

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 recycling 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 toy box:

·       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 people of your small world can get around

·       Play figures: People and animals come in lovely natural materials.

·       Dolls house furniture: this could be natural materials instead of shop brought. Wooden discs for tables, branches make great beds with leaves for bedding etc. 

·       Trees: it’s surprising how greenery brings a small world to life. 

·       Pringle tubes, cereal boxes: 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.

Small world play can purposefully set up by an adult so that it reflects a variety of cultures and diverse communities.  This provides children with the opportunity to experience the similarities and differences between themselves and others and strongly supports the Early Learning Goal.

Children talk about past and present events in their own lives and in the lives of family members.  They know that other children don’t always enjoy the same things and become sensitive to this.

Natural resources encourage children to bring all of their senses into play. Observe objects closely and identify their similarities and differences by smelling, touching and perhaps even tasting (for the ones who may still explore objects with their mouths). Of course, adult supervision is imperative during this play, when objects which impose small risks are added to play. Natural materials present opportunities for sorting, classifying and encourage the use of descriptive language – all important mathematical and language skills for young children. Providing an interesting and ever-changing environment for children to explore is an ideal way to develop their curiosity, creative thinking and provides opportunities for them to ask questions. Let them talk about the things they have discovered. When the adult poses purposeful open-ended questions to the child, this promotes conversation and sustained-shared thinking.


Giving children the opportunity to act out experiences through small world play supports the development of their personal, social and emotional skills. It acts as a catalyst for children to explore their innermost thoughts and feelings. For a child who may struggle to articulate how they are feeling to an adult, they may find it easier to use a person or animal figure, for example, to convey these emotions in a role-play situation. It is important that there is an adult available to support the play and build on the child’s understanding of expressing thoughts and feelings.

When children take on and act out another role, it supports their language development, confidence building and self-esteem.

The adult should be conscious that, although they are creating the small world play, they are not leading the play; that is for the child to do.

Immerse yourselves in the play, see the world from their eyes, and, most importantly, let their imaginations run wild!