It's A Small World: The Importance of Small World Play

Published on Tuesday, 13 July 2021
Last updated on Monday, 12 July 2021

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Small world play. You may have heard of it before, but what actually is it, and why is it important to children’s development?

Small world play means using small toys such as vehicles, animals and figurines and placing them into a miniature setting to enable children to enact different scenes and situations, e.g., feeding time at the farm, construction zone, home life, shopping, etc.

Whether using purpose-made toys or going with a more DIY option, small world play is a way to keep young children entertained for big blocks of time. But it’s also an important developmental opportunity.

Why is it important?

Small world play allows children to engage and develop a number of different areas of their brains all at once, and all while having a really fun time. Even better, it encourages interaction between children to build social skills and develop multiple young minds at the same time.

So how and why do children benefit? In so many ways! Creating and manipulating miniature universes gives young children the opportunity to develop emotionally. By acting out real world scenarios, and even re-enacting remembered moments, children are able to explore the way they feel about different people, events and situations. 

They’re also able to act out different types of emotions in a safe way; the farmer is grumpy today because the rain has made his fields muddy; the dinosaur is sad because she lost her egg; Percy the green engine is worried he won’t get the mail delivered on time.

This aspect of small world play helps children to understand how people react emotionally to the situations they are in, and can not only build their emotional understanding and vocabulary, it can also increase empathy as they put themselves into the minds and lives of the characters they create.

Acting out scenes with real objects in created environments will also allow children to understand the way the world around them works, as well as ideas such as cause and effect. For example, pushing a train too fast on a track may cause it to crash, or the digger is better at picking up the little rocks if you lower its bucket all the way down.

Children can also explore how and why a shop scene is different from the way people interact at home, or at a fire station, while thinking about the different activities that take place in these environments. 

Flowing on from this understanding comes an opportunity to reason and problem solve when engaging in small world play. If the slope the railway is on is too steep and is making the trains crash, try putting it on a flatter surface and see if that helps them chug around safely. Or, if the big fire engine won’t fit inside the fire station, maybe something else can be used to make a bigger garage for it.

With this problem solving, children become more confident in themselves and in their ability to navigate situations in the real world, helping them to become sure of themselves and to know how to respond in different situations.

And if that wasn’t enough for you, small world play also enhances a child’s imagination and creativity as they fabricate new worlds to play in and find ways to make the toys and materials that they have fit the situation that they are imagining.

Suggesting a new scenario, engaging in play through a different character, or coming up with problems and/or their solutions are wonderful ways for educators to involve themselves in a child’s small world play, thus promoting new areas of development and building a stronger bond between themselves and the children.

You can even help to build their numeracy skills by suggesting children count how many sheep they have in a paddock, or see how many rocks the digger can fit in its bucket.

It’s easy to set up a small world scene for groups of children in your care to play with. First you need to pick a theme - consider basing this on a book you have read in class, or maybe ask some of the children what they do with their families on the weekends, or what fields their parents work in. The possibilities are endless.

Next, get your materials together. It’s a good idea to have a box or tray of some kind to contain the worlds being created, which will set a clear boundary for the game, allowing the children to create within that space. Then collect an assortment of toys, sensory items such as sand, rocks, leaves, etc that fit in with the theme you’re helping to create, and environmental pieces to help set the scene such as cardboard boxes to use as garages for cars, small plants to use as trees in a backyard, and so on. After that, it’s up to the children to decide how to play.

Different age groups will obviously need varying levels of complexity in the scenes they set and the worlds they create. A few larger, easy to hold and manipulate toys may be more appropriate for younger children, while older kids will likely want their scenes to be more elaborate and complex.

Also, the amount of educator intervention and guidance needed will vary not just depending on age, but also on the personalities of individual children. Some may need you to ask a few simple questions to get them started, while others might prefer you to get down and begin the game with them, making animal noises, moving cars around, digging in the sand yourself until they feel comfortable to move on and get into some serious playing.  

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