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  • Writer's picturechevening school nursery

Small world

Recently I have read an article in our nursery world magazine. I thought parts of it might be interesting to explain what small world play is all about and help with ideas for home.

What is small-world play, how does it benefit children?

Imagine the scene: two children have a dinosaur each in their hand. They stand facing each other. The dinosaurs meet and both children roar. One child suggests that one dinosaur might then run off. There is an argument about whose dinosaur will turn around. The scene represents small-world play in action.

The term ‘small-world play’ might sound unfamiliar to some adults, but everyone recognises it when they see it. It involves children playing with small replicas of animals, people and objects in an imaginative way. It comes under the wider umbrella term of imaginative play. It is part and parcel of most nurseries continuous provision and also figures in children’s play at home.

As it is so ubiquitous, there is sometimes a danger that it is not always valued and seen as a route to support children’s wider learning and development.


Small-world play is very satisfying for most young children. It is interesting to see that many children will engage with this kind of play quite intensely. Developmentally, there are some significant benefits for children.

Emotional and social development

Most aspects of children’s lives are controlled by adults. Where and when they go places, when they play and what they can do. Small-world play is immensely satisfying for children. They put themselves in charge of the decisions. Unlike role play, where children are active participants, in small-world play, children are the puppet masters – omnipotent, controlling events.

Children also ascribe personalities to some of their small-world toys. This allows them to think about some of the more complex social dynamics that they may witness or are part of. It is not uncommon, for example, for a child to exclude a toy exclaiming, for instance, ‘You stay there. You are too rough.’

The element of control within this play is probably one reason why some children, even sociable ones, often spend time playing alone – avoiding power sharing. When we observe children playing together, we may notice that each child keeps control over their own figures or characters, although there may be some broad agreements about the ‘script’.

Language development

This type of play is interesting to observe because children often talk to themselves while playing. They are using language as a tool to organise and problem solve. In effect, we are often hearing something known as ‘inner speech’.

In addition, children often use language to make the sounds of actions, such as ‘brrrrm, brrrm’ for cars, as well as using language to command and to explain. Through this type of play, children often practise sentences and vocabulary that they have learnt from adults.

Physical development

Manipulating the figures and also the props involved in small-world play supports children’s hand-eye co-ordination, but also their spatial awareness. As children develop, the size of the props and figures often reduces, requiring increasingly intricate movements.

Other physical skills are also needed for small-world play. Children need to be able to balance in order to stay still or squat. They also need a sense of their own position, especially when they locate themselves in the middle of a train set or are surrounded by farm animals.



Very early on, children enjoy manipulating small-world resources. There is a real interest in holding and using resources such as trains, cars and farm animals. Play tends to be exploratory with the focus on what resources can do and what they can make them do.

Toddlers often like adults to come alongside them as they play. A good strategy is to copy children’s actions and narrate what they are doing so as to develop their language – for example, ‘The cow is flying.’ It can also be helpful to copy toddlers’ vocalisations, such as the ‘nah-nah’ siren of the police car, and then adding in a narration.

In terms of choosing small-world resources, it is often best to look out for chunky objects that children can hold easily. It is also important to think carefully about safety. Toddlers may still put items in their mouth and so there is both a chewing and a swallowing hazard.

Three- to five-year-olds

Small-world play starts to take off once children have acquired language, as well as increased hand-eye co-ordination. As language progresses, we will increasingly see complex play where children ascribe characters, motives and even a plot to their play.

Children may also want to create rich landscapes and contexts for their figures – for example, combining construction toys such as Lego with their small-world play.

The role of the adult often changes as children become more engrossed and seek ‘privacy’ during this type of play. This means our role may shift to being one of a facilitator and also observer.

Items you might already have at home

  • trains and train tracks

  • cars and garages

  • farm animals and farms

  • horses and stables

  • dinosaurs

  • spiders and reptiles

  • sea-life

  • play people with houses, fairies, peppa pig, paw patrol, etc

  • woodland animals

  • rockets and astronauts.

The human element

Some small-world playsets can fascinate and hold children’s attention, but opportunities to explore human interactions and emotions might be missing because no human figures are included in the set. It is, therefore, worth adding appropriate human figures into playsets, such as a couple of divers into the sea-life set or a train driver, passenger or guard into the train set.

Background materials

By planning where we put out small-world play, we can enrich and vary children’s small-world play. You can choose to put small-world play with materials that link well, such as:

  • farm animals that are put out with a strip of turf or straw

  • dinosaurs with different sized dried leaves and sticks

  • snakes with sand

  • cars with strips of card to make roads and plastic tubes for tunnels

  • woodland animals with conkers, sunflower seeds and nuts

  • insects with sawdust, shredded paper and fresh leaves.

You can also put out small-world resources in unexpected places, such as play people hidden in shredded paper or in pasta.

Opportunities for expressive arts and design

By providing children with resources such as cardboard boxes and tubes as well as natural and household objects alongside role play, children can incorporate them into their play and so have opportunities to show further creativity. We could, for example, plan to put small-world resources out with dough or with junk modelling.

Opportunities for mathematics

There are opportunities to draw children’s attention to mathematics during small-world play. These might include ensuring that there are a range of different sized props, such as snakes of different lengths or a large, medium and small car.

It is also worth putting out simple paper or card grids which can give children the opportunity to group items if they wish. Meanwhile, think about using tidying as a way of alerting children to the mathematics within their play – for example, ‘Can we put away all of the curved track first?’, or ‘We will separate the cows. How many need to go into this box?’

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