Small World Play | Rehearsing for Life

Small World Play | Rehearsing for Life

Small World Play | Rehearsing for Life

May I have some sticks? 

Yes, of course you can!

I will build a house. The Big Bad Wolf won't get me now!

Oh no! Here comes the wolf! Can't catch me, Mr. Wolf!

Small world play is about telling stories. It helps children make sense of the world. By playing with small figures, they live vicariously through the characters, exploring situations that they never could in real life.

In this guide, we'll look at how you can help your child get the most out of her play.


  • What is small world play?
  • What are the best props for small world play?
  • Classic small world toys
  • Invitations to play
  • Taking it further: let your child choose
  • Reading: the key to better small world play
  • Small world play resources
  • Final word

What is small world play?

My son stands at the train table, pushing his wooden train around the track. The miners are trapped down the mine and the train must carry the rescue machinery to the mountain. 

The trains and the figures tell the story. He himself is a spectator, moving the pieces and narrating the action. He is not a participant. 

Compare this to role play, where he and his siblings become the characters of the story. 

I'm the train driver and you're the digger. My bed is the train. All aboard! Let's go to the mountain!

For small world play to be successful, all you need is a story. It can be a story you read or one that you make up. It doesn't matter. The point is that your characters need something to do.

Child playing with wooden ark

What are the best props for small world play?

As a child, I'm sure you remember carrying a single figure around, placing it in one place and then another. Between two books, along the arm of a chair, inside a box. In your mind, a hero was making an epic journey, between two rocks, along a ridge and to the dragon's cave.

All you needed was your imagination.

But props helped. A box here, a tube there. These were the construction materials of your world.

What do you have around the house that your child could incorporate into her play?

  • What will you find in your recycling box? Carboard? Tubes, Plastic trays? You have the building blocks of a landscape that is unique to your imagination.
  • Lolly sticks
  • Cotton reels
  • Natural materials like stones, sticks, pine cones and conkers. They can be something different every time.
  • Cotton wool for snow
  • Blue fabric for rivers and seas

The older you child, the happier she will be to use materials that bear no resemblance to the thing she is trying to represent. But younger children need their props to be realistic. And for that, it's hard to beat toys.

Classic small world toys

You can make a small world in a shoe box or on a tray - and it can provide hours of fun - but these creations are sadly only ever temporary.

A play set, on the other hand, gives years of pleasure. The trick is to choose the right one. But how? You have to maximise the play potential. Ask yourself, what are this toy's possibilities? How many different stories can I make?

  • Toy castles. My eldest son is obsessed with history. Kings and queens, battles and weaponry. The more gruesome the fact, the more likely he is to know it. Like a doll's house, there are countless stories to be told by the owner of a wooden castle. Bold rescues, daring escapes, dramatic sieges and long-lost treasure. Castles have it all.
  • Arks and Wooden animals. Retell the story of Noah or - for toddlers - simply enjoy the movement from outside to in and the the pairing of figures.

Wooden doll for small world play

  • Toy farms. Rosie's Walk, The Little Red Hen, Farmer Duck, The Enormous Turnip. So many classic stories are set on a farm. Which ones could you tell with just a handful of figures And don't forget favourite rhymes like Old MacDonald Had a Farm and Five Little Ducks.

Toy farm for small world play

  • Wooden train sets. Choo! Choo! There's a whole world in a train set. Passengers and freight, safe arrivals and dramatic accidents. It all happens on the wooden railway.

Child playing with a wooden train set

  • Vehicles. So much of small world play is about getting from one place to another. Help your characters in their journey by providing them with the right transport. Cars, trucks and buses make a good start. Or you could extend your child's play - and thinking - by going up into space in a rocket.
  • Doll's houses. This is perhaps the quintessential small world activity. Your doll's house doesn't have to be fancy. The magic doesn't come from the furniture or the size of the bedrooms. Doll's house play is all about the interactions between family members. To get started, a set of wooden dolls is all you really need. Dolls' houses have the added benefit of being self contained. When the play is over, you can close the doors - and the mess - inside, ready for next time.

Child playing with a doll's house

  • Rainbow. On the face of it, a wooden rainbow seems like little more than a decorative addition to your small world but in your child's hands it becomes a doorway, a cave or a ceremonial arch. Lay two pieces flat and you have a readymade enclosure for your zoo.
  • Wooden blocks: An open-ended classic. Whatever piece you find yourself missing, you're sure to be able to recreate it with a simple wooden block.

A simple invitation to play

Invitations to play

What's the best way to introduce small world play?

Older children are happy to take the objects they need and create something from scratch. They see the possibilities in the materials and can work towards an imagined goal. But older todddlers and preschoolers need more help. 

An invitation to play is a prompt, a spark of an idea that gets your child started. You can create the entire scene so that your child can leap straight in and play - but that's lots of work for you and less rewarding for her. Instead, why not offer three goats, a figure and a few wooden blocks? It might be enough to inspire your child to recreate the story of the Three Billy Goats.

I can make the bridge with those blocks!

And if I get my blue t-shirt from upstairs it can be the river.

But an invitation to play can also be something readymade. A toy castle or farm, laid out in an attractive way. If you're using a familiar toy, make sure it hasn't been used for a while (known as toy rotation) so that your child is pleased to see it again. And, if you can, add something new. What would your child make of a box of match sticks or lolly sticks presented alongside the castle?

Taking it further: let your child decide

Your child may delight in exploring a readymade scene but soon enough she will have her own ideas. She will want to choose the setting and the figures. And she will bring in materials from around the home. This is self-directed play and it is our ultimate goal. A child who plays independently, a confident self starter who knows what she wants and how to get it. She makes plans and carries them out. You are nothing more than a facilitator. 

Reading: the key to better small world play

By sharing stories with your child, you fill her mind with a treasure trove of ideas and inspiration for her play. The more you read, the richer her play. As you work your way through fairy tales and nursery rhymes, you  add to the cast of characters at her disposal: the Big Bad Wolf, the Wicked Witch, the Fairy Godmother. And the plot lines become more varied: children lost in the woods, the hero on a mission, the greedy king in his castle.

Small world play for toddlers

You gathered the materials. You created an inviting scene. You thought hard about your child's interests.

Cue the big reveal.

To screams of delight, she plunges in, picking up one piece and then another.

But then things start to go wrong. 

The fairy is posted into the tower. And then the dragon. And then the knight. The horses go through the castle gates, but so too do the rocks and trees. Even the portcullis.

What happened? Was your set-up flawed?

No, your child is simply too young.

Developmentally, she is not ready to tell stories and explore relationships. She is still investigating materials and the way objects move and relate to each other.

In short, you have a toddler. And the only cure for that is time.

For now, small world play is about discovery, not story-telling. For truly imaginative play to take place, your child must first learn that objects can be symbols, that they can stand in for something else. This block is a car. This horse is a unicorn. This is known as symbolic play

This is how pretend play begins. This is that. And, soon enough, I am that. I am the symbol. I am pretending to be something else. I am the policeman and you are the crook. This is sociodramatic play, the highest form of play. It makes full use of a child's imagination and her growing ability to play with others.

Small world resources

In addition to the toys and materials you will use to lay out the scene, you need a container or surface in which to situate the play.

A table top works just fine, but sometimes a discrete surface can add to the fun. If you have the space, a dedicated play table is a winning addition to any play space. The scene your child worked so hard to create is not on the floor, at the mercy of marauding, newly-crawling babies. And it doesn't have to be cleared away when the room is tidied or it's time to vacuum. Some scenes, like train sets and castles can stay in situ for weeks.

Final word

Small world play is the gateway to your child's imagination. It's a sign that she is ready to think symbolically. The idea that one thing stands for another is something she will learn to use in all kinds of situations, from numbers to letters

It's a type of play that comes naturally, but that doesn't mean it can't be improved. For example, when you create a busy town with cars and garages, buildings and roads, don't forget to add some figures. People give meaning to all the activity. They have motives and feelings, wishes and fears. And, above all, they talk. Let's go here! The train is late! We have to go by car! 

Give small world play a try. And don't be disheartened if your child doesn't engage for long first time round. Like all kinds of play, it's a skill that has to be mastered. Read lots of books, play alongside each other and, when your child is ready, retreat and allow space for her imagination to soar.