Small World Play


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Small World Play is a type of dramatic play in which children act out scenarios in a miniature playscape. In this play, children use manufactured toys and loose parts to create and manage their own worlds. They become omnipotent being overseeing what they’ve created–thus, small world play is also a type of power play. The created worlds range from mundane replications of everyday life to fantastical imaginings of impossible places.

A few examples:

  • As a child, I’d spend hours under a maple tree in the backyard building roads and garages for my toy cars and then playing out all kinds of car-based scenes–races, flat tires, good-car vs. bad-car, etc.
  • Tasha, my wife, got lost in time world-building with her Barbies on her bedroom floor.
  • My daughter, Zoe, once played with a toothpick ‘family’ in the backseat of the truck as we drove across South Dakota
  • Jack, a child in our family child care program, once spent an afternoon building a hotel and pool out of LEGO blocks–complete with beer cooler–to recreate a recent family trip.

Keeping It Real

Here at Playvolution HQ, we believe that play–including small world play–should meet the Five Conditions Of Play as outlined by Peter Gray. There are two common ways we’ve observed adults over-managing small world play to the point it no longer meets all five conditions–rendering the activity play-like at best.

The first is the tendency for adults to disallow or halt play they find aesthetically or philosophically displeasing. War, weapon, and superhero play, for example, are often shut down because the supervising adult does not approve. Children should pick the theme of their play–even if it rankles a nearby adult. Interest in small world play with Batman, soldiers, and Ninja Turtle action figures exists because those things exist in our culture. Remember that play is in the child, not the toy.

The second is that some adults choose to create the small worlds with which children engage instead of letting the child do the creating. Search the internet for small world play and you’re inundated with images of beautiful small worlds thought-up and created by adults. These adult-made worlds are sometimes creative and potentially engaging. They also steal half the fun of small world play from children–the creation of the world.

Children should be in charge of building their small worlds. Child-built worlds are generally not as aesthetically pleasing or Pinterest-ready as adult-built worlds. They’re rough around the edges–looking like they were pulled together by someone lacking refined hand-eye coordination and unable to zip to the craft store for supplies after the kids are in bed. That, of course, is what many adults find charming about the worlds children create.

Supporting World Building

While we adults shouldn’t jump in and decide themes and build worlds, there are things we can do to support small world play. For example, provide plenty of uninterrupted time for play. Children can spend big hunks of time setting up their world before they begin playing in it. Space is something else we can help with. Worlds can sprawl, so making a good chunk of space available when possible. Small world play can also spill over into multiple play sessions, so a space that does not have to be cleaned up between play sessions is ideal. It allows kids to return and pick up where they left off.

Small World Materials

In addition to time and space, we can support small world play by providing an interesting and variable selection of materials. Luckily, children can turn most anything into a toy, so this part is pretty easy. Let’s look at three material categories that are a part of most small world play.

Anchor Objects

As the name may give away, anchor objects are structures that anchor small world play to a location and/or help set the theme for the play. Anchor objects serve as the small worlds surface–offering structure, texture, and a sense of place. Doll houses are a tried and true small world play anchor, but there are many others. For example, a bed top may serve as a dance floor where Barbie is attending a ball or tree roots may serve as a scenic mountain range for toy cars to traverse.

Some small world anchors are sought out and play an integral role in the play while others are selected for convenience. Either way, they can influence how the play unfolds. For example, small world play with the Fisher Price houseboat, pictured below, will unfold one way when the anchor is a bathtub full of bubbly water and anther way when the anchor is a coffee table.

Here’s a short list of potential small world play anchors:

  • Doll House
  • Table
  • Rug
  • Water Play Table
  • Park Bench
  • Cardboard Box
  • Bed
  • Bathtub
  • Lap
  • Tree Or Shrub
  • Chair Seat
  • Floor
  • Log
  • Sandbox

Inhabitants

Small worlds need inhabitants–small beings to act and interact within the small world. While there are plenty of toys made specifically for this use, children can inhabit their worlds with all kinds of objects. Here’s a short list of items I’ve seen utilized in this capacity over the years:

  • Fisher Price Little People
  • Vehicles
  • Toy Animals
  • Dolls/Action Figures
  • Rocks
  • Sticks
  • Crayons
  • Toy Bugs
  • Fingers
  • Pine Cones
  • Earthworms

No matter the object, children tend to endow the inhabitants of their small worlds with at least a touch of anthropomorphism. Plastic dinosaurs, toy cars, pine cones, and even earthworms take on human traits. That tiny Porsche 911 was so happy when she won the race; LEGO Vader was angry LEGO Luke won the battle and then didn’t invite him to the Space Ball; the troop of dinosaurs were so hungry as they searched for a new land to call home.

Props

To round out small world play, props are needed. Cars need road signs to obey, Batman needs a Batmobile to drive, and herbivorous dinosaurs need plants to nibble. Props fill out the world and give the inhabitants things with which to interact. There are a lot of store-bought toys available that meet this need, but loose parts are a great choice because they can be used in so many ways.

Here’s a short list of some popular small world play props to make available.

  • Blocks
  • Rocks
  • Books
  • Tape
  • Cardboard
  • Paper
  • Sticks
  • Shells
  • Fabric

Potential Learning

It’s difficult to predict what any given child will learn from a particular small world play experience, but such play does provide plenty of learning opportunities. For example, fiddling with all the small bits and pieces hones hand-eye coordination, small muscle strength and control, and spatial thinking skills. Beyond that, playing out social interactions with anthropomorphic dinosaurs, for example, can build social skills and a child’s sense of self–especially if playmates are involved. In addition, small world play helps build language skills, problem solving skills, reasoning skills, numeracy skills, and more.

That said, there is a lot that children are unlikely to learn during small world play. For example, play in a North Pole themed small world–full of toy penguins, ice flows, and polar bears–isn’t going to teach kids much about real penguins, polar bears, snow, or cold. They may pick up some vocabulary, but won’t walk away with much more. Fiddling with a waddle of three inch tall toy penguins doesn’t teach you about real penguins and you’ll learn more about real ice and cold playing with a tote full of ice cubes than from playing with a cardboard ice flow.

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Author

Jeff A Johnson
Playvolution HQ Founder at | Website

I'm an early learning speaker, podcaster, content creator, author, and founder of Playvolution HQ and Explorations Early Learning.

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