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You may remember as a child playing with your little people in your doll’s house, or stomping your dinosaurs up and down the living room whilst bellowing ‘Roar’ at your family. Perhaps at nursery you fought with your friends over who was going to be Batman or Superman? Children naturally love small world play and can benefit a great deal from getting into character and acting out scenarios whilst using their wildest imagination. One of my memories from childhood was playing cars with my elder brother. He would constantly tell me off for driving on the wrong side of the road, or for going around the roundabout the wrong way. Little did I know I was actually learning a practical life skill! Children can learn almost anything through their play with small world resources.



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When children immerse themselves in small world play, they act out roles and scenarios, many of which they have experienced first hand. These activities also provide opportunities for children to ‘imitate everyday actions and events from own family and cultural background’ – Understanding of the World, 22-36 months (Early Education, 2012:37). Children gain a great sense of who they are and where they belong in the world through this type of play, and if given the opportunity, can discover and relate to a variety of real life situations.

Small world play can be 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 this strongly supports the Early Learning Goal taken from the Early Years Foundation Stage–

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 are sensitive to this. They know about similarities and differences between themselves and others, and among families, communities and traditions.

Understanding of the World: People and Communities

Provide Natural Resources

Providing natural materials to a small world activity arouses children’s awareness of the features of the natural environment which they live in – provoking interest and discussion.

Top Tip: We added a ‘fairy house’ to our ‘Fairy Garden’, which was a pineapple with windows and doors cut-out of it which provided a sensory experience for the children. After a few days it began to decay, allowing the children a window of opportunity to observe and understand ‘growth, decay and changes over time’ (Understanding the World: the world, 30-50 months).

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.

small world play

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.

Early Years practitioners play a vital role in supporting children’s social skills when engaging in small world play with children. Sharing, turn-taking and negotiation are just some of the skills exercised and developed during small world play and adults should support this well. You may find that the child who prefers to stay quiet during group sessions is now suddenly keen to speak out loud and exhibits confidence whilst acting out being a tiger in the jungle.

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

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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!

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With thanks to Laura Mooney, Early Years Quality Officer (Bury Council) for writing this post

Take a look at our small world play in a tuff spot blog post for ideas and inspiration.

Shop the TTS range of Small World Resources here

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