Guide to Small World Play

Small world play is straight up awesome and kids love it! Let’s find out all about small world play: what it is, how it benefits your child, and what toys are useful for it.

What is Small World Play?

Small world play simply means imagining and acting out stories with miniature scenes (either from real life or imagined) in a mini play scene created with small figures, toys and household or found objects.

Picture a little farm scene with some farm animal figures and a few toys or objects to set a farm scene like grass, fences and food for the animals to eat. A green silk could be the grass, some sticks glued together could be a fence and some lentils from the kitchen could be the animal feed. When your child acts out farm scenes with all this, that is small world play!

How does it benefit your child?

Small world play is super fun and comes very naturally to most kiddos. Here are some of the skills that small world play develops:

Creativity

Anytime your child is imagining or playing make believe, they are flexing their creativity muscles. Being creative does more than just build artistic skills (although it does that too!). It means being a better problem solver since they can come up with multiple solutions or see things in new and different ways. Building creativity encourages confidence and satisfaction.

Vocabulary and language skills

Imaginative play builds language skills as kids come up with how to express their ideas. It also gives them a fun place to try out words or language patterns they’ve heard out in the real world.

Problem solving and critical thinking

Kids engaged in small world play need to solve problems as they come up. If all the animal figures can’t fit in the animal enclosure the child has built, what will they do? Maybe build a second enclosure? Or expand the first? Or stack the animals on top of each other to fit them all in? However your child solves this problem, they will have built important skills for solving problems and thinking critically.

Fine Motor Skills and Dexterity

Moving figures around a scene and setting up scenarios will have your kiddos using their hands and fingers in lots of ways, increasing their competence and confidence with other fine motor skill tasks.

What Toys Are Useful For Small World Play?

There are tonnes of great objects to include in your child’s toy box for small world play, from toys to things found in nature. Let’s run through our favourite toys as well as our favourite free or low cost resources.

Grapat 

These gorgeous toys are made in Spain and have rich, captivating colours. Durable, imaginative and full of beauty, these are some of our favourite toys.

Their Mandala/Loose Parts collection is perfect for small world play. Trees and green cones make an instant forest scene, honeycombs and mushrooms are delicious food for small figures, purple or rainbow eggs can be used either as food or as the eggs of animals and dinosaurs, flowers make for a beautiful meadow and so on. And their wooden coins can be used to make paths for figures to follow or geographical features like rivers.

Grapat nins (peg people) available in many assortments and combinations but we love the dark wood nins in warm and cool colours and the Carla set (which come with rings and coins), Grapat Mandala Trees.

Rainbows and Stackers

Wooden rainbows and stackers are ideal tools for small world play because the pieces can be used for several different things. Rainbow arches can be turned into animal enclosures, bridges, tunnels and slides for example. Adding some complimentary building tools like semi circles or building boards can add even more small world play options to the large rainbows.

And a cave stacker’s arches can be stacked in numerous ways to become a series of mountains or hills and so on. A wave stacker’s pieces can be stacked to resemble an ocean, of course, but also slides for animals or small figures and whatever else kiddos can imagine. All stackers have multiple uses - your kiddo will find all kinds of things to do with each piece.

Grimms Wave Stacker with Wooden Caterpillar shark and octopus

 

Figures/Small Dolls

Play figures are an essential for small world play. They’re a direct path to awesomely creative, open ended play. Our animal figures at our house have been on countless adventures with our son and they’re the MVPs of our at home toy box. Here are our favourite figure companies.

 

1. Maileg makes the most adorable little mice, furniture and accessories that kids completely adore. Maileg believes in making toys that kids love creating stories with, and it shows. Dreamy and whimsical, Maileg is one of our favourite companies ever.

 

2. Schleich makes beautifully realistic plastic figures that are super popular with kid collectors. I can’t bear to admit how many of these we have at our house. It’s A LOT. Our son plays with Schleich figures in the bath, the garden and in every room in our home.

 

3. Ambrosius makes gorgeous little felt dolls in a variety of skin tones with natural themes like flowers and mushrooms. About the same size as most peg dolls and perfect for small world play.

 

4. Holztiger makes the sweetest little wooden figures, and they’ve been a cornerstone brand at Dilly Dally since we opened our doors over 11 years ago. We have several of their figures at home, and even after 5 plus years of active play with our son, they still look beautiful.

 

5. Wooden Caterpillar are a newer wooden figure company for us and holy cow! We fell in love straight away. Bright and cheerful, these made-in-Russia figures are full of life. These have been extremely popular this year and it’s easy to see why.

 

6. Papo also makes realistic plastic figures that can go anywhere a kiddo wants to take them. Rough and tumble and ready to play all day, every day.

 

Sarah's Silks Playsilks

Sarah’s Silks have an impossibly long list of potential uses (read more about them HERE). We especially love the Earth Silks for small world play since they mimic natural elements, and they come in three sizes (regular, giant, and mini).

Use an ocean (or any blue) silk to be a river, a pond, a swimming pool, or the ocean. Use the desert silk to be a desert or a sandy beach. Use the forest silk to be forest ground cover or grasslands for farm animals to graze on. Silks also make perfect canopies for block structures making a dreamy home for some lucky play figures.  

 

Blocks

Blocks are the ultimate toy in our books, because they’re useful for so many kinds of play (read more about this HERE). For small world play, we love using blocks to stand for tall buildings in a city scene or animal enclosures for farm animals. But they can make anything from a swimming pool to a parkade to a fantastical castle.

And specialty block sets like Magic Wood’s tree blocks (available in 22 pieces and 36 pieces) make for magical forest scenes for figures to frolic in. Or Areaware’s Blockitecture series makes a city planner’s dream blocks to create your very own ideal town. Here are some of our favourite block sets for small world play.

 

Grimms Large Stepped Pyramid

This jumbo set of blocks makes an instant city of skyscrapers or any structure a kiddo can imagine. Versatile and bursting with vibrant colours - this is one of our most popular block sets.

Haba Building Blocks (available in Starter, Large, and Extra Large piece count sets)

We’ve had these in our home for several years and they’ve come in handy for a myriad of building projects. They come in three different piece count sizes and they have a nice variety of small, medium, and large blocks in each set

Magic Wood’s Tree Blocks (in either 22 pieces or 36 pieces)

One of my personal favourites, Magic Wood’s Tree Blocks are woodsy little beauties. Stack a couple of small blocks to make a rustic table, set out a forest path or build a cabin like structure for forest-y figures to call home.

Tree blocks with Ambrosius and Ostheimer  figures

 

Areaware’s Blockitecture

Arguably the “coolest” blocks, these slick blocks are designed by Areaware and are featured in museum and art gallery gift shops around the world. Effortlessly create super cool cities of your own design with these mix and match architectural blocks.

 

Gluckskafer Rainbow Building Slats

Gluckskafer Rainbow Building Slats Tower has vivid colours and a uniform size and shape that makes these versatile slats super fun to build with.

 

Dollhouses and Tree Houses

Dollhouses and treehouses are like gasoline on the fire of imagination. Kids just go nuts for play structures like these! And considering how many oohs and ahhs and “I wish I had this when I was a kid”, us adults aren’t immune to their charms either. Here are a few favourites.

Maileg House of Miniatures with the Bonus Room add-on and the Bonus Bathroom with various Maileg furniture - see our Maileg Dollhouse and Furniture Collection for tonnes of choices. Photo courtesy of @mousiehousey

 

Trees and Play Mats

If you love the idea of natural scenes for small world play, some beautiful trees are an excellent addition. We carry a lot of trees (we love wooden toys so trees are a natural!). And Papoose makes some truly lovely felt small world pieces like playmats, rocks and a volcano. Here are some of our top picks.

Ocamora Cold Forest, Ocamora Warm Forest

Lubulona Stacking Trees (available in Spring, Summer, Autumn, and Winter colours sets)

 

Free or Low Cost Small World Play Ideas

Of course, you don’t need to buy everything in your small world play tool box! Nature provides tonnes of free options and you can make some very low cost things yourself.

We’ve had loads of fun adding sticks, rocks, shells and pinecones to our small world play. Super easy tip - take a little blob of play dough and stick a small branch or strong stemmed flower into it and voila! You have a beautiful “tree” to play with.

You can also use lentils, popcorn kernels, beans, rice (either plain or coloured with food colouring) either to stand for rocks or other ground cover or as feed for farm animals.

And if you have a craft corner, it’s easy to find materials to make little small world extras. Here we’ve used blue felt to be the ocean and some red felt to make a quick beach towel. Wondering about the sand? We just made a sand play dough at home.

One day in spring our son made a cherry blossom tree with some pink construction paper and a toilet paper roll. So as you can see, there are tonnes of small world options everywhere you look!! And you don’t have to buy every element. With a little creativity you can make an incredibly fun play scene for your kiddos.

Have fun playing!!  

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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