Here is a child.
She is holding a wooden animal, a fox.
Under the armchair he goes, sniffing around. Who is he looking for?
Huddled together in a shoebox, not far away, are three little lambs. For now they are safely in their pen. But perhaps the fox will find them - and find a way in!
This is small world play - acting out stories with small figures. Sometimes it takes place in a dedicated play space like a toy castle or doll’s house and sometimes all that’s needed are the figures themselves.
Table of contents
- Why is small world play so powerful?
- Rehearsing for real life
- Living through others
- The best toys for small world play
- Final word
Why is small world play so powerful?
Babies and young toddlers live in the here and now, engaging only with what is in front of them, what they can see and feel.
But over time children learn to form mental representations of things they encountered in the past. They learn to remember. And they also learn to think symbolically. This object in my hand stands for something I played with yesterday.
This ball is a cake. That cereal box is a laptop.
Small world play is, of course, a kind of symbolic play. The figures and scenarios are not real. They are merely representations. And that makes them a wonderful tool for learning.
All this symbolic play leads, inevitably to reading, writing and math.
Letters stand for sounds. Words stand for things. Numbers stand for quantities.
Rehearsing for real life
Small world play offers a safe, controlled environment where children can rehearse real-life scenarios. When children engage in this type of play, they often recreate situations they have experienced or observed. In doing so, they're able to gain a deeper understanding of the world around them.
How would a teacher react to a child throwing their lunch box? Or a policeman to a boy tipping over a ladder?
These aren’t things most children would be brave or foolish enough to attempt in real life - but they’d love to see what happened if somebody else did!
Living through others
Small world play provides a platform for children to explore potentially dangerous ideas or scenarios in a secure environment. They can tackle big, sometimes intimidating themes such as danger, loss, or conflict, all within the safety of their imaginative play. For instance, a child might create a narrative where their wooden animals are threatened, or a doll in their doll's house becomes unwell.
By playing out these scenarios, children are able to process difficult emotions and concepts, developing emotional resilience and problem-solving skills. They live vicariously through their play characters, experimenting with different outcomes and responses without any real-world risk. This empowers them to face real-life challenges with more confidence and understanding.
The best toys for small world play
Small world play is all about storytelling. All you have to decide is where you would like those stories to take place.
The good news is that there are no rules. You are not constrained by the setting. A doll's house can become a hospital or a school; a castle's walls become the enclosures of a farm.
Pick one that appeals but, as with all play, you are only limited by your imagination.
Wooden Animals and Dolls: Children can create their own zoos, farms, or imaginary landscapes populated with wooden animals. These toys help children to extend their vocabulary with animal names and their associated sounds. They also serve as characters in the narratives children create, fostering imaginative dialogue. Learn more about our wooden animal sets.
Doll's Houses: Is there a more iconic small world activity than a doll's house? The whole of life is there. From cooking dinner to answering the door, meeting friends to hosting celebrations. A doll's house offers a contained, manageable space for children to explore different roles and scenarios, enhancing their understanding of family dynamics. See our doll's houses.
Toy Castles: Enjoy knightly tales of chivalry and dishonour, jousting and enchantment inside the imposing walls of a royal castle. Best of all, the stories you tell and the characters you find can be as varied as those found in any doll's house: the lowly page, the bullying squire and the gallant knight. How do they interact? Who is the true hero of the story? Maybe your tale includes an unconventional dragon who is afraid of fire - or princesses!
Explore our collection of wooden toy castles.
Wooden Train Sets and Vehicles: These toys allow children to incorporate movement into their small worlds. A train set can become a central element in narratives about travel, deliveries, or adventures. Vehicles also encourage dialogue as children create roles for drivers and passengers, bringing their small worlds to life with exciting events. Discover our range of wooden train sets and wooden vehicles.
Small world play comes naturally to children. A doll’s house or castle gives the play structure but even a handful of wooden figures is enough to get started. As they craft their stories, they're learning to share, consider others, and expand their vocabulary. All we need to do as parents is to provide the time, space, and a handful of versatile toys to let their small world play flourish.