Going on a shopping spree

In the third article in her series on role-play, Judith Harries focuses on the activity of shopping, giving children creative scope to open up their very own shop and extend their understanding of the world.

Playing in a role-play toy shop is one of my earliest memories of my own time at school, over 50 years ago, so it is a very long-lasting memory. This series looks at different ways to set up memorable role-play opportunities in your own early years settings, including spontaneous, child-initiated play as well as ideas for creating planned and more extensive learning environments. Here I focus on ‘shopping’ and show how once resources for a basic shop are made available they can be adapted to stimulate most children's imaginations and interests. Organising a walk to a bakery, florist or pet shop is always a good way to initiate and stimulate role-play.

Starter shop

Going to the shops is a very familiar experience for many early years children so start with a basic shop layout and adapt it as you go along: display the goods, provide some money, choose some bags, and they are off.

Start by inviting children to choose the goods to be sold – toys, books or food, and display them on a table or set of shelves. Many children will have experience of setting up their own impromptu shop at home. Add price labels using writing and number skills combined with ICT. Provide children with money and bags and they will do the rest. The best way to learn about handling money is to use it in a shopping scenario. Introduce an open and closed sign so children know when they are able to play in the shop.

Food shops

Many children are probably used to going around the supermarket with a parent, shopping for everything from food to a school uniform. More specialist shops such as a bakery or greengrocers are simpler for role-play scenarios.

Involve children in choosing the type of specialist food shop you are going to open, be it a bakery, greengrocers or sweet shop. If you have time, try making biscuits and jam tarts for the baker using salt and flour dough, fruit and vegetables for the greengrocers from newspaper, modroc plaster of Paris, paint, and sweets out of old sweet wrappers and cellophane. Use plastic food to supplement the homemade items. Remind children that none of the play food should actually be eaten. However inviting it seems. Provide shopping baskets, mini trolleys and reusable bags for children to pack. Encourage lots of number skills – counting, adding up, taking away, and sorting out prices and change. If the children choose a sweet shop, try changing it into a more healthy greengrocer after a week and sell real fruit and vegetables for them to select for snack each day.


  • Combine the smaller shops into a supermarket-style role-play area. This might involve more sorting out when clearing up but is a good way to develop the children's play
  • Construct a conveyer belt for the checkout using a roll of lining paper stretched over a table
  • Stuff empty food boxes with newspaper and seal them so they look as good as new to stock the shelves with groceries.

Child's play

  • If a child suggests a particular shop selling fish, sand toys or plastic bottles, go with it. So long as there is an exchange of goods with money or even barter, they will be learning
  • Children may start using or adding ‘loose parts’ to a shop. Encourage them to sort and label their goods
  • Encourage children to sing some traditional shopping rhymes such as Five currant buns in the baker's shop, Simple Simon’ and Hippety-hop to the candy shop. Try changing the words to fit different shops.

Children may be less familiar with a book shop due to the dominance of online book retailers, but it is a great way to encourage them to look at books as exciting things to choose and own.

Book shop

Children may be less familiar with a book shop due to the dominance of online book retailers, but it is a great way to encourage them to look at books as exciting things to choose and own.

Choose books to use in the book shop that will survive play, handling and transportation around the setting. Put visible stickers or covers on the books so that they are easily recognisable as originating from the book shop. Help children to sort books into fiction and non-fiction. Set up a cosy reading area in the book shop with bean bags, cushions or a comfy chair for children to try before they buy. Include a stationery area with paper, pens, folders, and cards for children to ‘buy’ and a writing station for them to try them out. This should encourage lots of literacy activities.


  • Change the shop into a library (see ‘Buildings and Businesses’, EYE March issue)
  • Ask parents to bring in books to sell on a second-hand book stall and raise some funds for your setting or to give to a charity.

Child's play

  • If a child shows interest in a particular topic find some books about it to ‘sell’ in the book shop
  • Invite children to bring in books from home that they have finished with to supplement the book shop stock.

Clothes shop

A great opportunity for children to dress up and experiment with clothes, getting dressed, comparing styles and sizes.

Set up the clothes shop with a rack of dressing up clothes, a changing room, boxes and bags to pack purchases, and money. Try to include some multicultural outfits and fantasy ideas alongside the usual emergency services uniforms. Borrow a tailor's dummy so children can choose an outfit to dress it in for a window display. Provide a full-length mirror so children can look at themselves in the different outfits. Let shopping assistants have tape measures to measure customers and always have a camera available to take pictures of the children in different clothes.


  • As the children's shopping play develops, introduce pretend plastic cards rather than cash for them to use
  • Talk to the children about how the weather affects what we wear and challenge them to find something for a rainy day, a snowstorm, or a hot day
  • Some children are more willing to just pop on a hat than completely dress up. Open a hat shop alongside the clothes shop, selling hats for all sorts of different purposes, as well as other accessories – scarves, gloves, jewellery, handbags, etc.

Child's play

  • Encourage some imaginative play by identifying one of the hats in the shop as a magic hat. What will happen when the children wear this hat?
  • Invite children to come to nursery wearing a favourite hat (clearly labelled with their name) to add to the fun.

Shoe shop

Most children will have experienced a trip to the shoe shop, either as an exciting treat or an ordeal. Ask them to share their stories.

Collect together as many pairs of shoes as possible, different sizes and styles, along with shoe boxes and bags. Make sure that you include a variety of shoes so that all children will find some that they will want to try on. Display in the role-play shop along with places for customers to sit and try them on. Talk about the different types of shoes. Ask the local shoe shop for a supply of boxes and possibly a foot measure. Make your own measure using a ruler and a piece of cardboard with two slits cut in so it can slide up and down. Who has got the biggest/smallest feet in your setting? Talk about left and right feet. Create a shoe park by drawing around left and right shoes, labelling them L and R, so children can park the shoes when tidying up the shoe shop.


  • Try making some home-made shoes to sell in the shop. Ask children to draw around each other's feet, cut them out of card and add a hand-decorated paper strap
  • Let children loose on decorating some old shoes to sell. Provide old pumps or boots for them to add colour using fabric paint or pens and collage materials (ribbons, sequins, fabric, buttons, etc.) for extra ‘wow’ factor.

Child's play

  • Ask the children what else they think the shoe shop could sell. Socks are often popular. Bring in lots of pairs of different-sized clean socks for children to sort, pair and sell in the shop
  • Help children to take off and put on their shoes managing different types of fastening – velcro, buckles, shoelaces and so on.


Plan a walk to a local flower or plant shop for the children to experience first-hand. Enjoy the sights and smells together.

Fill buckets with real or home-made flowers to sell in the florists. Provide lots of empty plant pots for children to sort, count and stack. Show children how to scrunch up brown and green tissue paper to make play plants. Try making some paper flowers to sell in the flower shop: tulips and daffodils using single egg box cups for the flower, folded tissue paper carnations, and cut and curl hyacinths. Attach the flower heads to rolled-up green paper and place in buckets. Children can come and create bunches and bouquets using different numbers of flowers. Encourage lots of number skills, counting flowers, adding up prices, and so on.


  • Save the flowers and plants to use in the market role-play
  • Invite parents to bring in plants and open a plant stall at the end of the day to raise funds for your setting or for charity.

Child's play

Let children experiment with collage materials to create their own fantasy plants and flowers to sell at the florist.

Pet shop

This is one of my personal favourite role-play shops. Children may be able to visit a garden centre with a pet department or a local pet shop.

Provide lots of soft toy pets along with cages, baskets, bedding, pet carriers, food containers, pretend food, and leaflets about how to care for pets. Display and create posters featuring dogs, cats, rabbits, goldfish, and other pets. Make some extra small pets by stuffing old socks and attaching eyes, noses and ears to create hamsters, gerbils, guinea pigs and rabbits. Talk about caring for pets and what they need to thrive.


  • Add a vet department to the pet shop for children to take poorly pets (see ‘Doctor or Firefighter?’, EYE April issue)
  • Bring in your own pet or organise some visits from children's pets. Be sensitive to any children who are nervous around live animals
  • Open a ‘rare pets’ corner and talk about caring for lizards, snakes, stick insects, and so on.

Child's play

Children who are interested in animals may initiate this play involving unusual pets. Use their interest as a starting point for role-play in the pet shop.


Open a market with lots of different stalls combining some of the above ideas.

Visit a local open-air market in your town if possible, and enjoy the sights, sounds, smells and tastes. Record some markets calls, most stall holders will repeat them for you if you miss them the first time round. Back at your setting, open some market stalls around the room for children to visit and try some buying and selling. Make colourful stripey stands and label the different stalls. Invite children to try some market calls to attract customers.


  • Combine some of the fundraising stalls ideas – second-hand books, plants, etc. into a Market Day at your setting. Make some biscuits with the children and add a refreshment stall. Invite parents and friends to come and buy
  • Watch a clip of ‘Who will buy?’ from Oliver on YouTube and help the children to identify and try out some of the market calls. Help them to make up some of their own.

Child's play

Let the children initiate the contents of a market stall. What would they choose to buy and sell?

Coming in the June issue…

The next article in the series will focus on eating out and take aways, with ideas for setting up a role-play cafe, restaurant, pizza parlour, tea shop, Chinese take away, fast food, ice cream van, and so on.

Key points

  • Let children choose what they want to stock in their shop even if it does not adhere to the theme
  • Observe as children start to add loose parts and related objects
  • Role-play supports language development and social interactions
  • Creating a book store is a good opportunity for children to develop interests in a particular topic and bring in books to support this
  • Encourage counting skills when children enact payment for items
  • Support children to make signage, labels and an open and closed sign

Useful resources

  • You will need equipment and toys to reflect the different shops (e.g. books, shoes, baskets, trolleys, plants, fruits)

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