Parent: Small world, big ideas


When your child is making dinosaurs stomp up the stairs or playing out scenes from real life with small figures or objects, they are engaging in small world play. Find out how you can support this type of play at home.

In nursery settings small worlds are often set up in certain themes, such as a fire station, dinosaur world or fairy glen and can include a sensory element such as water or leaves to provide added interest and stimulation. Often children will engage in small world play independently but sometimes they will also be joined in their play by other children.

Why is it important?

Through small world play your child is:

Developing imagination and creativity

– as they put their small world characters into a rocket and fire them into outer space, or sink dinosaurs into the water tray and think about what it would be like if they lived under the sea.

As well as using manufactured resources, children can use everyday objects to create their own fantasy environment.

Gaining emotional development

– as they use the resources to act out situations or feelings that they are struggling with or thinking about. This form of play can support your child to understand how they are personally feeling and act out their emotions through different imaginary characters and situations. Collaboration can also help children to become aware of other people's emotions and acting out a role can help them to build confidence and self-esteem.

How can I support my child?

  • You can encourage small world play at home by putting toy animals in the sand pit, introducing toy sea creatures into bathtime, providing junk modelling materials to make fantasy environments or helping your child to draw out a treasure island to sail their pirates to. There are loads of suggestions on Pinterest but there's no need to get carried away. Keeping it simple will enable your child to use their imagination more.
  • Join in with your child's play but be careful not to take over and lead their play – follow what is interesting them and let their imaginations run wild.

Carefully introduce new words and phrases to them such as ‘Pterodactyl’ or ‘extinct’ if they are playing with dinosaur figures, or ‘trailer’ and ‘harvesting’ if they are exploring a farm set. You can introduce numeracy concepts into their play, such a discussing size in relation to why the big lion can't walk under the low bridge or count how many fairies are in the circle. Talk about positioning as they turn their car left at the junction or fly their bird over the house.

Learning about real life

– as they start to understand and play out their own life – such as setting up and playing with a doll's house. They may also consider the next transition such as school, by using their Peppa Pig figures to act out a classroom scenario with Madame Gazelle. It can also be a way of children broadening their knowledge of roles within their own lives.

Supporting social development

– as children play together, share, communicate and devise roles and rules for their play – should the princess be allowed to sit on the dragon? There are also problem solving skills as they learn to resolve disputes, respect other children's ideas and build resilience as they repeatedly try to get a tree to stand up or a character to sit in a car.

Improving language and communication

– as they are vocalising their imaginary play and trying out new words in a meaningful context. During small world play they are not constrained by words used in everyday life and can introduce words that are modelled to them by practitioners or that they've heard in their story books and on TV.

Enhancing physical development

– as your child uses their fine motor skills to manipulate small characters and set up environments. Gross motor skills can also be involved as they ‘swoop’ fairies through the sky or crawl around the floor pushing toy cars around a road network.

Keep up to date with Early Years!

Sign up for our newsletter and keep up to date with Early Years education, process and events! We promise we won't spam you!