Theory and practice

7 Ways to Rethink Your Approach to Small World Play

And a helpful four-step audit to get you started.
Adults approaching to small world play
July 24, 2019
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    In a rush? Here's the quick run-down.

    • Small world play is when children use figures and resources in miniature to build stories and play imaginatively.
    • Our small world play audit will ask you to consider your cohorts, the benefits, your existing provision and common play behaviours in order to assess and improve your small world play provision.
    • After that, we’ll offer seven ideas to inspire change, including story boxes, outdoor small worlds, and mini-me figures.

    Got a funny feeling that your small world play provision could do with a bit of a revamp?

    You’re not alone. With a million and one things on every nursery manager’s to-do list, it’s common for certain areas to go a little stale, neglected, or tired.

    If your small world play areas are engaging children and providing opportunities for extended learning, then they’re doing their job.

    If not, maybe it’s time for a rethink.

    We know these things can end up feeling like a mammoth task – and that’s why we’ve tried to simplify the process with our bare-bones, four-step audit, followed by a few interesting ideas that might inspire your changes.

    Let’s get to it.

    The big ideas

    What is small world play?

    Small world play really does what it says on the tin – it’s when children play with resources that represent an environment, but in miniature.

    Your small world play could represent a real-life place, like a farm, or it might be a completely imaginary world. The key is that they’re often an outlet for imaginative or pretend play, where children can do everything from acting out routines or recalling past events, to building their own unique narratives.

    Starting with why

    Rushing to any change just to copy something you’ve seen online, or because you think it looks impressive isn’t truly self-reflective practice. There are no rules to say you must have any specific areas in your setting.

    Instead, your provision should reflect what you think will be beneficial to the children you educate – and no more.

    Assessing what you want doesn’t need to become overly complex – but to make any changes that are worthwhile it is important that you start with ‘why’. Why should you have a small world play area in the first place? Why is it beneficial? Why does it invite and engage children?

    To get your own creative juices going, here are a few benefits of small world play:

    • It helps children to explore and understand the world around them.
    • It’s a safe place to explore ideas and develop their imagination.
    • More pretend play in childhood has even been linked to successful adult creatives.
    • Children can build self-confidence by exploring their own ideas.
    • It promotes narrative in play, helping children to become storytellers.
    • It’s often cooperative, and teaches children social skills.
    • It’s great for fine motor control.
    • Children can explore their understanding of space and size.
    • They build an awareness of other people’s emotions by exploring a world in someone else’s shoes.
    • They can also explore their own emotions through the container of a character they’ve made up.
    • They can explore cause and effect.
    • It provides opportunities for problem-solving.
    • It often aids language development, by getting children talking descriptively, and exploring a wider vocabulary.
    Age expectations and small world play

    With any play, it’s relatively important that your practitioners have a good knowledge of what is developmentally-appropriate for children at different ages – and pretend play is no different.

    Not forgetting the sentence inscribed on every page of Development Matters – “Children develop at their own rates, and in their own ways” – here’s what they have to say on the subject:

    • 16-26 months – “Pretends that one object represents another, especially when objects have characteristics in common” – Children may start to develop a concept of pretend, acting out everyday actions they’ve seen adults do.
    • 22-36 months – “In pretend play, imitates everyday actions and events from own family and cultural background” – Children may start to express their own understanding in pretend play, perhaps representing one object as if it’s another.
    • 30-50 months – “Uses talk in pretending that objects stand for something else in play, e,g, ‘This box is my castle’.” – Children may start to build pretend worlds and talk expressively about objects as if they represent something else.
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    Your four-step small world audit

    Audit is a funny old word.

    Seems a little bit…intense? Fusty? Doesn’t it? But at its core, it can be a short, iterative process that allows you to really consider what you’ve got, and what you want.

    Here’s our simplified version, with just four short steps.

    1. Start with the children

    Before you can do anything, you need to make sure all your staff are on the same page when it comes to the little ones you’re doing this all for.

    Make sure you have a really clear vision of the makeup of your cohort, their interests, their unique challenges, and their needs.

    Ask yourself, who struggles with pretend play? Who is really engaged by it? What are their interests – do they love dinosaurs, creepy crawlies, fairies or superheroes?

    Consider what you know about each child’s schematic interests, so that you can consider how your small world play could support enveloping, transferring, scattering, and all of the other wonderful schematic interests your children might have.

    2. Adapt your why

    We’ve already talked about some of the benefits of small world play, so this shouldn’t take too long.

    It’s just about aligning on what opportunities you want your small world play to provide children, so that you have a good understanding of the purpose of what you’re setting up.

    This is something the team behind the Curiosity Approach have turned into an art – always questioning the purpose behind the resources they provide. Read our full interview with them or skip straight to the section about starting with why.

    3. Take a look at what you’ve got

    Next up, take a moment to consider what you already have. Alistair Bryce-Clegg calls this a Gap and Strength Analysis, but it’s all about finding something that works for you.

    Just consider what you already have, and spend some time observing where the children are most engaged, and what provides the best opportunities for extended learning.

    4. Common play behaviours

    The final piece of the puzzle is to think about the sort of play you expect to happen in your small world play areas.

    For example, in a sand area you might expect all sorts of movements – from digging and balancing, to pouring and transferring.

    The idea isn’t that you provide some exhaustive list of everything that could possibly happen. The children will always find a way to surprise you there. But by considering what you think might happen, you can think more clearly about the kind of resources you can provide to facilitate it.

    In the sand example, that might be spades, containers, tubes or funnels. So long as you keep the resources open-ended, this doesn’t mean putting a ceiling on a child’s play. It just means your continuous provision will come with all the resources children need to express themselves both when an adult is there, and when they aren’t.

    Time to pull it all together

    This is where you can really start to brainstorm together with your team about the sort of resources you need and the areas you want to set up.

    Taking into account your strengths and weaknesses from (3), the interests of the children from (1), your own personal definition of the benefits of small world play from (2), and the common play behaviours you might expect from (4), you can start to draw up a list of ideal resources to encourage engaging, enticing play and extended learning.

    8 ideas for your small world play area

    Still looking for a bit of inspiration? Here are a few ideas we’ve come across that have helped other practitioners and settings to enhance their small world play.

    1. Include a basket of open-ended resources

    Balancing child interests with opportunities to play more creatively often comes down to how well you balance open and close-ended resources.

    The child interests might often come in the form of farm animals, fairies, superheroes, or dinosaurs, but by making sure there’s a nearby box of more open-ended materials, you give children a chance to place their favourite figures in the middle of a more imaginative world.

    Wooden blocks, bridges, pine cones, tools, pebbles, buttons, lollipop sticks, small bits of astroturf, sellotape, little beads, mirrors – the list is endless.

    In case you missed it, here’s a short clip from our full interview with Alistair Bryce-Clegg that we published last week, explaining how he believes in a balance between open and close-ended materials.

    2. Move away from definite themes

    Closely linked to our first point, is the idea that you don’t need to become overly obsessed with making a small world play area that completely reflects a real-world scene – especially not from your adult perspective.

    As Alistair mentions in the video above, children often don’t really play ‘farm’ for example – often it’s mummy and daddy play or superhero play, with killer cow destroying all that comes before them.

    Consider this when you’re planning your areas, that it might be better to err on the side of a more open-ended concept that children can interpret however they want.

    Once you’ve introduced your small world play area, observe how the children explore it and then adjust as you notice what engages them the most.

    3. Try out small world story boxes

    One way to make sure that children are engaged is to make up story boxes from their favourite books.

    Whether it’s The Gruffalo, Going On A Bear Hunt, Goldilocks or the Three Little Pigs, small figurines and props from their favourite books can be a great way to encourage them to build more familiar worlds, and then explore them in their own way.

    If you have a number of different boxes, you might find children start to mix together the stories too, which can be a great stepping stone towards children building their own unique narratives.

    4. Increase the amount of sensory material

    When you’re analysing your play area, ask yourself – Do we have enough sensory materials here?

    Small world play tends to be hands-on, physical play, and so great sensory experiences are really important. From how things feel, to how they smell or sound, consider whether there’s a diverse enough range of experiences in your small world play area.

    This might be real herbs or small vegetables in an outdoor scene, or experimenting with bubbles and natural materials like pine cones, beads and dry rice.

    It not only adds another element to the play but can also aid language development as children dig into the vocabulary around what they’re experiencing.

    5. Create mini-me figures

    Here’s a fun idea.

    Start by taking full-length photographs of the children, and print them out in miniature.

    A quick laminate, and then you can affix them to a wooden block (Jenga blocks work well). Bam, you’ve got yourself a classroom of small world mini-me figures.

    Children just naturally engage with them, and love bringing their own experiences into their small world play. What’s more, it can help them to explore their emotions, while bringing in elements of their home life and culture to the setting.

    You might even want to encourage the older children to draw maps of their area, or explore the sort of activities they normally do at home.

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    6. Leave out an old camera

    Speaking of cameras, why not invest in a cheap digital camera, and let children take photographs of their own worlds?

    Of course, it helps them to explore technology but that’s not all. They’ll learn about perspectives, framing, and it’s a brilliant jumping-off point to all sorts of fascinating, deep conversations about the world they’ve created.

    7. Take your small world play out to the big wide world

    Who says small world has to be inside, on a tuff tray?

    Why not separate out a small area of your outdoor space, and add in mini figurines, or dinosaurs in the long grass? Or create fairy gardens amongst the wood logs?

    One great idea we’ve seen is taking old tires and filling them with soil and plants, along with a selection of small world resources.

    Taking anything into the outdoors provides a change of scenery, and a whole new range of opportunities for exploration. Why not small world play too?

    Further reading:

    • Small World Play by Anna Ranson – This article from Teach Early Years has lots of interesting insight into both audits and sensory small world play.
    • Common Play Behaviours and Continuous Provision by Alistair Bryce-Clegg – If you want to go deeper into the concept of common play behaviours and what they mean for your continuous provision, look no further than this piece.
    • Keeping Early Years Unique Facebook Group – We love this supportive, pedagogy-led Facebook group and there is a huge range of fantastic discussions about small world play in there too. Check it out!
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    Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

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