Building Your Curriculum: Around the Nursery, Part 6 - Out of this world?

What is small-world play, how does it benefit children, and what can settings do to make sure it is provisioned in ways that ensure quality and diversity? By Penny Tassoni

Dinosaurs and vehicles are classic small-world props
Dinosaurs and vehicles are classic small-world props

Imagine the scene: two children have a dinosaur each in their hand. They stand facing each other. The dinosaurs meet and both children roar. One child suggests that one dinosaur might then run off. There is an argument about whose dinosaur will turn around. The scene represents small-world play in action.

The term ‘small-world play’ might sound unfamiliar to some adults, but everyone recognises it when they see it. It involves children playing with small replicas of animals, people and objects in an imaginative way. It comes under the wider umbrella term of imaginative play. It is part and parcel of most settings’ continuous provision and also figures in children’s play at home.

As it is so ubiquitous, there is sometimes a danger that it is not always valued and seen as a route to support children’s wider learning and development. With the latest Ofsted inspections focusing on a coherent and sequenced curriculum, it is worth considering where small-world-play fits within the learning opportunities that we provide for children.


Small-world play is very satisfying for most young children. It is interesting to see that many children will engage with this kind of play quite intensely. Developmentally, there are some significant benefits for children.

Emotional and social development

Most aspects of children’s lives are controlled by adults. Where and when they go places, when they play and what they can do. Small-world play is immensely satisfying for children. They put themselves in charge of the decisions. Unlike role play, where children are active participants, in small-world play, children are the puppet masters – omnipotent, controlling events.

Children also ascribe personalities to some of their small-world toys. This allows them to think about some of the more complex social dynamics that they may witness or are part of. It is not uncommon, for example, for a child to exclude a toy exclaiming, for instance, ‘You stay there. You are too rough.’

The element of control within this play is probably one reason why some children, even sociable ones, often spend time playing alone – avoiding power sharing. When we observe children playing together, we may notice that each child keeps control over their own figures or characters, although there may be some broad agreements about the ‘script’.

Language development

This type of play is interesting to observe because children often talk to themselves while playing. They are using language as a tool to organise and problem solve. In effect, we are often hearing something known as ‘inner speech’.

In addition, children often use language to make the sounds of actions, such as ‘brrrrm, brrrm’ for cars, as well as using language to command and to explain. Through this type of play, children often practise sentences and vocabulary that they have learnt from adults.

Physical development

Manipulating the figures and also the props involved in small-world play supports children’s hand-eye co-ordination, but also their spatial awareness. As children develop, the size of the props and figures often reduces, requiring increasingly intricate movements.

Other physical skills are also needed for small-world play. Children need to be able to balance in order to stay still or squat. They also need a sense of their own position, especially when they locate themselves in the middle of a train set or are surrounded by farm animals.



Very early on, children enjoy manipulating small-world resources. There is a real interest in holding and using resources such as trains, cars and farm animals. Play tends to be exploratory with the focus on what resources can do and what they can make them do.

Toddlers often like adults to come alongside them as they play. A good strategy is to copy children’s actions and narrate what they are doing so as to develop their language – for example, ‘The cow is flying.’ It can also be helpful to copy toddlers’ vocalisations, such as the ‘nah-nah’ siren of the police car, and then adding in a narration.

In terms of choosing small-world resources, it is often best to look out for chunky objects that children can hold easily. It is also important to think carefully about safety. Toddlers may still put items in their mouth and so there is both a chewing and a swallowing hazard.

Three- to five-year-olds

Small-world play starts to take off once children have acquired language, as well as increased hand-eye co-ordination. As language progresses, we will increasingly see complex play where children ascribe characters, motives and even a plot to their play.

Children may also want to create rich landscapes and contexts for their figures – for example, combining construction toys such as Lego with their small-world play.

The role of the adult often changes as children become more engrossed and seek ‘privacy’ during this type of play. This means our role may shift to being one of a facilitator and also observer.


A good starting point when planning for small-world play is to look at the resources that are already available. Make a list of the playsets that represent different aspects of the world. Common playsets include:

  • trains and train tracks
  • cars and garages
  • farm animals and farms
  • horses and stables
  • dinosaurs
  • spiders and reptiles
  • sea-life
  • play people with houses, schools
  • woodland animals
  • rockets and astronauts.

Think about whether what you have is good quality and sufficient in quantity. It is worth noting that an abundance of similar or same needs to be avoided. To judge quality and quantity, observe children who are highly engaged in their play to note how many items they use and what they are not interested in.

Rotating and combining

Most settings do not have the space to put out every small-world play opportunity that they have available. Some level of rotation is, therefore, one solution to ensuring we can have a variety of small-world play. We can also look at whether we can plan to combine opportunities – for example, a car park at the station or a farm at the stables.

The human element

Some small-world playsets can fascinate and hold children’s attention, but opportunities to explore human interactions and emotions might be missing because no human figures are included in the set. It is, therefore, worth adding appropriate human figures into playsets, such as a couple of divers into the sea-life set or a train driver, passenger or guard into the train set.

Background materials

By planning where we put out small-world play, we can enrich and vary children’s small-world play. You can choose to put small-world play with materials that link well, such as:

  • farm animals that are put out with a strip of turf or straw
  • dinosaurs with different sized dried leaves and sticks
  • snakes with sand
  • cars with strips of card to make roads and plastic tubes for tunnels
  • woodland animals with conkers, sunflower seeds and nuts
  • insects with sawdust, shredded paper and fresh leaves.

You can also put out small-world resources in unexpected places, such as play people hidden in shredded paper or in pasta.

Extending children’s knowledge

The experiences that children have had and the knowledge gained about what they are playing with can also be a factor in the richness of their play. This is why some children prefer playing with popular figures that they have seen in cartoons or films.

As part of planning to support both cultural capital and Understanding of the World, it is worth thinking about experiences and visits that will enrich their play. This might mean visiting a train station, inviting in a mechanic or traffic officer or taking children to a farm. We can also extend children’s knowledge by looking out for books that link to the small-world resources. This is also a way of supporting children’s literacy while helping children develop specific vocabulary.

Opportunities for expressive arts and design

By providing children with resources such as cardboard boxes and tubes as well as natural and household objects alongside role play, children can incorporate them into their play and so have opportunities to show further creativity. We could, for example, plan to put small-world resources out with dough or with junk modelling.

Opportunities for mathematics

There are opportunities to draw children’s attention to mathematics during small-world play. These might include ensuring that there are a range of different sized props, such as snakes of different lengths or a large, medium and small car.

It is also worth putting out simple paper or card grids which can give children the opportunity to group items if they wish. Meanwhile, think about using tidying as a way of alerting children to the mathematics within their play – for example, ‘Can we put away all of the curved track first?’, or ‘We will separate the cows. How many need to go into this box?’


There are a couple of issues in small-world play that are worth reflecting upon.

Gendered toys

A quick trawl of the internet quickly throws up some popular, but nonetheless highly gendered, toys. There has been a long debate about young girls and Barbie dolls, but less is said about aggressive superheroes and figures such as dinosaurs with flashing red eyes and intimidating teeth. The issue for settings is to decide to what extent they follow children’s play interests, even when they may be reinforcing gender stereotypes.

I would argue that while we may not be able to influence children’s play at home, we should at least audit our small-world play and think about the hidden messages that children might pick up.

While we are doing this, we should also think about diversity in our small-world play. When children are playing with human figurines, are they seeing the diversity that is representative within wider society?

Challenging children’s comments and actions during play

The nature of this play means that at times we may hear or see children being hostile or unkind towards figures or show discriminatory behaviours. This prompts the question whether or not adults should intervene.

Unlike role play, where children may show this type of behaviour towards other children as they take on roles, these actions and comments are said to inanimate objects. They do, however, reflect what children have seen, heard and absorbed. It is, therefore, important that at the very least we note them with the view to challenging them or influencing them in a focused way, while not overreacting with what might just be an exploration of social situations.

Having said that, it might also be worth considering simply asking a few questions such as ‘Why is this one not allowed to join in?’, or ‘How do you think he/she is feeling?’ We should also be aware that some children may show in their play signs of domestic violence, abuse or neglect.


There are three key terms that Ofsted considers when looking at the quality of education. They are Intention, Implementation and Impact. Here are some questions that may help you to reflect on the provision of this play.


  • Why have you chosen to provide small-world play?
  • How are small-world resources chosen for the setting?
  • How is small-world play planned for?
  • How do adults support children in their small-world play?
  • How do you ensure that children have varied opportunities in their small-world play?
  • Do you use small-world play to observe aspects of children’s development?
  • How do you extend small-world play to bring in other areas of learning and development?


  • Are there varied opportunities for small-world play available?
  • Are there sufficient resources to extend children’s learning through this type of play?
  • Are there opportunities for small-world play available outdoors?
  • Do adults engage with children where appropriate?
  • Do adults help enrich and facilitate learning through play?
  • How are adults building on this type of children’s play?


  • Are children engaged and absorbed in their play?
  • Are children able to find what they need to support their play?
  • Do children show creativity and imagination in their play?
  • Do older children show that they have knowledge about what they are playing with?
  • Are adults taking appropriate opportunities to extend children’s knowledge and learning?

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