Enabling Environments: Tried and Tested - Think small

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Small-world play offers children the chance to explore real and imagined worlds in miniature. Early years settings put a range of small-world play equipment to the test and report back to Nicole Weinstein.


PRICE: £26.95
CONTACT: 01424 893709

This playhouse is made from strong, corrugated recycled cardboard and is open-fronted for easy access. It measures 70cm x 38cm x 84cm and can be folded away when not in use.

Tested by Worlds End Under Fives Centre, London

'We used the house to enhance our topic, All About Me. We assembled it at circle time and then went on to decorate and furnish it. We were able to cover all areas of the curriculum during this task. For example, the children used their creativity to paint the house, choose the material for the carpet and curtains and make the furniture out of junk. They used problem solving, reasoning and numeracy when measuring the carpets and making sure the furniture fitted into the house. They worked together as a group, communicating and using language to decide what colours to paint the house and how to make the furniture. They used physical, fine motor skills to make the furniture using scissors and glue independently. They talked about what furniture and decoration they have at home, and we supported their learning by using photos of homes and furniture, reading stories and allowing the children to use equipment from all areas of the room - the cars, people - to extend their play and learning. We have a number of children with language needs who benefited from the group interaction. It's good value for money. You could use old cardboard boxes to recreate this activity and the learning value would be the same. But this item is slightly sturdier and can be kept for longer.'

Star Rating: 3/5 Good

PRICE: £39.95
CONTACT: 08451 999955

A cosy fairy home that turns into everything from a castle to a village. It's made from the off-cuts of managed paper forests and apple, cherry and hazelnut orchard trees from the end of their productive cycle and finished with natural flax oil. Height: 400mm. Tested with Fairy Family, a set of six miniature dolls costing £12.95.

Tested by Laindon Neighbourhood Nursery, Essex

'This product had a natural, unusual look to it. The soft, textured wood and the smooth and rough surfaces made a change from the usual plastic and square products. We talked about fairies, who might live in the treehouse, and also about natural materials. It gave children a different look at natural products and habitats. But there were some safety issues. The top half of the house was wobbly, the outer bark pieces broke away easily and one child scratched his hand on the rough edge of the door frame. Also, the dolls' feet and hats fell off easily and the clothing was easily torn. We used it in our two-to-five-year-old room, but we found that it had to be constantly supervised.

'I think it would work much better in an older four-year-old room where the children could use their imagination to create their own small world with it. It's good value but I feel that it's more suited for home use with one or two children and not for use on a daily basis.'

Star Rating: 3/5 Good

PRICE: £95
CONTACT: 0845 120 4525

A wooden structure complete with ramps, circular access points and petrol pumps. Base: 60cm. Height: 35cm.

Tested by Frederick Bird Primary School, Coventry.

'The car park was excellent for developing children's learning in many ways. Their creative development was greatly encouraged and they acted out imaginary situations, adopting different voices and making the sounds of the vehicles going down the ramps. It encouraged their social skills and interactions as they played together and took turns to make their cars go up and down the ramps. Their vocabulary was extended, especially their mathematical language. The car park had three levels and they learned to use the ordinal language of first, second and third. The ramps allowed them to explore speed and distance as they competed to see whose car came down fastest and travelled furthest on to the road mat that we placed next to the car park exit.

'This proved to be a very popular resource, especially among the boys. They were so keen to use it that when the cars had temporarily been lost one day, they self-resourced wooden beads and used them as to slide down the ramps. We added pieces of our own equipment such as a garage shop, forecourt, small-world people and a car wash to further develop the children's imaginative play. We think it's very good value for money.'

Star Rating: 5/5 Excellent

PRICE: see below - sold individually
CONTACT: 01732 225 850

A brightly-coloured dinosaur range, made from sustainable rubberwood. Includes Tyrannasaurus Rex, Stegosaurus and Mammoth, each £7.99; Baby Triceratops, £4.99; Dino Twin Bag, £14.99; Dino Grotto Set, £10.49.

Tested by St. John's Church of England Primary School, Blackpool

'The children really enjoyed playing with this set, especially the boys. The chunky dinosaurs were durable and easy to hold and were particularly inviting for children with special educational needs. We put the Dino Twin Bag, which doubles as a play mat, into a builders tray and created a three-dimensional landscape using the Dino Grotto Set, which includes wooden stones, a cave and plants. We also added our own blocks and plastic dinosaurs. The activity encouraged them to take turns and recreate roles. This product is good value for money for a small-world activity, especially considering the size and the durability of the materials.'

Star Rating: 3/5 Good

PRICE: £176
CONTACT: 0800 387 457

A tank truck, dump truck, flatbed and fire truck made from solid European birch wood with industrial wheels, measuring between 24 and 39 cm long. Includes five wooden villagers.

Tested by Kate Greenaway Nursery School and Children's Centre, London

'These trucks feel really nice to hold. They are made of high-quality wood and are beautifully finished. The little people slot in nicely. Neither the trucks nor the people look "real", so the children are able to use their imagination to create their own ideas. For example, in the last few weeks they have been lorries, fire engines and police cars. The trucks are interesting to push and roll down slopes, and they also encourage early symbolic play. Children with special needs, including children with Down's Syndrome and autism, enjoyed handling the trucks and found them inviting. This is an expensive piece of equipment, but unlike the usual toy trucks and cars you might buy, these will last for years or even decades of nursery use. In that sense, they represent excellent value for money.'

Star Rating: 5/5 Excellent

AGE RANGE: 3 to 6
PRICE: £30
CONTACT: 0845 6035309

Includes a 48 page teacher's book, written by early years consultant Helen Bromley, a set of colourful rhyme cards and four games, an audio CD and a CD-ROM of support materials.

Tested by Imagine Co-operative Childcare, JR Hospital, Headington, Oxford

'This resource explores eight popular nursery rhymes. The children really enjoyed listening to and acting out the rhymes using the wooden figures. They were able to feel the objects and understand what song we were singing by using the figures as guidance. It encourages children to recognise nursery rhymes by using the pictures, enhances memory and encourages Communication, Language and Literacy by singing and learning the concepts of rhyming and recognising familiar words. It's slightly expensive, but if used regularly would be worth buying.'

Star Rating: 4/5 Very Good


For Anne O'Connor, early years consultant

'One of the best small-world play resources can be a shoe box decorated and filled by the child with random objects of their choosing. The inhabitants of this imaginary small world could include Playmobil people, which are made from high-quality plastic and are suitable for outdoor use.' For a set of four multi-ethnic families - African/African American, Mediterranean, Asian and Caucasian - priced at £8 per family, contact www.playmobil.co.uk or call 01268 490184.

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