Small World Play Essentials

Miniature worlds are fascinating and wondrous for young children! They get to be masters of these little environments, and explore beautiful materials that transport them to mysterious and amazing lands away from home. Small World Play encourages imagination, investment, and creativity, while providing so many avenues for conversation and knowledge building about people, places, animals, and more!

Below is my list of the most important things to have on hand to create any number of small, amazing worlds. Plus, Check out some of my small world environments you can recreate at home or in the classroom!

Floor Texture: Sand, Earth, Grass & Water

I enjoy having a variety of textures handy to recreate different “ground” one would find in everyday landscapes. I use everything from playground sand and garden soil, to faux grass! Bulk dry ingredients are amazing as well, as they come in virtually any size and color and have depth to stick animal feet, trees, etc. deeper within for some steadiness during play time. Glass beads or translucent stones work well for water, as does blue dough. Use ice or real water if you’d like to incorporate some literal water play into your small world activity.

Containment Structures: Fences, Homes, Mountains & Caves

No farm or zoo is complete without fencing- plus, it adds organization and categorization to small world play opportunities. There are many affordable, ready made fence options in craft stores or online, but I tend to prefer homemade or natural options. Easily craft fencing from popsicle sticks, toothpicks, or twigs plus some hot glue. Or, use branches as natural dividers!

Other important offerings to add to your small world play stash are containers that double as shelters. I find that dome shaped objects laying around my house work the best, like my abalone shell for sage burning, baskets and wooden bowls. The dome shape is ideal to place people and animals under (for shelter) or on top of (to recreate mountains, stages, or platforms). Flip it over to create an instant lake, pool, or valley, or turn it on its side to make a cave. Tip: If you don’t have items available, using dough or clay to create mountains, caves, and other structures is a prime option!

Foliage: Trees & Bushes

A small world environment can be pretty bland without a touch of lush green. Use moss balls, play trees, clippings from your yard, or fresh (or dried) herbs. If your little one mouths toys, plastic or natural wool/cloth options may be more ideal for you. I most enjoy the look of the folksy, handmade cloth trees (a great resource for these and other small world play items is The Small Folk), but personally find them to be out of my budget. Instead, I use model trees for a realistic look, and add log “stumps” to them myself with branch cuttings, making them stand on their own and look adorable.

small world play nature props

Natural Materials

As always, you can never go wrong with bits of nature. Wooden slices, rocks, precious stones, seashells, dried spices, etc. can be used to enhance the look and realism of any small world play environment (for example, a small world “ocean” scene must have sea shells). These objects can also be used to represent other items, such as food for animals, pirate treasure, dinosaur “eggs”, etc. Have fun collecting natural materials for use with all sorts of play over years and years of development.

play animals by biome

Miniature Play Animals

Animals is an important small world play material, as animals are of chronic interest to most children, and reinforce the type of environment you are setting up for your child(ren). I keep a small stash of animals from most natural biome types, so that we can easily shift from an everyday farm scene to a safari, jungle or artic playscape. Plus, its really fun to talk about the types of animals with your children, where they live, what they eat, and as my daughter always inquires about, what their “favorite things to do” may be. I’m definitely no biome expert (did you know there are 12 biomes???), but my easy go-to groupings are below.

  • farm/pets
  • desert/safari
  • jungle
  • grassland/plains
  • woodlands/forest
  • ocean/artic
  • insects
wooden peg dolls small world play

Miniature People

People come in many shapes, sizes, colors, and material types ranging from soft silicone to plastic, cloth, and wood. Choose whichever works best for your personal aesthetic and budget. I LOVE these handmade wooden peg dolls (which are expensive on etsy, but I bought mine plain at the craft store and painted them myself), but don’t enjoy that we can’t really use them in water play. If you have a limited budget or storage space available, choose very simple people that can easily transition from environment to environment with simple imagination (ex. plainly dressed as opposed to a firefighter character). I painted mine with different skin tones and attire for a culturally diverse group.

miniature play props

Miniature Play Props

For use in zoos, cities, homes, and farms, these props work to represent many of the everyday items we use in the real world (blankets, food, cars, etc.) Use your imagination, but choose quality made, versatile, and interesting pieces that spark wonder and imagination for your child.

Small World Play Environments

Below are Examples of some small world play trays I’ve created for my daughter recently. As you can see, small worlds don’t have to be giant or extravagant- especially for just a couple of children at a time. Encourage and model delicate, invested play for your child, and restrict aggressive play without boundaries during small world explorations (such as throwing, dumping, etc.).

Recreate each natural biome listed above! Choose specific materials to recreate a lush jungle, grassy meadow, or woodsy forest!

Build a farm, city, suburb, or zoo! Urban/ suburban environments with roads, malls, and Starbucks (pictured in upper right corner of our city tray above, haha, my daughter’s request) are super fun and relatable for your child(ren). Possibilities here are endless!

Use water and ice for an enhanced small world sensory experience! I made this arctic zone with blue food coloring and freezing water overnight. I placed a bowl in the water to freeze the shape of a pool, then poured a bit of water with green food coloring in just before we started to play). Shaving cream and glitter enhanced the snowy effect.

Lastly, I placed many animals in the water before freezing, so that they would emerge as the ice melted. Once my child discovered them and showed interest in getting them out, I gave her a bowl of hot water and a medicine dropper to melt the animals out of the ice. She played for over an hour with this tray!

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