Founder of @inspiremyplay, Early Years teacher for 11 years and mummy to three gorgeous girls. I'm passionate about about the benefits of play in early childhood.
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Engaging in small world play is so important for children. Not only does it nurture their imagination, it also enables them to explore new materials, act out scenarios from real life, build language, practice social skills and gain an understanding of the world around them. In the first of our Resources for Play series I share 10 of my favourite small world toys and resources.
I love setting up small worlds for my children and I'm constantly inspired by the most amazing set-ups that I see on Instagram. The list of toys and resources you could buy to re-create them are endless. However most people's storage spaces and bank accounts are not! So I hope that this list, and indeed the whole of my Resources for Play series, will help you prioritise a few key resources that can be used in multiple set-ups and activities.
It's worth remembering too that children need very little in order to engage in small world play- a little imagination goes a long way! The ultimate goal is to equip our children to play independently, so many of my recommended resources are chosen with creative, self-directed play in mind.
Our collection of animals and dinosaurs get used most days. They are the perfect accompaniment to open-ended play and encourage all sorts of small world play scenarios. We use them a lot in small world set ups but they are also used equally in self-directed play.
I always recommend Schleich animals as I find them the best quality and most realistic-looking. I've tried many other cheaper brands over the years but none of them have matched up to Schleich. We've built up our collection over time and I always keep an eye on Amazon for good deals!
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As well as our larger Schleich animals I also find it useful to have a selection of smaller minibeasts and sea creatures for small world and sensory play. Safari and Wild Republic are two brands that make some great sets that I would recommend. Safari also have a range of miniature figures in their 'toobs' collection, which cover a whole array of interests and topics. We have a few of their sets- the space toob is one of our favourite.
2. Peg People
It's difficult to find good quality people figures for small world play so I prefer to use peg people most of the time. You can buy plain wooden peg people really cheaply online and paint them yourself. On the whole I tend to keep my peg people simple so that to a child they can be anything (firefighter, nurse, astronaut etc...). I painted these in rainbow colours using acrylic paint and they've lasted really well.
If you're feeling up for more of a challenge you could try painting more details on like I did for these Frozen peg dolls. Again I painted these using acrylic paints and then acrylic paint pens for the detail.
If DIY isn't for you there are a couple of wooden toy brands who do great sets of peg people, like these ones.
3. Artificial Grass
There's something about artificial grass that just brings small world play to life! We have a large piece rolled up under our sofa and a smaller piece that I cut up to fit into one our circular trays. It's great to use with train-track, building blocks or for farmyard play.
If you think you would find it difficult to store a roll of this some green play scarfs make a brilliant base for small worlds and fold up really small. You can also use blue ones for water.
4. Roads & Railway Track
Road or rail tape is great to have to hand when setting up small worlds. It's relatively inexpensive and also great to take away if you're travelling. Another option is to invest in some Way To Play rubber roads. These are brilliant for larger set ups and for using with sand and other sensory play. We also find our railway track gets incorporated into a lot of small world play.
It's always useful to have a stash of vehicles for small world play. Below I have included links to some of our favourite sets.
6. Glass pebbles
I find myself using these glass pebbles in lots of small world set ups. They come in a range of colours but the blues & clear set I find most useful. We use ours as sea, rivers or in some icy/ snowy set ups. I also get a lot of use out of them as a loose part for number and pattern activities. These glass pebbles need to be used with supervision as they could be a choking hazard.
7. Trees & Greenery
There are so many options for trees in small world play. We have several sisal trees that come with a wooden base. They look fairly realistic and we use them a lot. Other options include buying a set of DIY wooden trees that you can either paint yourself or leave natural. If you have a bigger budget there are also some gorgeous wooden tree sets by the brands Blacks Toys and Reduga Grez
8. Log Slices
This is another simple resource that I find myself using again and again. I bought these log slices in two sizes- 5-6cm and 11-12cm.
9. Shells & Pebbles
Shells and pebbles are so useful for beach, river and pond small worlds. Our pebbles get used for lots of other set-ups too. Most of them I've collected ourselves but we don't get particularly exotic sea-shells locally so I've supplemented our collection with an excellent pack from Amazon.
10. Building Blocks
A good set of building blocks are just so useful for open-ended small world play. We made our own set of pyramid building blocks. You can read about it on this post. I also find our DIY wooden houses get a lot of love. You can find the tutorial here.
Organising Our Small World Resources
There are some small world resources that my kids have access to all the time, others that are rotated into our play space and a selection of resources that I usually hold back for small world play that I set-up.
Animals, peg people, a few vehicles and building blocks are all kept out permanently. They are used most days, one way or another, and are key to so much of my girls' imaginative play.
There are other small world toys that we rotate in and out of our play space such as the train track, tree house and doll's house, depending on their current interests.
The log slices, shells, pebbles and other natural materials are usually kept stored in my small world resources box and brought out for specific set-ups. They occasionally get rotated onto the play shelves to use in their own small world play set-ups, but this hasn't been possible recently because many of them aren't appropriate for my almost-2 year old to play with without direct supervision.
If you'd like to learn more about setting up a playroom or play space check out this article from Porch.com: Expert Advice to Design the Ultimate Kids Playroom at Home
I hope you've found this post useful! If you have, please do pin it for later reference. To be the first to hear of the next post in our Resources for Play series you can subscribe to our blog updates on this page.