10 Sensory Bases for Small World Play

A sensory bin with segments filled with mini-beast toys and materials

Laura @inspiremyplay

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.


This post may contain affiliate links. This means that if you click on a link and go on to make a purchase, I may receive a small commission (at no additional cost to you). Please read my disclosure policy for more details.


Today I'm talking small world sensory bases! Basically that's the stuff you create your small world on! Whether you're setting up a farm, seashore or dinosaur land there are so many great options to bring small world play to life and ignite children's senses at the same time! I share some of our favourites here.

There are numerous benefits to small world play. Nurturing imagination, exploring new materials, acting out scenarios from real life, building language and developing social skills are just some that come to mind! 

 In my previous post in the Resources for Play series I talked about some of the key resources needed to set up small worlds. Today I wanted to give you some inspiration of the types of sensory bases that you can use alongside these to set up amazing small worlds! 

 Some of the sensory bases I've included are edible or taste safe, which are perfect for little ones who are still mouthing. Others are brilliant quick fixes on those days when you haven't got a lot of time to set something up. And there are several options that offer amazing sensory experiences, but are on the messier side! 

 Whatever you're looking for I hope it sparks some ideas and encourages you to incorporate more small world play into your day! Wherever relevant I've included recipes so you can try it out for yourself. You can find links to all of the supplies mentioned in this post via the buttons below.

1. Water

Nothing beats play involving water! It takes minutes to set up and is guaranteed to keep little one's entertained. We often add blue food colouring to our water to enhance the look. Plastic animals, sea creatures, shells and pebbles are great additions to these play set ups.

Freezing water is another option and great for setting up polar small worlds. Or make an ice rink like we did for these penguins!

2. Bubble Foam

As an alternative to water why not make up some bubble foam? It's great fun and makes a wonderful base for some ocean play.  

To make bubble foam put 1 part tear free bubble bath (or washing up liquid) to 2 parts water into a bowl. We usually do 1/2 cup of bubble bath and 1 cup of water at a time. If you'd like to colour your bubble foam add a little food colouring at this stage. Mix it up using an electric hand mixer until you start to get stiff peaks and then scoop it out into a tray for play. We usually make 3 or 4 batches of different colours to fill a tray.



Get your FREE ebook

For more simple DIY recipes & ideas for sensory play at home download your Beginner's Guide to Sensory Play by subscribing to Inspire My Play today.


3. Play Dough

It's no secret that we absolutely love play dough set ups in our house. I can't think of a more versatile resource! It also makes a great base for children to make their own small worlds. Homemade play dough takes a matter of minutes to make and you can easily change the colour to suit your small world theme! You can find our play dough recipe on this post

4. Sand

Sand is great to incorporate into small world set ups. I especially like using kinetic sand because you can mould it and shape it easily without needing to get it wet. Because kinetic sand clumps together it also tends to create less mess than real sand!



5. Soil, Mud & Grass

Small world play doesn't need to be indoors! You have a whole host of ready made sensory bases in your garden! A flowerbed, plant pot, pile of stones, collection of bark or garden lawn are great places for small world play. You could also collect up a selection of these resources and set them up in a tray inside.

For indoor play a length of artificial grass is an easy option to have at your finger tips! We have a roll of artificial grass under our sofa, which gets used with our train track, building blocks and all sorts of small world set ups.

6. Cloud Dough

This is one of the messier bases on this list but is such a great, sensory experience! Cloud dough is powdery but can also be moulded into shapes. It keeps for up to 6 months when stored in an air tight container, which means you can get lots of use out of the same batch.  

To make basic cloud dough simply combine 4 cups of flour with 1/2 cup of oil. If you're intending to use the cloud dough with a child who is still mouthing, cook the flour on a baking tray first at a temperature of 160F/70C for 5 minutes, in order to ensure any bacteria is killed. 

You can make brown or 'soil' cloud dough by substituting one cup of flour for a cup of cocoa powder. This is one of our favourite ways to use cloud dough!

For some really messy play you can turn soil cloud dough into mud by adding a few spoonfuls of water, like we did for this farm small world above. Cloud dough can also be coloured by adding powder paint or grated chalk to the mixture, but be aware that this won't be taste-safe. To make this space scene I grated some charcoal into the flour and oil mixture. I also added a bit of bio glitter to give it a sparkle!

7. Artificial Snow

It's not often that we get a chance to play in real snow in the South of England so I love to use it as a base for small world set ups. The quickest and easiest method is to buy some instant snow. Instant snow comes as a powder and all you need to do is add a bit of water and it expands in size. It's great fun and a good one to have in the cupboard for small world and sensory play.  

If you have time for a bit of DIY you can also make your own artificial snow. To make ours we used 4 cups of shaving foam mixed with 4 cups of cornflour (cornstartch). This should make a powdery snow that's also mouldable- a bit like cloud dough. It's not an exact art so just keep adding a bit more shaving foam until you get the desired consistency.

8. Rice

Coloured rice is such a fun base for sensory play but it can also be used very effectively in small world play. Green rice works especially well as grass or use brown rice to emulate soil. Learn how to colour rice on this post here.

9. Spaghetti

I just love the colours in this spaghetti ocean! And spaghetti is a great way of adding an interesting sensory element to small world play.  

To colour spaghetti simply cook the spaghetti as usual and then add a few drops of food colouring. Use tongs to toss the spaghetti in the food colouring and then remove any excess by rinsing the spaghetti. 

 To make this spaghetti ocean I divided the spaghetti up and coloured some green and some blue.

10. Cereals

If you're looking to set up small worlds for a toddler, sensory bases made of cereal are a great place to start. Because these are edible you can be confident that little ones can play safely and it won't matter if they have a little nibble too! Crushed up shreaded wheat, cornflakes or porridge oats all work really well. We love this type of base for farmyard play, diggers or a dinosaur themed set up.

Looking for resources to pair with your small world bases? Do check out our post on the best resources for small world play.



Sensory and Creative Play Made Easy

Whether you are new to sensory play for little ones, or you are a seasoned pro, the PlayTRAY is the perfect tool to create a playful home.