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How does small world play help children’s development?

“Everything you can imagine is real” –  Pablo Picasso

Small world play is quite simply a “set-up” of a scene with ‘small’ toys and props. It could an everyday scene, a fantasy scene or a scene from a well-known story. It is particularly wonderful because it encourages children to use their imagination! It involves processes including active learning and imitation and allows children to communicate knowledge about life and the world around them in a safe, contained environment.

We regularly provide small world play opportunities at The Phonics Fox because we know how much children love to play with physical objects and we can see just how valuable the experience is.

This week, we provided a small world scene of Little Red Ridinghood. We set up props which included: puppets of the characters; a textured grass base; some wooden trees; pine cones; a stony path (with some of the letter sounds written on for good measure!); wooden trees; Grandma’s house with movable furniture and a ‘pond’ which consisted of a blue scarf and some shiny gemstones.

The children naturally gravitated to this activity and had so much fun playing that they didn’t realise they were learning! They particularly loved playing with the sensory items. One of the baby siblings in the class loved to join in by picking up and dropping the stones.Her mum commented how much she loves the sensory element to the classes.

We love how small world play encourages the development of the whole child.

Social development

Small world play isn’t limited to groups of children. Children can play by themselves or with an adult. When basing the small world on a text, adults can be so useful to help guide children to remember the narrative structure, by asking questions to help develop the play. For example,

“How do you think the wolf entered the house?...What did he say next?”

It’s really important to make sure that an adult isn’t leading the play though, instead gently guiding and being led by the child.

When children do play together, small world play encourages them to share, communicate with each other, and devise roles between themselves. For example,

“You can be Red Riding Hood this time and I will be next time..”

Resolving issues develops an awareness of each other's feelings and allows children to learn about consequences of actions. Above all, it teaches children to respect each other and whatever ideas are shared. Adults can model this so well too by taking part in and observing the play.

Emotional Development

One of the most beneficial aspects of small world play is its ability to help children emotionally. Fairy tales can be particularly scary- especially Little Red Ridinghood. As sensitive as I tried to be when reading the story, I could tell some children were visibly worried!!

Acting out the story gives children the chance to explore their innermost thoughts and feelings in a safe environment using another ‘character’ in role-play. They can confront their fears and can even change the narrative, which in turn really helps to develop their thinking skills.

During our Red Ridinghood play, one little girl decided that Granny had taken herself to the toilet when the wolf visited (instead of being thrown in the wardrobe) and that after the wolf’s visit, they all made friends and went for a swim in the pond!

When children take on another role, it develops their confidence and self-esteem. We certainly found in this context that usually “quiet” children had the courage to be the wolf!

As well as giving children the opportunity to express themselves, small world play really helps parents to gain an insight into how their child is thinking, feeling and developing.

Physical Development

Small world play has tangible, physical benefits too. Playing with a small characters, toys and environments helps to develop children’s motor skills and coordination, not to mention their spatial awareness. All of this helps to develop the skills they need for writing.

Intellectual Development

Small world play not only gives us the opportunity to teach children about rules and life within their own community; it can also broaden their knowledge to distant places, cultures and societies.

In our case, at The Phonics Fox, small world play can really enhance children's literacy development as they gain a deeper understanding of a story.This will give them an excellent foundation for learning.

Children can even develop their mathematical skills! Concepts such as size, patterns, positions and sorting can all explored in a fun and engaging way.

In terms of language development, small world toys provide a physical representation that children can relate new words to. This imitation process is not just copying, it involves children learning and experimenting with what they are hearing and seeing. The adult role is so important- you can give them the opportunity to ask questions and encourage them to talk about the things they have discovered. When the adult poses purposeful questions, this promotes conversation and sustained thinking.

At The Phonics Fox, we often base our small world set ups on stories that we are reading because it helps to contextualise childrens’ learning. At home, you don’t have to base it on a story at all and you certainly don’t have to have a learning outcome! Children can make up their own stories and set up their own scenes, using whatever you have from cars, farm animals, to dinosaurs, dragons or fantasy worlds.

The imagination of children in the pre-school years knows no limits. Enjoy it and let them play!


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