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How to Play - Small World Focus

This topic is on my mind today because I sold at my first handmade market last week! The amazing Guncotton Coffee and Gallery hosted Ma'am Market, where women entrepreneurs were invited to sell their work to the local community in honor of Women's History Month. I had JUST opened the Etsy shop (over at when I saw the flyer about the event and asked if I could jump in! I've been up late for weeks painting peg pople inspired by scientists, strong women, community and super-heroes, spring, and more! It's been such a joy :). AND, selling last week was SO MUCH FUN. As women who started my career as a public educator, I am still getting comfortable with selling things, yet last week was just fun! I realized that I just get to welcome people to look around and play with my peg people, ask questions, and choose if/what they are buying.

Similarly, small toys are a welcoming invitation to young learners to explore places, worlds, and situations that are not accessible in reality; to retell events, experiences, and stories in a dramatic way; and to play with emotions, words, numbers, size, and sooooo much more. We cannot play with dinosaurs (nor would that be particularly safe), but we can go to museums with dinosaur walks, act like dinosaurs, or jump into small world play and play with toy dinosaurs. We can set up an ocean scene to play with even for kiddos who cannot yet swim. Small toys can become rich characters leading to storytelling and social-emotional learning as children develop characters and events for their toys. Barnyard sets and stories are often where toddlers pick up some of their first animal sounds. The conversations between small toys boost spoken language skills. You can read more abut the benefits of small world play here. Ready to jump into a dinosaur moon base underwater in a castle? Here are some of my tips for small world play:

  • Let learners lead: Notice interests of your learner/s. Maybe at a museum, they stare in awe at huge dinosaurs or they love walking through a butterfly house or running through a space shuttle model. What can you do to invite learners to explore their interests in a realistic scale right in your backyard or living room or classroom?

  • Keep it simple: Yes, you can go on Pinterest and find the most amazing small worlds - oceans, barns, dinosaur walks, etc. AND, you can also lay out a tablecloth or towel and some animals and blocks and see what happens. (Don't have any animals? Paint rocks!) If it brings you joy to create a small world, then go for it! Sometimes, I'll set something up while HG is napping for her to play with. However, I find that she is more interested if she creates the small world with me OR alongside me. For example, we like to make little forts out of sticks for toys when we are outside. I'll add a stick, she'll try, we work together. She takes over, I move a few feet away and start another one and then she comes and plays with that one when she's frustrated with hers (keep in mind, she's 21 months old, so older kids can truly create some AWESOME small worlds on their own or with a little help - think Lego towns and shoe box dollhouses). Functional and engaging > pretty.

  • Step back so they can step forward: This goes back to letting learners lead. Kiddos can play on their own. It is our job to create the space to allow it. If your child loves the moon, maybe draw a white circle on a blacktop driveway or lay a light colored towel over a dark blue one and say, "OHHH LOOK! This looks like the moon! What toys might like to play on the moon?". Older kids (2.5+) might run with this. Little ones might be like, "What on Earth are you talking about? That's a white blob on the ground, I'm going to go run" - and that's fine too. If your child is ready to slow down and interested in small world play, modeling play might work great! Make sure you have at least two toys (even if yours is literally a clothespin or rock) so you can each have your own. Start exploring the landscape you and/or your learner/s have created. See what they start to do. If they invite you into their version of the small world, join in. An invitation could be them interacting with you (verbally or non-verbally) or their toy interacting with you or your toy verbally or non-verbally. If their astronaut travels to Earth by swimming, swim. There's no need to correct an imagined world, yet you could try, "Oh! We're swimming across the dark space like you can swim across a lake" - this respects their play AND sneaks in some facts.

  • Extend the play: I've noticed that my little one does NOT understand size. She thinks she can slide down a dollhouse slide. So, this month, I made a week of the Month in Moments calendar focused on bigger and smaller. We're a bit behind, but we'll trace ourselves, pour water in different sized containers, play with stacking items, etc. Perhaps an epic and scary destructive battle occurs and toys get launched and it frightens even you. Take a deep breath (maybe read the article here), and then talk about the play later at a meal or calm time or once the learner invites you into play - "I noticed you're toys getting launched. What did they do to get launched? Hmmmm, I think I'd feel scared if that happen in real life." Tell, write, and draw stories based on play scenarios. Again, after play, say, "Oh, you want to color? Can you draw for me what your dinosaurs did on their adventure? Can you tell me about it and I'll write the story?". Do all of your kiddo's fish fly? Maybe take a trip to pet store and watch what fish really do! When clean up time comes, make a game of counting toys or putting toys in containers too big or small to boost some numeracy skills.

  • Make it fun for you! Whether you sit nearby with a book you love, sketch what your kiddo is doing, snap a few photos, build a more elaborate scene, create a new doll or animal toy, find a way to enter into the periphery of your learner's world without taking over the play so that you are ready to adventure with them and able to notice what is happening as they desire.

  • Celebrate the outcomes: Notice what new words, themes, emotions, etc, surface in your learners' play. Share these at a family meal or just in a conversation as you clean up. Notice how you feel. Is your creativity growing? Do you remember how you used to play with small worlds and toys? Are you more happy? More able to notice small things?

Share your small worlds and play using #watchwonderbloom or by tagging @watchwonderbloom. Proud of a small world you and your learners create? Have a hack for avoiding taking over play but staying engaged? Please share it! And, remember, this might be your #dailywin!

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