Early Years Garden of Our Dreams. Part 5 – Secret Small Worlds

Magical Places & Secret Spaces

Even as an adult I still find myself drawn to intriguing, mysterious places. A maze, a tunnel, a secret door - I can't wait to find out what it's like and where it goes. As a child I loved small world play. Acting out everyday and imaginary scenes with small characters and miniature props filled most of my day. My characters and props that I had were very important to me, but almost as important was where I played. I'd usually be tucked in a corner, hiding behind a door, in a flower bed or under the shade of one of our walnut tress; a magical, secret place to play, explore and learn.

@the_craft_witch_ thanks for the lovely image.

Grapat Nins are pretty fabulous most of the time, but even more lovely tucked away for small world play in the woods. The setting makes such a difference to how children interact in their play.

Our garden had no interesting spaces, so we've tried very hard with the design to make secluded, shady spaces. Places for sand and water trays and large plant pots. Hideaways and nooks for small world adventures.

Wish list for the perfect toddler garden. What spaces to create and resources to get. First in a series of blog posts. Water play, mud kitchen, mark making, small world, hedgehog house, planting, tuff tray, herb garden, trees, bug hotel, den building, book Nook.

Places to have Small World Adventures Outside

I've tried to add a list of places that would work for very small scale outdoor spaces as well as larger areas. You could even use some of these indoors; if you have no outdoor spaces you could bring the outdoors inside using some of the ideas; I particularly like the jam jar idea from @delawaredoodlebugs picture further into the post.

  • Sand Trays
  • Water Areas
  • Old Tyres
  • Plant Pots
  • Small Trays or Boxes
  • Dolls Houses
  • Cable Reels
  • Jam Jars
@natural_explorers_childminding thanks for the lovely image.

I love the use of the cable reel above by @natural_explorers_childminding; it looks so inviting. You can get reels like this from 'Scrapstores' here in the UK (these are recycle centres, often in cities, that have donations from industry of all sorts of random things - reels are often donated) or check out your local builders' merchants. The circular shape I've always found to be really welcoming for small groups of children to play together; great for nurseries and schools, but also a lovely way to encourage co-operative play with siblings and if friends come round to play. The use of natural resources from outside with beautiful wooden toys and loose parts gives great scope for open ended, small world play suitable for a range of ages.

@invitationtoplay thanks for the lovely image.
@ournaturalnook thanks for the lovely image.
@momsgettingcrafty207 thanks for the lovely image.

Small World Play Scenarios

Please do add in the comments below any other small world play ideas you have or have used with your children or classes.

  • Beach
  • Woods
  • Forest
  • Zoo
  • The Poles
  • Story Related - The Gruffalo
  • Seasons
  • Rhymes - Speckled Frogs
  • Train
  • Dragons
  • Rock Pool
  • Town
  • Construction Site
  • Fairy Lands
  • Jungle
  • Farm
  • Dinosaurs
  • Ocean
  • Space
  • Ice Age
  • Medieval - Knights
  • Pirates


@rupertwager thanks for the lovely image.
@nicolerose7690 thanks for the lovely image.
@playwithfelix thanks for the lovely image.

What are the Benefits?

Small world play scenes help children to make sense of the world around them, through a full sensory experience. It allows children to develop their understanding of big themes and concepts and make links with what they already know and what is new to them. This type of play is especially useful to help explore situations that would otherwise be hard or impossible to do. For example events that happened in the past such as medieval times and a world with dinosaurs or places that most people can't reach such as the moon. These wonderful opportunities can take you all around the earth and beyond visiting different cultures and climates with animals, plants and resources that are not typical to the place that you live.

A feeling of safety and security are also important; exploring unfamiliar experiences in a place you know. I've personally found small world play to be really helpful to ease children's fears and answer their questions of certain experiences such as starting school, going to see a doctor/ dentist/ hospital or going on an aeroplane. You can help to act out what will happen at these events to help them feel more prepared with what to expect. Asking questions such as - How do you think this character is feeling? - can help you to understand any concerns your little one might have and give you an opportunity to discuss. For some children pairing a small world scene with a social story can be really powerful in helping reduce anxiety around a specific event - especially useful for some children on the autistic spectrum.

@ted_d_talks thanks for the lovely image.
@delawaredoodlebugs thanks for the lovely image.
@delawaredoodlebugs thanks for the lovely image.

Some children can be quite rigid in their play choices. When I was teaching I remember having some children who would only want to play with a certain toy such as the Lego, Playmobil or the train track. Now, some people would say, 'that's their interest so leave them too it.' I'm very much in favour of going with the interests of the child, but feel it is important to be able to broaden the experiences children have and help them to discover new interests too. Small world play is perfect for this. Take Lego for example. If you have a child who loves playing with Lego you could incorporate the Lego into a small world theme. If your little one has made a rocket, then a space scene set up with their rocket might take their play in a different direction. A Lego boat could find its way to an ocean setting. A Lego car could have a city to explore. These are just a few ideas. You may find that your Lego enthusiast suddenly has a passion for the universe, sea turtles or skyscrapers. If you've got a child who loves playing with a particular toy and you want ideas of small world scenes that could broaden their experience leave a comment and I'll get back to you with some ideas. 


Whether playing alone or collaboratively with small worlds there are some very important skills that this type of play help with:

  • Developing narratives in their play - some of the beginnings to story development. Skills including sentence syntax, oral fluency and composition are supported; character development, scene setting and plot become more concrete concepts.
  • Fine motor development and hand eye co-ordination are practised.
  • Moral dilemmas are explored in a safe environment helping to develop a moral code and an understanding of what they believe to be right and wrong.
  • If working collaboratively then turn taking, sharing and negotiating skills honed.
@delawaredoodlebugs thanks for the lovely image.

How can I Encourage and Extend?

  • Having loose parts - letting children design and set up their own worlds
  • Access to photographs and books to act as a stimulus
  • Making own props and characters
  • Making own signage, maps, posters, fact sheets etc.
  • Recording stories either through videos, drawings or writing

I'd love to hear what you do to encourage and extend small world play.

@playwithfelix thanks for the lovely image.

Our Dream Garden Update

Things are moving on, but the weather has put a halt to putting paving down. There has been a lot of clearing this week and laying of hard core ready for the paving to go down. Both raised planters are now built and I'm so pleased with how they've turned out. One needs to rendered still, but the height of the two tier one is perfect. I get a place for plants and so does Floss. The height is perfect for her and I can't wait for us to start planting. What 'quick growing' plants would you recommend for a toddler to plant?

Garden of Our Dreams - Mark Making Matters - Fine motor skills - messy play - outdoors - gardening - mud kitchen - ealry years- writing
Garden 5xi

Thanks so much to everyone who let me use their lovely photographs. I've written where they came from below each image and if you click on the image a new window will take you to their Instagram page if you'd like to find out more.

Coming next – Early Years Garden of Our Dreams – Part 6  – Inviting Wildlife.


In the future

  • Part 7 – Planting for Toddlers
  • Part 8 – Alfresco Dining for Tiddlers
  • Part 9 – Terrific Trees
  • Part 10 – Den Building

As always, I would recommend adult supervision with activities and take care to ensure the items you are using are suitable for your child in both age and development. Specifically, with outdoors, I think it's really important to make sure that you reassess risks before each time you allow access to outside. A school I used to work in was next to a road and we always had to make sure that nothing had blown or been thrown in. It's also good to consider how you will explain safety aspects such as some things being dangerous to eat in gardens and woods. The views expressed are my own.

Popular Posts

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.