Small Worlds in Early Learning: Now is the Time!

By: Diane Kashin, Ed.D, RECE.

I think I have always been fascinated by small world play. As a child and as an adult. I have fond memories of creating miniature worlds especially outdoors. I used rocks, mud, grass, straw and sticks to form a world that I could play inside of. I was in control. I had power in these worlds.

Now in my basement there are shelves with baskets and baskets of loose parts for small world play. Pre-pandemic, I would pack these up and bring them to workshops. My intentions were that these concrete, hands-on experiences would provide inspiration for “a hundred worlds to discover, a hundred worlds to invent, a hundred worlds to dream”. I have enough loose parts for hundreds of worlds. As I have been confined to home like everyone else in my province, I have been spending time with these loose parts; sorting, organizing, reflecting and thinking.

There is something very comfortable about creating miniature representations of worlds that we can only imagine or worlds that are too big and complex to fully comprehend. In the worlds that I created as a child, I felt I belonged, and this offered a sense of security. In the time of COVID, offering children small world play makes sense. Small world play supports the image of the child as capable and competent. Feeling in control of their play they provide children an outlet for emotions and creativity. Whether it be in block play, with a doll house, a train set or in the sandbox, the worlds that children create help them feel powerful. In a world where children are often spectators, with these small worlds, they are creators. David Sobel, a proponent of place-based education, identified seven play motifs in Childhood and Nature: Design Principles in Education that emerge when children experience time in nature.

  1. Making friends with animals
  2. Finding adventure
  3. Fantasy and imagination
  4. Finding and creating special places
  5. Hunting and gathering
  6. Figuring out maps and pathways
  7. Creating small world play

When children create miniature representations of ecosystems, or neighborhoods, it helps them conceptually grasp the big picture. The creation of small worlds provides a concrete vehicle for understanding abstract ideas. “Small worlds work wonders for children. They provide the same kind of emotional security that islands provide for vacationers. The world is simplified and knowable. They provide cognitive accessibility because all the disparate elements of a place are brought together into one view” (Sobel, 2008, p. 46). This is the time to provide children with opportunities for emotional security. This is the time for small world play!

I put together a bag of loose parts that in the past I have used for small world play group experiences in workshops. I shared these with my grandson. I provided what some would call an invitation or provocation. Chaille (2008) described provocation as “an intentional sparking of interest” (p. 63). The items collected represented an imaginative world in the forest. In playing with this world, Griffen is engaged in dramatic play. Dramatic play offers children a forum for cognitive development as it helps them create a mental picture or schema of events. After repeated experience, the schema becomes complex. Once the mental picture is created, this mental picture contributes to children understanding future real experiences. This helps them develop higher order thinking (Dietze & Kashin, 2019). Vygotsky (2004) suggested that dramatic play involves the creative “ability to combine elements to produce a structure, to combine the old in new ways” (p. 12). According to Robertson (2016) Vygotsky maintained that “children are not reproducing events that they have seen or heard; rather, they are making creative re-workings of what they know about the world and the meaning that it has for the child” (Robertson, 2016, p. 3). Children use their imagination as they develop the cognitive processes required for problems solving, reflective thinking, self-regulation, attention and perspective taking (Karpov, 2014). There seems to be no end to the benefits of small world, dramatic play.

In a small way, I want to encourage small world play. I will be giving away the “Forest in a Bag: Small World Play” set on Instagram. This contest will be open to Ontario entries only. I hope others whether from Ontario or the rest of the world, will be inspired to provide children with invitations to create miniature representations of worlds, real or imagined. I look forward to once again joining, the International Fairy Tea Party with my grandchildren because I love creating small fairy worlds. In the meantime, I will continue to provide Griffen and his cousin, Reese with opportunities to create and re-create small worlds. When Caroline Pratt invented unit blocks decades ago, she spoke of her intentions and these too can be yours in the provision of small world play with the small children in your life.

What small world invitations can you provide? What small worlds have the children in your life created during child-led free play in and with nature? Please share in the comments below and head over to Instagram to enter the contest!

8 thoughts on “Small Worlds in Early Learning: Now is the Time!

  1. Diane, I also have uncounted amounts of loose parts in my basement so I don’t want to enter the contest but I’d love to see a photo of the contents. Is there one on Instagram?

    Liked by 2 people

  2. I love this. I have recently gotten into loose part play with my daughter, and only wish I had done so sooner. I enjoy building these small worlds along side her just as much as she does.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Fascinating. I can recall my childhood memories especially during the summer holidays, in a small city called Birmingham England. There I was, as a little girl in the back garden of my home, filling a butter dish with water and using small rocks and stones from the gullies to make as my wall around it. Ripping white toilet paper to be pieces of bread so the birds could eat and drink from the “Pond” . My father only saw me as a pest when he discovered his antique butter dish soiled in dirt and mud but i didn’t care , i just created the most beautiful gift for the birds to enjoy. Loose parts allows children to be intentional, to be problem solvers , to be inventive engineers. Oh to be a kid again.


  4. Our school can never have too many loose parts. They can show up in the sand, at the dough table, at the glue table, water play or in a basket on the floor. I appreciate all the insights and learning you provide!


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