Solutions for Sensory or Discovery Play for Babies & Toddler Small World Play

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Pretend Play with Small Worlds and Sensory Bins

This craze right now concerns me. They are fun to gather props for, build and rebuild with your kids and make playtime with your child a blast. HOWEVER, I am concerned about a few things. The first is the idea of dollar store or toys with skinny or spindly arms and legs and the use of fillers that are not appropriate and not intended for baby or toddlers.
The popular Toob, Safari LTD., Schleich, or dollar store small animals and other and name brand animals characters are manufactured with a warning that they are a choking hazard for babies and toddlers. And websites with less studied or less savvy owners are recommending them for babies and toddlers.
PLEASE-Use chunky or block animals and characters for baby or toddler Small World building. I often use pieces from chunky puzzles as well for babies. Melissa & Doug PAW Patrol Activity Rug - Adventure Bay (22  Pieces) : Toys & Games
And the very cutest fillers can still be hazardous to play with as well. Especially, when they are left behind unattended can become a choking hazard to your child.

SIMPLY DON'T BUY THEM. Use a Large playmat instead of fillers for babies and toddler play. Playmats can be flannel or felt (Below), preprinted mat(Above), table cloth or blanket (Top), foam printed mats and even printed rugs are all safer and better than fillers on a size limited tray or bin.
DIY Farm Play Mat and Mini World | Excite and Explore
  1. Babies and toddlers need large open play spaces rather than small boxes, bins or trays: because they do not have the fine motor skills for small stuff. It is a known fact that they play and paint more easily with large tools.
  2. Plus they are going to put small things in their mouths that is how they explore.

Please be sure you use only age appropriate materials. Consider adding some building blocks rather than a messy filler in any bin or tray for babies
Farm Friends Pop Together Beads Baby Toy - Educational Toys Planet
 Lego, Fischer Price Little People, Hape Toys, and Spark Create Imagine (Walmart) have had durable themed playsets and characters for years. All four of them produce toys and characters that are washable and grow with your child. Their size appropriateness is part of their label.
Lego is the most expensive option, however they all can be purchased on Amazon and at Walmart.
Spark Create Imagine Float & Squirt Adventure Pirate Boat Set, 4 pieces  Kids Toy for Sale - Celebrity Cars Blog
Second: the use of a small world or sensory bin play in place of outdoor play. Nothing is comparable to the benefits of outdoor play and really exciting life experiences.  
If you live near the ocean you, you should go to the ocean and play and learn there. We lived in Colorado so we used a small castle in her sand box to make a mini beach. However I did not make a farm sensory bin or small world because farms were all around her to learn from. For example, the excitement and thrill of exploring on a real hike or camping trip is much better then experiencing it with toys. However, taking home natural treasures found in the forest to play with the same small world toys make it more interesting.
Toys for Kids | Campfire Fun Playset | Gifts by Lottie
Give your child real experiences (that they will remember) when you can. 
Create a yard with the capability of inspiring many joy filled moments. In the picture below, we had spots for a play garden, large loose parts, waterplay in the wheel barrow, the table to gather her things on, play on or do art on, and playsets for the sandbox or play garden.

She also had active play area with climbing structure, waterplay and a trampoline.

Spark Create Imagine Float & Squirt Adventure Pirate Boat Set, 4 pieces  Kids Toy for Sale - Celebrity Cars Blog
On the other side of the grill is a garden that I enjoyed being in, purposely leaving her tons open ended play areas close by. Next I want to point out Hope had an adventure guide, her dad.
Who by the way, is the very best imaginary play playmate EVER.
The conversation here was to be about comparing play sand to real sand at the beach in Florida. Hope re-directed the play to playing out the "Little Mermaid" story. They played for over an hour really connecting to each other. Don't miss out on that opportunity to just chat and play and connect with your child. HAVE SOME FUN!!!!

Don't just hand them the tray or container of toys and expect them to explore and learn on their own. Make them excited about their new playthings and time with their parents.
 Small Worlds and Discovery baskets are created for them to explore, pretend and create with. However they are also really great for building language and social skills as well developing independent play skills.

Be excited to sit down and play with them. Especially when you are bringing home a new toy or art supplies. Be their adventure guide as they immerse their imaginations into the "mini world of play".

The benefits of sensory bins and Small Worlds (at an appropriate age) are more than just touching and experiencing new things. It provides a creative environment of sensory play that helps develop play skills, language development, fine motor skills, social skills, brain development and helps kids complete a cognitive task.


What is Small World Play?

Just like it sounds, small world play is any type of play that allows children to use their imaginations to build mini worlds and adventures while playing with small toys. These can range from anything abstract like small rings, blocks and nature items to figurines, train sets, dollhouses and building sets. However, the goal is to set up a scene, world or place. This helps children establish the bigger picture of their imaginative play.

While it’s fun to play with a pirate figurine, if a child is able to create a ship to sail, an ocean to cross, another boat to battle and the harsh winds to avoid, they’re able to get deeper into their narrative, which helps them develop a sense of self, stronger vocabulary and ability to think creatively.

Designed to encourage children to play in an open-ended manner, small world play allows children to dream, problem-solve and experiment all while honing important fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination

farm small world play


Children as young as 2.5 years old can engage in (simple) small world play and start telling their own stories. Keep an eye out for symbolic play that starts to emerge (when they can pretend a crayon for example is an aeroplane) and parallel to that language that starts to develop. And you’ll be ready to go!

Here’s what’s next:

  • Decide on your theme. Choose a subject for your small world that the child has experience or at least an interest in. (For a first small world animals are often a safe bet as most children have some knowledge of or interest in them or you could try and act out a favorite story like ‘Going on a Bear Hunt’). I kept Ziploc bags on the top of the refrigerator for each theme that we were working on.

  • Collect your materials. Be inspired by what you have in your toy box, in your kitchen, garden or anywhere else within reach. Part of the fun of small world play is setting the scene! Children love to be involved in creating small worlds and like to hunt for items they might want to use. Remember that you can add elements of sensory play too (like sand, water, play-dough, straw, uncooked rice, rocks, …) and that you might (will!) need a box or tray of some sort to contain your items.Again, only provide materials that not a choking hazard and age appropriate. Best Stuffed Animals for Babies & Toddlers

farm small world play
  • Set the scene. The younger the children are, the more simple you want to keep your small world (with maybe one element of sensory play and using items they can easily manipulate themselves). It’s easy for little ones to be distracted or overstimulated. Less is more in this case. The older children are, the more elaborate small worlds can become.

A Beginner's Guide to Small World Play


If you are both new at this you can start simple. If you’ve built a farm scene for instance, you can start by feeding the animals, cleaning the barns, let the farmer check up on them etc. You can use simple actions and simple words (go on, make some animal sounds!). I’m sure children will join in fairly soon and you can play alongside each other for a while mirroring his (her) actions and following his lead (if he wants the cows to go to sleep: night time it is!) until they are ready to play on their own.

It’s good to keep in mind that all children are different. Some children only need a little help getting started and will be completely absorbed by their little worlds for a while. Others rather not play alone or lose interest quickly. That’s all ok. Don’t be discouraged (after all the effort of setting up this amazing small world!), you can leave it out for a couple of days and chances are they’ll want to revisit soon.

In general: as the child grows their play will evolve, become more abstract (being able to play out scenes from movies and story books they are not necessarily familiar with) and the play will become predominantly child-led. (Milestone!)

If you’d like some inspiration before getting started, you might want to have a look at some awesome small worlds across the web CLICK HERE.

Small world play is an excellent tool in the development of well-rounded children. They act out stories they’ve read (or had read to them), they act out social situations and practice handling emotions, they make up their own stories and exercise their creative muscle.
Having an outdoor small world play area just adds to the benefits. The sensory experience of real plants and dirt, the fresh air and sun on their skin. No doubt about it an outdoor small world play area, or “fairy garden,” is a childhood must-have.

Small World Play Area (1)

We used all materials that we had on hand for our small world area.
The barrel planter that we made our literacy inspired fairy garden last year. The old tires that were storage for our outdoor toys last summer. The dirt that we dug up when we installed our in-ground trampoline.
We first arranged the barrel and tires, then filled them all with dirt. We could have easily left it all as dirt, or spread some grass seed out in the dirt, but LittleMan expressed a preference for flowers so we planted a few of those instead.

Small World Play Area (5)

Then we gathered some large rocks from around the yard. We painted the rocks a mint green and added black roofs, windows, doors using paints that we had left over from previous projects.

Small World Play Area (2)

We lined up the rocks to make a little neighborhood.

Small World Play Area (3)

Nearby we put a bin of plastic toy animals, hot wheels cars, and action figures. We didn’t buy any new toys for the area, but rather re-purposed dozens of old toys that we’re collected throughout our children’s lives. Taking old, forgotten toys outside is an easy way to breathe new life into them. We also kept on hand the wooden roads we made last year for our hot wheels cars.
I printed out some sun and cloud clip art images on cardstock, cut them out, laminated them, and duct taped them to clothespins.

Small World Play Area (4)

These little sky-line images can then be hung from a clothesline tied between two trees, just above the small world play area. So far these have been very popular and an excellent way to encourage the younger children to practice their fine motor skills. I may in the future be adding some airpane and bird clip art images to the mix.

Small World Play Area (7)

All together there are many ways this area can be played with, and over the course of this past month I have seen as many as 7 children working together to build farms, zoos, and tiny towns.

Small World Play Area (6)

If you’re looking for something a little bit smaller, or maybe a little more indoor friendly, check out our DIY small world play area from an Ikea Expedit.

Sandpits Outside – Challenging Myths and Misconceptions | Creative STAR  Learning | I'm a teacher, get me OUTSIDE here!

Small World Play: Build with Rocks

ByTrisha June 10, 2012

What do you do with all of the rocks your kids collect? One idea is to build with them.

Gather up as many rocks as you can find. We found rocks of various sizes, shapes, and colors.

How do you get your kids to create a play scene with little help from you? Here are some ideas:

  • Start building something with rocks yourself. Your child may be curious enough to join in or ask you what you are doing.

  • Say something like I’m going to build a wall. Would you like to help me build it?

  • Or say Let’s build something out of rocks. What would you like to create?

  • Now that we’ve built a few house out of rocks, what else should we add?

  • Would you like to bring some toy animals/people/etc. out to play?

You could also create the play scene for your kids and let them enjoy playing with it. They will most likely change it up as they continue to play.

Aiden wanted to build houses for his animals. He placed the animals where he thought they should live. We added a castle for good measure and an extra big giant rock. I asked Aiden if he wanted roads for his town, and he said he did. I grabbed a long leaf from the yard and added it to our town. Aiden followed my lead, gathered more leaves, and placed them in the town.

We had fun moving the animals about the town talking them through their day. I asked Aiden questions about what they were doing. I modeled for him as well. The duck is visiting the pig. “Hello, Mr. Pig.” “Hello, Mr. Duck.”

Small world play is a great way to practice language skills, creativity, and imagination.

Near the end of our play, Aiden stomped all over the houses. The animals and rocks were scattered everywhere. I narrated his actions. Oh no, a big storm is coming. A tornado is destroying the town. Aiden said the wind blew the houses down. (Here would have been a lovely opportunity to talk about tornado safety.)

10+ Small World Play Ideas For Littles

Small World play is great. You have all the benefits of pretend play with the added bonus of being able to make half the stuff yourself. I’m a big fan of the kids playing with their own craft activities.

They also have the additional benefit of including a whole heap of other types of play. It all depends on your imagination to see how many different ways you can play with the same toys.

Not sure what I’m going on about? Don’t worry, I’ll give you some examples as we go to show you.

Here are 10+ mini world play ideas to get you started.

10+ Small world play ideas for kids. Pretend play is a cornerstone of child development. Not to mention it's one of the best open ended kids activities there is. Get your little one started with these 10+ mini world play ideas.

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These airplanes started off as a craft project. First I glued some popsicle sticks to a wooden clothes peg, then we had a lot of fun painting them. I love how they can then be used to play with as mini world airplanes. I also don’t care if they break because then we have an excuse to make some more. For a more in-depth tutorial for how to make these clothespin airplanes have a look at the post Clothes Peg Plane Craft from One Time Through. Not only will you learn how to make these adorable peg planes, but you’ll also get to see their awesome box airport.

African Safari or Zoo

Who doesn’t love exploring the savannah with the lions and elephants? There’s something about African animals that kids love and we’d be silly not to use that to our advantage. So get out your lions and crocodiles and see if they can catch any of those monkeys.

If you’re familiar with the Cheeky Monkeys and the Crocodile song, I have a free printable that’s just for you. This Cheeky Monkeys Counting Game helps kids to count from 1 – 10 and they get to have fun being monkeys and running away from the crocodile afterward too.

Mini World Boats

Boats are definitely a bath time staple. However, they shouldn’t be left in the bathroom because it’s limiting. Adding pebbles, sand and water to this mini world is a great recipe for a sensory play session too.

Boats can go sailing across the garden, or get stuck on a sandbank in the sandpit. The pebbles can be dropped in the water to see what kind of sound and splash they make. Not to mention just exploring the different qualities of wet vs dry sand.

If you don’t have any boats on hand, don’t worry. I’ve found that a shoe works just as well.

Ice cream Store

mini world ice cream store

Ahh ice cream. Who doesn’t love heading out to the local shop and buying a cone? The best part about this one is that it’s perfect for talking to your kids about how to behave in public. Using their manners, for example, or how we can’t take things without paying for them.

It’s also a good chance to talk to your kids about ‘sometimes food’ and ‘everyday food’. That’s exactly what my free food sort printable is all about. It’s one printable that can be used in 3 different ways. It helps you to teach your kids about healthy eating without actually having to fight with them about eating their vegetables.

Dragon races

small world dragons

My son loves dragons. So having our very own dragon races through some cotton wool clouds is always a fun activity for toddlers. You can always create an outdoor obstacle course for your dragons by hanging some glow stick rings to fly through. Or perhaps your kids would prefer going on a scavenger hunt for the hidden black sheep.

If your kids love dragons, then give this Dragon Treasure sensory bin from Inspiration Laboratories a try. Or this Dragon Themed Positional Word Game from The Educators Spin on it. There is so much fun to be had with dragons.

Mini World Cars

small world cars with free printable road map and road signs.

Cars are big with all children, not just boys. They’re great to add to your list of travel bag activities too. After all, it’s so easy to just grab a couple and put them in your handbag.

Download my free road map printable, which you can laminate and doubles as a placemat for when you’re dining out. Preschoolers will enjoy the road signs I’ve included in the free printable. Glue them onto some wooden clothes pegs and they can set up their own intersections and construction zones.
Now you can keep your little ones entertained while you enjoy a meal out with the family.

Road Map with signs


If your kids love cars, be sure to try these Car STEM experiments. There are 3 easy experiments to introduce your kids to physics. If your kids are still young, don’t worry, my toddler absolutely loved playing with the different setups anyway. He loved watching the cars roll down the ramps and seeing how far the roll.

Farm Mini World

small world farm

“Moo” goes the cow. “Baa” goes the sheep. Farm animals are so much fun to play with. They each make their own noises and kids can have a bit of fun being silly and making those animal sounds.

If your children love farm animals, then check out my farm animals printables page. It’s got free printable coloring in pages and activities.

If you add some corn to this small world it becomes a wonderful sensory bin. Be sure to read my 10+ Sensory tubs for Toddlers post. There are some wonderful messy and sensory play ideas for toddlers. My Frozen Peas Sensory Bin is perfect for farm pretend play. There are three different toddler activities in this one sensory bin.

Mini World Construction Site and Trains

small world construction site

small world trains

The sandpit is a staple in most playgrounds, or backyards if you have one. There’s something magical about playing with sand. Maybe it’s just because it’s so versatile so there’s always something new to try in there. Building your very own construction site, is one of them.
Add your very own DIY Road Blocks from Little Lifelong Learners and you’ve got the perfect setup for play.

We also use these fantastic DIY Road Blocks when we play with our trains. They make wonderful bridges so that the cars can go over the train tracks.

Under the Sea

Water sensory tub turned under the sea mini world. Two kids activities in one. Who could ask for more?

Where’s Nemo? With this underwater small world, your kids can go find him. That’s not all there is to this activity either. If you add some shells, fake seaweed, and some sand, it doubles as a great sensory tub too.

If your kids love ocean animals, check out this post on 5 Sea Creature Crafts for toddlers. They’ll love making their very own rainbow rice fish or egg carton turtle.

Soccer Game

small world soccer/football game

We all know how important it is to stay active. We want our kids to get exercise so that they can be strong, healthy and happy. But have you ever considered how great role-playing a soccer game is for emotional development?

Learning to recognize and deal with emotions is a big part of toddlerhood. With a soccer game, you can talk about a lot of different emotions that a player can go through. For example:
1. They’re anxious before the game starts.
2. They’re happy because they got a goal.
3. They’re embarrassed because they forgot that they’re not allowed to use their hands.
4. They’re angry because one of the other teams’ players pushed them over.
5. They’re sad because they lost the game.
6. They’re frustrated because their team isn’t passing them the ball.

Help your little ones deal with big emotions, all while they play.

Garden Bugs

  • Pretend Play

Egg carton insect crafts for kids.

  • Make your own insects

Bugs buzzing through the flowers are all a part of springtime. With the sun coming out we all want to head outdoors and soak up a bit of nature. Although that isn’t always possible, we can still pretend to be outside with these toy bugs buzzing through some plastic flowers.

Or you can make your own with these wonderfully colorful egg carton insects. It’s a great craft activity that your kids can then play with afterward. Click the link to see them all.

Duck Pond

small world duck pond

This duck pond actually started as a float or sink experiment for my toddler. I originally saw the idea from Happy Hooligans and knew that we’d love it. When we finished experimenting with different items from the garden I noticed that we had inadvertently created the perfect place for our rubber ducks to go swimming.


small world dinosaurs

Have you tried having a dinosaur scavenger hunt in the backyard? Finding a dinosaur on top of the slide, or in the swing produces a lot of excited giggles.