I enjoy creating opportunities for small world play – especially outside where I try to incorporate them into the natural surroundings for children to investigate, explore and use in a way that makes sense to them.
Often small worlds are created in tubs and on trays but this doesn’t always work as well in an outdoor environment – it can be easy to lose small pieces and I also prefer that the children are able to freely explore and use some of the natural treasures and materials found in their outdoor play spaces.
I enjoy gardening with children and creating inviting and engaging spaces that they can use to explore with their senses. The garden (small or large) makes a perfect backdrop for small world play with the addition of a few simple toys or materials that are of interest to children at that time. Sometimes it’s nice to be able to move the small world around though as this can invite play in different ways for different children.
Next time you are creating a small world invitation to play outside why not consider making it ‘mobile’? I used two old wheelbarrows and the children helped me to create some special sensory spaces for fairies and other favourites currently in use.
You might give them a theme – (we gave ours a little Christmas colour twist due to the time of the year) or just let the children help you decide what to include. Above all keep it simple and try to keep the plants and nature as the focus rather than overwhelming with lots of small toys and figures.
Let’s explore how to make your own!
How to make a wheelbarrow small world.
What you need.
- An old wheelbarrow that is no longer being used (check your recycle yards, garage sales, markets,the tip or in the backyard shed!)
- Some flower seedlings
- Fragrant herb seedlings
- Coloured pebbles
- Some small gravel for paths (we used red and green for our Christmas theme but use whatever works for you – it just needs to stand out a little from the soil)
- Good quality Potting mix
- Water crystals (optional)
- Small figures/dolls/fairies/cars etc
- Recycled containers/old pots turned upside down to create houses or you might like to use some little birdhouses like I did. Get creative with what you have.
What to do now.
Fill the wheelbarrow with potting mix. You can drill a few holes for drainage if you want in the bottom but ours had a lot of rusted out holes so we just used those! The children also helped add some sand and dirt to aid with drainage.
Because the wheelbarrow is a relatively shallow depth for plants to grow you might like to mix some water crystals through the potting mixture at this stage to help keep the plants from drying out too quickly and needing watering everyday.
Children love to help with this task and you can take the opportunity to show them how they swell up and absorb liquid by placing them in a jug of water.
Now decide on a loose design for your wheelbarrow small world. We had two to work with so we made each slightly different.
One has lots of lovely Spring flowers planted in it with a little house (just a birdhouse from Bunnings…I use it everywhere!) with a bit of a Christmas theme. I just love the red pebbles don’t you?!
As the flowers grow a little taller there will be more hiding spaces for little hands to play with magical friends……
Use your small pebbles and gravel to create little paths and river beds – adding the larger green pebbles allows the children to move them about and create their own paths and obstacles.
Our other old wheelbarrow now houses a sensory fairy garden with lots of beautifully fragrant herbs.
There is a very special red path to follow and little friends hiding along the way and as little hands play and brush against the herbs it invites conversation and wonder into the day.
Both styles invite the senses and imagination to play and they also provide an opportunity to help children learn how to look after living things and nurture growth.
Make sure to include spaces they can hide little dolls, cars and other favourites and step back to allow them to engage in role play and explore possibilities using their imagination.
Wheel your mobile small worlds around to different areas of the yard so that they might incorporate other natural materials like sand, twigs and stones into their play. Model how to care for the garden and the plants that live there to keep the small world a special place.
Learning Possibilities with a Mobile Small World
- Discuss the growth of the plants over time – what do they need to grow? How can we look after them?
- Pick and use the herbs in cooking and mud kitchen creations
- Identify the herbs by leaf shape and the smell
- Make new paths using materials found in the outdoor play area
- Explore ways to save water and then use to help the fairy garden to grow
- Count the flowers, group into colours, sort by leaf size etc
- Add other small loose parts to change and extend the play
- Opportunities to explore role play and the world around them
- Provides a calm space for those children that might be seeking a sensory respite or some quiet space on their own.
I have had small world gardens like these placed near my home daycare front entrance in the past so that those children who are a little anxious or upset as they enter care have an opportunity to first enter the world of imagination and safe spaces instead! This also works well for larger childcare centres and can be a comforting space to help distract upset children as they wave goodbye to parents.
The best part of a wheelbarrow small world garden is that you can move it to wherever you want to and if the plants need a break from little hands for a while then you can place it somewhere safe to recover a little.
What would you add to a sensory small world outdoors?