Recently I’ve seen the phrase “small world play” pop up in social media to describe children’s play with little plastic people and tiny animal figures. I’ve noticed that when “small world play” is used on Pinterest, Instagram or Facebook most frequently it refers to an environment adults have prepared to inspire children’s play – a tray of sand becomes a desert for toy camels, a dish of blue-tinted water is used as a miniature ocean for toy sharks, a pan of dry couscous serves as a grainy barnyard for little toy chickens and pigs. Most young children probably really enjoy playing with these little dioramas, especially the sensory experience of digging, patting and stirring the loose materials.
What makes me uneasy about the popularity of “small world play” is how carefully the adults have prepared and photographed these tiny landscapes, at least those that appear most prominently in social media. Many of these “small worlds” are very elaborate creations with miniature features handcrafted by adults from paper, wood, clay and fabric. Some of the images are so expertly lit and photographed, the beautiful and intricate scenes so carefully curated, that it’s hard to imagine a real child actually touching any of these lovely landscapes. If children were allowed to play freely with these materials they would more likely make a beautiful mess than a recognizable “small world.”
The good news here is that clearly so many adults still enjoy playing with toys. These beautifully crafted small world landscapes were made by some very creative, clever and playful adults. People of all ages need opportunities to play. Human development is not a linear path we travel in one direction, leaving behind our desire to play when we step over a finish line into adulthood. Human development is more like a cake; we just add more and more layers on top of those first sweet layers of childhood. The joy of play is still alive for many adults.
But most children, I believe, would rather have their parents play with them, side by side, than wait for their parents to finish prepping the perfect “small world.” Maybe some energetic parents can do both the prepping and the playing. But if time is short, and you can only do one or the other, my advice is this: Just play.