I absolutely adore small world play. There is something magically inviting about small worlds. Children can’t resist exploring small worlds anymore than they can resist a pushing over a block tower. Today we invite you to join us as we make a small world zoo with everyday items.
I love how you can easily create a small world anywhere, with just about anything. And today, my little girl (Noa, who’s 4,5 years old) and I decided to set up a small world zoo using our little animals and figurines and whatever we can find around the house.
I hope our story will get you excited about small worlds and give you some ideas for how to incorporate everyday items into your children’s play.
A Quick Word About The Importance of Small World Play
There is so much more to ‘playing zoo’ then you’d think. Through small world play we can relive our zoo adventures over and over again and learn about animals and everyday life at the zoo in so many ways.
We can pretend to own our own zoo and figure out what zoo keepers do all day, how they take care of the animals and deal with all kinds of ‘incidents’. There are lots of opportunities to count and name and learn about animal sounds and behaviour. And we haven’t even talked about the sensory exploration of all the materials we are about to use.
The possibilities are endless!
Building our Small World Zoo
Here’s how Noa and I built our zoo adding one layer at a time:
Clear the area for a small world zoo
We started by clearing our table and covering it with drawing paper so we could start with a ‘clear canvas’. We did this because our dinner table cover has a rather ‘loud’ motif and the wood itself I thought was too dark to be a neutral background.
Gather zoo animals
Then we gathered all of our animals and figurines and started placing the animals on the table, thinking about where they were going to live in the zoo.
Make and add trees
We also added trees, made from toilet paper rolls, cardboard and old magazines. Simply cut a piece of cardboard in treetop shape and glue green magazin cutouts over it. Another option would be to paint treetops in shades of green. Slit paper roll and insert the treetop to form a tree.
Make animal habitats
Once we had a bit of an idea of who was going to go where, we started talking about the things the animals would need in their enclosures. The hippo was going to need some water, the meerkats needed sand and the deer would probably like some grass.
Use what you have for small world zoo
We looked all over the house for items that would serve to become the temporary homes of our new zoo animals. Our craft cupboard turned out to be a great source of supplies: we found felt, old wrapping paper, magazines, tissue paper, cardboard, fabric scraps and craft paper.
In the kitchen, we found a glass bowl that seemed perfect for our octopus’ aquarium and a plastic cup that would keep the people safe from the poisonous snake. We even used one of my old T-shirts as a paddock for the lion.
Using different materials for each enclosure seemed to give the impression that they were naturally separated from each other. But there were valid concerns from Noa about the safety of the visitors. In short: we needed fences.
Make fences for animal enclosures
I came up with the simplest idea I could. I cut up pieces of cardboard and slid them in place as you can see on the image below.
A quick note here to warn you to not make the incisions bigger than then thickness of the cardboard you’re using or they’ll keep falling over. You want them sitting snug as a bug. I did learn that the hard way!
Once all the fences were in place we started adding natural materials to the enclosures to make the animals feel more at home.
Add details to small world zoo design
We added leaves everywhere and stuck them in the trees for the koalas and giraffes. We added rocks near the water and in the meerkat enclosure. Branches and wood slices made sure the animals had something to play with, shiny glass pebbles made the water sparkle and little caps from jars and bottles served as food and drink containers.
Add zoo visitors
Then the people were allowed to come in and we spent some time creating an entry and information stand. We even added a few wooden blocks as benches and made a little bin and a sign post. Noa made sure all the animals had some food too. We wouldn’t want them eating any people!
It took us a while to set everything up and things kept being moved around quite a bit by Noa who wanted to try out a few things.
Make Zoo entrance
Noa and I split up jobs a couple of times. While I was making the fences and taping the information stand together, she made the entrance by herself, found the right blocks for the benches and cut up the tissue paper to go into the aquarium.
Time to play in the zoo!
Noa had a great time playing with ‘her’ zoo. I noticed how she let all the animals visit each other because they were all friends.
Throughout the day some children lost their parents, but they all found each other again (phew!).
You can use a real leaves, grass and branches. Child will enjoy moving them around from one enclosure to another.
It doesn’t matter if the animal or people figurines come from different playsets. Variety is welcome in this small world zoo!
Different fabrics will add a texture and add to imaginative play. With so many different elements, child will have fun for a long time.
Learning opportunities with small world zoo are abundant! From learning about different animals and their habitats, to practicing language and social interactions through pretend play dialogues among people.
During play, some of the animals got very hungry which gave a few people big frights. But the lady in the information ‘house’ seemed to have everything under control and worked hard making sure everybody had a nice visit and the animals were happy and stayed friendly.
Less is Definitely More
I am a big believer in the ‘less toys, more play’ – approach. I feel that if we practice looking at everyday random items with curiosity and wonder and allow our children to explore and use them in their play, we’ll be providing them with richer learning opportunities and set them up for growing into confident, independent and resilient children.
I’m hoping that our little zoo will inspire you in some small way to look at play from a different angle and even give it a go at home yourself.
Hello! I’m Ann. I’m an occupational therapist, mother of two little ones and creative play enthusiast. I mostly run around in circles all day, trying to keep up with my family. In my ‘spare’ time I blog and design/create toys. I’m also Belgian, and yes, I eat chocolate every day! You’re welcome to visit the Little Worlds and say hi!
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