Woodland Forest Small World Play (Math and Literacy embedded in Play)

Our youngest learners have spent many hours playing with this woodland forest small world play sensory tray. What’s more than natural materials and loose parts for open-ended play lies an opportunity to think more deeply about literacy and numeracy.

Naturally, adults would see this provocation as an invitation for children to share stories with lots of oral language opportunities. However, what we have appreciated about this playful provocation is that it engages our youngest learners in thinking about numeracy as well.


I’m a big advocate of subitizing in the early years. Doug Clements explains subitizing as instantly seeing how many. Subitizing allows us to see numbers as sets. Children need to be able to subitize before they can add and subtract, otherwise they remain counting all. Often our team will put dots on natural materials so that children will begin to think about subitizing and seeing numbers as sets. Some of the math children were working on was ordering the dot mushrooms and rocks, skip counting, and doubles. Some children incorporated numbers into their stories simply because the materials in front of them. So far children have been independently counting all with this provocation. However, when prompted by an educator, children have been challenged to count on(while adding). Have you thought about including subitizing dots in your small world and sensory play?

Children Adding their own Tools

Some of the children added measuring cups and spoons for tools. We allow children to self-select their tools for play. The exciting addition of measurement tools created a chance for them to initiate constructing their learning on measurement (i.e. more/less, full, same). We added some tree blocks to entice our “engineers”(who enjoy building) in fictional play.


What’s in the tray? Gnome home (made out of a hot chocolate can), tree blocks, rocks, dots mushrooms, plastic woodland animals, trees (for Christmas scenes), dime size wood coins, tree(artificial plant stuck in a wood cookie), pines cones, and moong beans for our base.  We found these fun beans at the grocery store called, “moong beans”. The children described them as, “cold”, “little”, “soft” and “smooth”. They loved raking their fingers through the soft beans.

For more information on subitizing:

Doug Clements: http://gse.buffalo.edu/fas/clements/files/subitizing.pdf

Christina Tondevold: http://www.therecoveringtraditionalist.com/subitizing/


4 thoughts on “Woodland Forest Small World Play (Math and Literacy embedded in Play)

  1. I work with 4 year olds in a Reggio inspired school. We have a small worlds area but I feel like it isn’t getting used very intentionally. Mostly the same 3-4 girls playing “horsey family” do you have any resources you’ve used for guidance on setting yours up and encouraging kids to use it with intention? Thanks!


    1. Hi Laura,

      Sounds exciting! To me it depends on intention of the learning. What is it the children are curious about with regards to horse play? Depending on that answer we would set up materials to support that learning(e.g., math manipulative if interested in ordering horses in line). These small world stories are such an exciting way to encourage oral language. If these children are engaged by story telling then perhaps reading horse stories to and with them and encouraging some aspect of story-telling. We use a dial that has an arrow that moves back and forth to support retelling with beginning, middle, to end. These stories can sometimes encourage writing and drawing pictures. Folding paper in thirds to make a beginning, middle, and end might inspire structure for their retells. Placing writing materials right beside their play with familiar words for a word wall might beckon some literacy skills to develop orally or written. Moving the horses to another location like building blocks, light play, or sensory might draw out new opportunities for learning. We have been really excited about “Story Workshops” which we learned about on youtube from the Museum Centre for Learning in Portland, Oregon. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TTrPauOO4zA&list=PLJVtbFRTqqS-JGHIMRo3RB7v0jQNtUB72 Hope these ideas help.



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