Ocean Small World: Easy Play Dough Activity

This ocean small world is a fun way to introduce your little one to pretend play. With interesting textures, colors, and sensory elements the possibilities for play are endless!

We love love love small world play. I first started doing them when Aaliyah had first turned two. They can be simple like grouping similar animals together on the farm or highly detailed with different materials and figures to create a large scene. We have done many using toys she already has, using felt, water bins, and play dough!

After making our marbled play dough, I knew it would be beautiful as water in a small world. This only took a few minutes to set up and gave us almost two hours of play!

Why Small Worlds?

  • Imagination- Playing with small worlds boosts your little ones pretend play skills. I hear her making new voices for each animal as she develops creative storylines as she plays
  • Independent play- This is a great time to work on independent play. I love spending creative time together, but I also love sitting back and seeing what develops when I step away and let her lead
  • Language- As your little one narrates the story they will develop language and vocabulary skills. Setting up a small world that reflects a true eco system or community is a fun way to introduce new words and concepts.
  • Emotional and problem solving skills- As she plays I hear her work her way through different scenarios. She has the animals work together, help each other, and when they get upset they apologize!
  • Applying New Knowledge- Animals are her new obsession and she has been watching shows like “If I Were an Animal” and “Wild Kratts.” I love hearing her say what she’s learned in the show like “cheetahs are faster than giraffes” or making jokes about how her penguin can’t fly. When I set up a small world I also ask which animals belong here: should a lion be in the snow? Does a elephant go in the ocean? It’s all about learning through play!


  • Marbled play dough
  • Plain play dough or sand
  • Rocks and sea shells
  • Plastic animal figures
  • Sensory tray
  • Glass rocks

Setting Up the Ocean Small World

Usually we use a metal tray when playing with small worlds but ours was covered in paint and I was having a bit of a lazy mom moment. Instead I had this wood tray that I would not recommend for play dough! Wet materials stick too much to the wood to make moving them easy!

I rolled out the marbled play dough into a thin slab and then placed it on the tray. I took a small piece of plain play dough and shaped a small “cove.” Together we placed rocks and shells into the sand to create a nice texture, and lined the edge of the water with the large glass stones. We then went through her animal basket and picked out different animals that fit our ocean small world.

Playing With Our Ocean Small World

To start I placed the tray in front of her and she pointed out what she saw. She touched the textures of the water and the sand, and named each animal that was placed in her ocean small world.

She then started playing, picking up the turtle and asking me to play the penguin and we found shells and swam in the water together. I then stepped back to let her have some independent play time and listened to her story develop.

This was a perfect example of why I love small worlds! She went from saying her penguin had to swim and not fly to her turtle and penguin friends swimming through the ocean and finding shells full of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches! So fun, playful and creative! This ocean small world will definitely be remade again.

Do you ever create small worlds?

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  1. parentsmarternotharder says:

    Hi Lexi!

    This is a great post! My daughter would LOVE this idea so now I need to go shopping and get something to contain it all.

    My daughter is nearly two and I’m running out of ideas to keep her happy inside now that we’re facing winter. Being able to set her up for play pretend might be just the trick to keep her engaged and happy.

    I’m off to check out your other posts for some more great ideas!

  2. I’ve never heard of small world before, but I love it! I want to try this with my littles. I especially love how pretty your “water” is.

  3. I’ve never heard the term “small world” but I love it. It’s such a fun way to encourage creative play with young kids. Thank you for the inspiration.

  4. This is so cool! My kids used to use plastic animals to play with when they had play dough out. I’m sure they would love this concept. There is so much kids can get out of this activity!

  5. Excellent idea to keep my little one entertained. Thanks for the thoughtful tips!

  6. The Cinnamon Mom says:

    This is so pretty and I love the idea of including different objects and toys during play dough time!

  7. My 2 year old loves play dough. Had never really thought of bringing other toys in to the mix. Thanks for the idea!

  8. This is adorable! Love the idea!

  9. Love this. Such a cool idea that looks like so much fun <3

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