The Magic of Small

If you’ve ever tried to hike with a preschooler, you know how quickly objectives can diverge. The child wants to stop and observe every interesting rock or twig along the path—sometimes every blade of grass! The time-conscious adult, on the other hand, has a destination in mind—one that won’t be reached until next Thursday at the current speed.

As a young mother, I was all too often the impatient adult in the above scenario. I like to think I’m a little wiser now that I’m a grandmother, holding my expectations loosely, slowing to match the start and stop pace of the significantly smaller humans in my company. After all, there are rich discoveries to be made at this level of observation: tiny pink wildflowers, lichen with the texture of dragon skin, industrious ants going about their business—treasures I would have overlooked in my haste to get to a particular viewpoint. It turns out engrossed grandchildren are the ultimate Zen teachers: the journey really is the destination.

Given their acute eyesight and the fact that their line of vision is so close to the ground, it’s not surprising that young children are fascinated by small things like insects and leaves. In fact, collecting information about the world and how it works is one of a preschooler’s primary jobs, so it only makes sense that they would be riveted by the intricate textures and minute details that most adults overlook or have come to take for granted. Small objects and creatures are the perfect subjects for study. Their miniature size makes them accessible, allowing them to be cupped in small hands, or observed at close range from a crouch.

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If you’ve spent any time in a preschooler’s company, you’ll know that it’s not just small objects from the natural world that keep them enthralled. Preschoolers are drawn to miniatures of all kinds—and that comes with many benefits according to social scientists who study and work with children. As small humans in a big world, playing with tiny animals, people, furniture, etc. gives young children a sense of control and agency. It allows them a safe place to express emotion and to act out through play what they’re learning and observing around them. Beyond the emotional and creative benefits, miniature play also builds finger dexterity and fine motor skills.

Of course you don’t need manufactured toys to get the benefit of miniature play. According to my kindergarten-teacher daughter, “loose parts” are highly valued in early childhood education these days. Loose parts refer to small found or collected objects like stones, buttons or seashells that can be used alone, in collection or combined with other materials in endless creative ways. Via a child’s imagination, an individual stone can become an animal or a person, while an acorn may be used as an ingredient in a tasty make-believe soup. In the same child’s hands, a collection of sticks and leaves can be transformed into an entire miniature village. In many ways small natural objects are the perfect toys, costing nothing, easily replaceable, while encouraging high-level creativity, innovation and collaboration.

One recent weekend morning, my two four-year-old granddaughters and I slipped on our boots and went outside to engage in some miniature play: on this occasion, to make a tiny fairy garden. I wasn’t sure what we’d find when we started looking, but it didn’t take long to see that we were surrounded by a wealth of suitable materials. Cheerful yellow buttercups. Hot pink salmonberry blossoms. Tiny snail shells. Bright green fir and cedar tips. Uncurling ferns, waxy salal leaves and grasses gone to seed.

Time fell away as we made new discoveries and positioned each treasure “just so” on the stone step that held our tiny garden. Before setting them in their proper place, we carefully examined each new addition. The closer we looked, the more wondrous detail we found. I was impressed by my granddaughters’ focus as we compared grass seedheads, contemplated the geometry of fiddleheads and marvelled at the complexity of wildflowers. I would happily have spent half the day helping them make additions to our little tableau, but our playtime was interrupted by the call to breakfast.

The fairy garden wasn’t my first foray into miniature play with my grandchildren, and it certainly won’t be my last. Each tiny seascape at the beach, each mini stone village on a riverbank or twig house in the roots of a tree, is a new creative adventure. And truth be told, I think I have as much fun as they do!

Rachel Dunstan Muller
Rachel Dunstan Muller
Rachel Dunstan Muller is the mother of five, and a children’s author. Her previous articles can be found at