Small children are preoccupied with size. You're familiar with the chorus: "Why am I small? When will I be tall? I'm not a little girl, I'm a big girl!" and so on. And who can blame them? Preschoolers live in a world that is simply too big for them. They can't reach the sink, the dinner table is up to their chins, and most stair steps come up to their knees. (One of the many charms of a preschool is that all the tables, chairs and sinks are child-size.)
As the littlest kids around, preschoolers are naturally fascinated with anything smaller than they are. Dollhouses and diminutive worlds of all kinds remain as popular with young children, and as significant for their development, as ever. Manipulating miniature beings and environments allows small kids to become aware of their own creative powers. To be the all-powerful giant in a world of tiny creatures is intoxicating; so too is seeing the world from the opposite angle, through the eyes of small creatures.
In her poem Playgrounds, Laurence Alma-Tadema, put it like this:
In summer I am very glad
We children are so small,
For we can see a thousand things
That men can't see at all.
To see the world through a child's eyes, and to guess at how they think we must see them, is part of a parent's work. And as we read with our kids and listen in on their play, we may even be lucky enough to see a few of the "thousand things" that grown-ups so often miss. The book and toy suggestions below all help children develop and share the imaginative perspective that comes with being smaller and newer than anyone else.
Thumbelina by Sylvia Long
The accomplished and popular illustrator Sylvia Long (we love her Mother Goose) has given us a new version of Thumbelina to captivate a new generation. It's tricky enough to be a child in this world, but a thumb-size one? At the mercy of toads and moles and other creatures, Thumblina gives young readers a whole new perspective on what it means to be small. Long's fine-grained illustrations give a visceral appreciation for what it might be like to see the natural world from so close a vantage point. And children who love this story will no doubt also appreciate its counterpoint, the marvelous adventures of Tom Thumb, also beautifully illustrated by Richard Jesse Watson.
Mary and the Mouse by Beverly Donofrio, illustrated by Barbara McClintock
A mesmerizing tale about a lifelong, intergenerational friendship between a girl and a mouse who live under the same roof. "Mary lived in a big house with a very little mouse. The Mouse lived in a little house inside a very big house, with Mary." The girl and mouse's parallel lives and relationship develop from there in a very sweet fashion. But what we love best about this book are the illustrations. Barbara McClintock creates stunningly detailed domestic interiors for both the human and mouse families. Kids can't get enough of the interior décor of the cozy little mouse home: an egg carton as sofa, spools as chairs, bottle caps and stamps as wall hangings. And parents are quite taken with the gorgeous renderings of Mary's house. It's a visual treat and a lovely homage to the delights of home.
The Enchanted Dolls' House by Robyn Johnson
For older preschoolers who can't get enough of dollhouses, but parents don't want another dollhouse cluttering up the kids' room, consider this: multiple dollhouses between the two covers of a book! A group of dolls inhabit a series of magnificent pop-up, period houses, full of intricate furnishings, secret letters, hidden pictures, and surprises on every new page. More than simply a visual and tactile feast, a lovely narrative of adventures, parties, intrigue and romance.
Toy makers well know young children's penchant for miniature worlds of all kinds, and there are many, many to choose from. Here are a few of our favorites:
For anyone seeking to avoid anymore plastic among their children's toys, Plan Toys offers an excellent assortment of wooden dollhouses and accessories. The houses have a simplified, contemporary look, and open walls allow access from all sides for easy shared play.
The Calico Critters collection of dollhouses, play scenes, and adorable critter families offer a fully realized imaginative world. These bunnies, mice, cats and other creatures lack for nothing, from books on the shelves, to showers in the bathroom, right down to mushrooms and lemons in the refrigerator crisper. There are few other toys we know that score higher on the "simply adorable" scale. And so nice are these houses and their furnishings that all the other dolls in the playroom will be clamoring to move in!
For children who are eager to roam, imaginatively, beyond the domestic sphere, Playmobil offers a truly amazing range of scenarios. From circus tents to fully outfitted pirate ships, from research submarines to animal clinics, the props for virtually any setting a child can dream up are here.