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Monday, June 22, 2020

Zoo Cutlery Tray Small World

Do your kids love imaginary play? Looking for new small world play ideas? The great news is you don't need expensive toys to create the perfect small world, I'll show you how to create an epic zoo small world with a cutlery tray, some animal figurines and sensory bases. Keep reading for step by step instructions to recreate this zoo for your kids at home or in the classroom.
zoo small world invitation to play in a cutlery tray


I have this odd habit where I'm always looking at household objects and thinking about how I could repurpose them for play. I can find play items in all different places like kitchen shops, op shops, hardware stores like Bunnings, dollar stores and garden, stationary or homeware sections of department stores like Ikea. Play items are everywhere, you just have to think outside of the box, which is how cutlery trays became my second favourite type of play tray {besides my beloved kmart play tray}.

Cutlery trays are perfect for small worlds because each compartment is a ready made predefined space for different animal enclosures or areas within the play scene. Cutlery trays are quite inexpensive and come in various colours, sizes and materials like plastic and bamboo. We've used them for zoos, aquariums, farms and construction sites. They're also great for loose parts play. I even started a hashtag on Instagram #cutlerytrayplay which you can search for inspiration.

zoo cutlery tray small world from above

We've done quite a few cutlery tray play set ups in the last few years, including this dig, dump, roll bookish play tray, however this zoo small world is probably the most epic cutlery tray play to date. I set this one up when my big girl was 4yrs old and small world play was her favourite type of imaginary play. This was also the first time I mixed wet and dry sensory bases together in a small world. Previously I'd been too scared to because we re-use our dry sensory bases and I didn't want anything wet getting mixed in and destroying them. She's pretty good with keeping everything within each individual section in cutlery trays though so I decided to risk it and she loved it.


  • Cutlery tray
  • Zoo animal figurines
  • Sensory bases {chickpeas, couscous, rice etc}
  • Food colouring & water {optional}
  • Mossy rocks
  • River rocks

I knew I wanted to make this an epic zoo small world using as many animals as possible so I used our bigger Ikea STÖDJA cutlery tray because it has more sections so I could make more enclosures. You can use any type of cutlery tray, however if you're including any water sections I would stick to a plastic one and avoid bamboo or wood. I added in a small wooden chopping board, mossy rocks, river rocks and part of our Grimms stacking house to build up texture in the enclosures.

I then looked through our huge collection of animal figurines and chose a selection of animals that would be found at a zoo. All of the animals I used for our small world are CollectA, however we also have a few Schleich animals and both brands have heaps of zoo animals. For the sensory bases I chose chickpeas, couscous, sensory rice {which I dyed green} and chocolate powder which can all be found at your local supermarket. I also dyed some water with food colouring for the wet enclosures.


When setting up a cutlery tray small world the first thing I do is decide which enclosure is going to go where, usually based on the size/number of animals I'm going to put in it, or the amount of each sensory base I have. Usually I only ever do dry or wet sensory bases in a small world, but because I combined them in this one I made sure the water sections were close to each other so it was less likely the water would be mixed into the other dry bases. I also dyed the water different colours so the hippo enclosure would look more like a river and the crocodile area would resemble a swamp.

zoo small world lion and tiger enclosure

I'm a huge fan of using dry food as sensory bases {usually stuff that's expired at the back of the pantry} because it can be kept in ziplock bags for years and it doesn't matter if a mouthing child accidentally taste tests it. I don't encourage the kids to eat our play bases, however I'd prefer they have taste safe ones because I know children initially explore the world with their mouth. For our zoo cutlery tray play I chose couscous for the big cats enclosure as it resembled desert type dirt that would be found in Africa, chocolate powder as dirt for the rhino enclosure, green dyed rice for grass in the zebra/giraffe enclosure and chickpeas for the panda area. Other great food sensory base options are black beans, cannellini beans, lentils, split peas, pearl barley or tapioca seeds. Non edible sensory bases like playdough, rocks, dirt, astroturf offcuts, sand or sticks would also be great for a zoo small world tray.

zoo animal figurines in a small world tray

We're lucky enough to have quite a large animal figurine collection so it was easy to find quite a lot of zoo animals for our small world. We also have a few of the baby animals so I could put together an entire panda family, lion family and mother and baby rhino. We also have other animals we could have included like turtles, elephants, kangaroos, lizards and birds if we had more space.

Without a doubt my 4yr old's favourite animal from this small world was the nile crocodile because it's mouth opens and closes. Previously meerkats were her hands down favourite animal, which is why I added one into the zoo despite not having another enclosure for it. During this play session however, there was an unfortunate incident involving the meerkat and the crocodile {apparently the meerkat is the perfect size for the crocodile's mouth}. Luckily when animal figurines get eaten they're still fine and live on to play another day.

child playing with crocodile and other animal figurines

nile crocodile in a zoo small world

My daughter loved this small world tray and happily played with it for about an hour initially and then came back to it on and off throughout the day. Because it's set up in a cutlery tray it's easy to leave out on a table and move around into another room when needed if you don't want to pack it up straight away. Also, some of the water did get into the chocolate powder which was fine because I couldn't reuse that anyway {the chickpeas, rice and couscous were saved}.


  • Animal names, sounds, habitats
  • Language development
  • Imaginative play


Disclosure - This post contains some affiliate links for your convenience which means I may earn a small commission, at no cost to you, should you make a purchase.

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