Play is so very important to a child’s development for a wide range of reasons, but when we say play is important what does that really mean? For example, we use the word “play” as a very general term, but there is actually a variety of different types of play. Today, I want to focus on the benefits of open-ended play specifically.
So what is open-ended play and why is it is important? Well, that is what I want to dive into today. I will talk about what exactly open-ended play is, why it is so essential for your child, and give you so great open-ended play and toy ideas.
So, What is Open-Ended Play?
Open-ended play is any type of play in which children can express themselves freely and participate without restriction or limitation. An open-ended toy for example would have no limits on how it can be used. There are no rules, no guidelines, and no wrong way to play! Also, the child would be able to use an open-ended toy in a wide variety of different ways, rather than just one specific way!
When thinking of open-ended toys what comes to mind? Some great examples are blocks, animal figures, magnetic tiles, and dramatic play toys.
Now, when thinking about non-open-ended toys we may think of things like puzzles or colouring books. Basically, any toy that has an end-result or can be considered complete. These toys are not unimportant, they are actually great for learning focus and other skills, but they will simply provide less opportunity to play as they typically have only one way to be played with.
When we are looking for toys that grow with our child and give us the best return on investment, open-ended toys are absolutely the best option.
What are the benefits of Open-Ended Play?
There are honestly so many amazing benefits to open-ended play, but let me dive more specifically into a few:
Open-Ended Play Fosters Creativity and Imagination
Because there is no particular way to play with open-ended toys or no rules or guidelines in open-ended play, the child needs to use their imagination and creativity to think up ways to play. The child has the freedom to play in whichever way they want and can make their own decisions for how they would like to play and interact with their environment.
For example, one child may take rainbow blocks and stack them into a high tower, but another child may sort the blocks into colours, or line them up in a line. One child may see an old cardboard box and pretend it is a house, but another child may see the same box and pretend it is a spaceship or a boat.
Open-Ended Play Can Aid in Early Childhood Development
A child’s ability to make decisions and solve problems on their own is a skill that takes time to develop. But, you may be surprised to learn that open-ended play can actually help in fostering those necessary intellectual abilities in children. If you think about it, open-ended play is really all about decision-making and problem-solving. A child will look at an open-ended toy or environment and decide how they want to interact with it. Learning and practicing those skills through open-ended play will help to create a future where your child will grow up to become a strong and independent individual.
Open-ended play encourages “out of the box” thinking
As mentioned, there are no real guidelines or rules in open-ended play. There is no wrong way to play! This actually helps children feel are less concerned about doing something “right” or achieving a goal, and allows them to be more creative and imaginative.
A great example is a colouring sheet vs. a blank piece of paper. A colouring sheet is very goal-oriented and there would technically be a final product. The child would be done when the colouring sheet was complete. The child is also expected to colour within the lines, and sometimes even colour or use certain colours. Now, think of a child with a blank page. There are no rules, no goals, just open-ended fun. They can create whatever they please with their paper. They can use any colour, and the final product is completely up to them!
When we make an activity more open-ended, the child will become less afraid to make mistakes. Open-ended play can help to foster curiosity, as well as an overall positive attitude towards learning and thinking outside of the box.
Open-ended toys will be played with more and can grow with your child
Lastly, when we create an open-ended environment for our children and focus on buying more open-ended toys, we are really getting the best return on investment. I learned the hard way that the flashy, battery-operated toys are typically the ones that get played with for 2 days and then never touched again. Actually the simpler the toy, the more it seems to be used.
As a first-time mom, I bought all the flashy, musical toys that had lots of buttons and things to do. Yet, my baby typically played with a wooden spoon or some other random household object that she found on the floor.
As she grew into a toddler not much changed, we learned quickly the toys worth investing in were open-ended. Of course, we still buy puzzles and books, but if I am going to splurge on a larger, more expensive item I ask myself 2 things: Can it be played within more than one way and will it grow with my child?
I am not saying you can never buy the toys that don’t get a yes to those questions, I have just been trying to be more intentional on what toys we bring into our playroom now. Both for my child and for the sake of my bank account!
I am definitely not saying that every toy in your playroom has to be open-ended. I have just seen firsthand how increasing the number of open-ended toys in our play space has positively impacted the amount of time my toddler has spent in that play space. I would say we are currently about 70% open-ended 30% not, which has worked well for us!
Okay, so now that we know what open-ended play is and why it is important, let me share some of our favourite open-ended toys with you!
A personal favourite in our house! My daughter has loved blocks from very early on. The first block set that we purchased was just a bag of the large Mega-Blocks. We purchased them when she was 1.5 and at almost 4 she still plays with them regularly. We also added some Wooden Blocks into the mix which are played with multiple times a week as well. Wooden blocks can be used in all sorts of ways. My daughter builds towers with them but also uses them to make fences for her animals, bridges in her small world play, etc.
Similar to blocks in a way, but also so different! If people ask me for a great toy recommendation, Magnetic Tiles is always my answer. We play with and use our Magnetic tiles in SO many different ways. They are also a ton of fun. When my child is looking for that quality 1-on-1 time, I always recommend Magnetic tiles because I love playing with them too! We have built with them (of course), but we also use them regularly in our learning activities. We have taken them outside and played with them on our garage door. We have used them in the small world play. We have truly used them in so many different ways! They are definitely one of those bigger purchases that are well worth the investment!
Animal figures are another great open-ended toy. Not only will they be played with for years, but they can be played with however your child wants to play with them. My daughter has used her animals in the typical pretend play way settings, but she has also loved lining them up, sorting them, matching the “moms and babies”, and using them in many other varieties of play. I love watching her play with her animal figures because I can just see her imagination coming to life as she creates scenarios and conversations with them.
Playdough is also very open-ended and encourages creativity and imagination. I love to set out a play dough tray with homemade play dough and different materials and then let my toddler go to town! She always plays with the tray in a variety of ways and I can just see her little imagination going.
If you want some playdough tray ideas you can check out this post: 7 Inviting Play Dough Trays to Try With Your Child
We also love to make our own homemade playdough as I just find it much softer and better to play with. It is so easy to make at home, and if stored properly, can last for weeks. You can find our super easy homemade recipe here: The Easiest Way to Make Home Made Play Dough
Some of the best open-ended play comes from everyday materials you probably already have at home. Cardboard, paper, paint, markers, pom poms, craft supplies, etc. Giving your child some paper and some paint and letting them do their thing is the perfect open-ended activity. There are no guidelines, they can just paint and create however they desire!
If you are looking for other great open-ended toys, you can find all of our favourites in this post: The Ultimate List of Open-Ended Toys for Toddlers
So there you have it! Now you know a little bit about open-ended play, why it is beneficial, and a few toys that are great for encouraging it!
Remember, while open-ended play is great, that doesn’t mean there are not other great toys that don’t fit into the definition of “open-ended”. It also doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do learning activities that have an “end” or a “goal”. Many of the learning activities we post about on our Instagram do involve an end goal, such as number matching or colour matching activities.
In the end, it is truly about balance and what works best for your child. Having a balance of both open-ended play opportunities and “free play” with a mix of some structured play or planned activities is what currently works great for us in our home! I think it is simply important to provide the opportunities for our children, and then let them do the rest! Follow their lead, and use the things that they love and gravitate towards as a guide. Having open-ended toys provides those opportunities for creativity and imagination to flourish, and it also allows your child to decide what interests them and choose how they want to play.