I recently wrote a blog post about the benefits of open-ended play, and I wanted to expand the conversation into two more posts. The first is this one which will be an open-ended toy “checklist”. Basically, some tips and pointers to look for when looking for open-ended toys. The second post will be a list of our absolute favourite open-ended toys.
This post will help you define exactly what an open-ended toy is and what to look for when you are buying them. If you read my first post, you will know all about the benefits that open-ended play and open-ended toys can have for your child. If you missed that post, you can find it here: The Benefits of Open-Ended Play for Toddlers.
To quickly summarize, open-ended play provides the opportunity for a child to play as they please. There are no goals or guidelines, they can take a toy and play with it however they wish. This type of play encourages creativity, decision making, imagination, etc.
So my goal in this post is to give you a little check-list that will help you determine if a toy you are buying is open-ended or not. It is a short, easy-to-remember checklist, don’t worry! It is actually only made up of 4 major questions, which I am about to dive into below!
QUESTION 1: Can it be played with in a variety of different ways?
An open-ended toy can always be played with in a variety of different ways! They have no real rules or guidelines for how they can be played with, and a child can use the toy in whichever way they choose. Things such as colouring books or puzzles typically have a defining end goal or certain expectations for how they are played with, but a basket of blocks can be played with in a variety of ways and may be interacted with differently depending on the child.
Example: Magnetic tiles. A child can use them to build a giant tower, small houses, roads, etc. They can also use them on a garage door, on a fridge, in a variety of learning activities, and so much more.
QUESTION 2: Is the play controlled by the child VS. controlled by the toy?
This is a great way to decide if a toy is open-ended VS. close-ended. A toy that is completely controlled by the child, such as a toy animal, a doll, blocks, etc. is typically more open-ended. A toy that has guidelines or a definition of completion, such as picture-to-word matching cards, puzzles, or games with instructions would be more close-ended, and the play is controlled by the guidelines of the toy rather than by the imagination of the child.
Example: A child has a doll-house and dolls. The play is completely controlled by the child and their imagination and is considered open-ended. The play will end when the child gets tired of playing.
Another child has the game UNO. The play is dictated by the rules of the game and ultimately ends when a player wins.
QUESTION 3: Does the toy stimulate imagination and creativity?
Open-ended toys bring about creativity and imaginative thinking. When given a box of blocks, a child needs to use their imagination and creative thinking to decide how they want to engage with them. Will they build a tower? Will they line them in a line? Will they use them as beds for their dolls? The options are endless and completely up to the child’s imagination!
Example: A great example is a colouring book VS. a blank piece of paper. With a colouring book, the picture is already presented and the child just has to colour in the lines. Sure, there is some creativity involved, but not near as much as a child with a blank canvas. With a blank sheet of paper, the sky is the limit. Will they draw lines or shapes, a picture of a dog, a beautiful garden? Will, they cut the paper? Will they glue objects onto the paper? Will they fold it up and make an airplane?
QUESTION 4: Will the toy grow with the child?
One of the biggest reasons I love open-ended toys is that they typically grow with your child. Many open-ended toys will be played with for years because they can be played with in a variety of ways. A child at the age of 2 may interact with a tiger figurine in a different way than a 5-year-old would engage and interact with it.
A great example is a play kitchen. We bought our play kitchen when my daughter was 18 months old. Initially, she enjoyed opening and closing the cupboards, putting the play food in and taking it out. She liked pressing the buttons and sometimes pretended to cook on the stove, etc.
Now at almost 4, she interacts with her kitchen by pretending to be a mommy making food for her baby. She pretends to be the chef of a restaurant. She cooks, washes dishes, makes coffee, or whatever her imagination comes up with that day.
So when I am buying toys I often ask will my child get more than a few months out of this toy? Is it a “fad” they will quickly grow out of?
Of course, there are certain times where the answer will be no. My child loves Paw Patrol. Will she grow out of this phase? Yes. Will I still buy her Paw Patrol toys? Yes, but with an exception. I will buy smaller, less expensive Paw Patrol toys knowing they will be outgrown. I will not dish out lots of money on toys that I know are a phase or a fad. We have Paw Patrol colouring books, regular books, a few Paw Patrol stuffies, and some smaller Paw Patrol figures.
QUESTION 5: Is the toy more minimalistic or does it do a lot of things?
Open-ended toys tend to be more minimalistic and simple. The more a toy does, the less open-ended it probably is. Also the more a toy does, the less your child has to do, which may quickly lead to boredom.
I always like to compare being a brand new mom to the mom I have become after 4 years. Initially, I bought all the flashy toys that sang songs and would light up, etc. At 6 months we had a room full of flashy toys that were hardly touched. Instead, my baby played with an empty water bottle or a pot filled with random objects that she would just pull out and put back in over and over (literally).
Sure, the light-up, battery-operated, flashy toys seemed cool at first. She would engage with them, press the buttons, get the songs to play or flash or whatever, and then after a week, she was over it. I learned quickly that these toys were basically a waste of my money, and started being more intentional with what I was buying.
It is the same at any age, the flashy toy that does all the cool things tends to be the toy that actually ends up in the corner never touched again after the first week. The more the toy does, the less the child has to do, and the quicker they will be bored with the toy.
Example: This VTech Truck that you may buy for your 1-year old that they will likely become bored of in months VS. This more open-ended truck that your child would likely play with for years. The VTech one is flashy and makes noise, and does lots of neat stuff, but the simple one is ultimately the one that will last, be more of a staple in the playroom, and promotes that imaginative play.
So there you have it! When I started being more intentional with what toys we were bringing into our home, these were some of the things I started asking myself. I also want to stress that open-ended toys are great and have so many benefits, but that doesn’t mean close-ended toys are bad! There are many close-ended toys that we love as well. It is all about balance, and again just being intentional and mindful about what toys you are investing in. Some close-ended toys we love are puzzles, books, colouring books, board games, some fine motor development toys that we have. I would say our playroom is more 70% open-ended and 30% close-ended (If I don’t include our books! We have a ton of those!!!).
So if you are currently overwhelmed by the number of toys your child has that are not played with, I encourage you to go through them and ask yourself these 5 questions. That is how I got started. I purged our playroom and got rid of so many toys that were no longer played with or out-grown. Once I organized and purged, I started being much more mindful about what we were bringing into our space. This has not only helped me feel more organized, but my daughter now plays in and utilizes her play space more than ever before!