What is Open Ended Play & Why It Is Important

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You have little kids. Life is dominated by toys, snacks (why do they need so many?!), and naps. When it comes to toys, a $22 billion dollar industry in the US, the shelves are plentiful of options.

Overwhelming options.

Where do you even start? The bright blocks that light up? The action figure that talks? The education toys where you press a button and something happens? It’s impossible to know for new parents, veteran parents, and doting family members.

If you researched on the internet, you may have come across the term “open ended play” and “open ended toys”. In the groups, I often see questions about open ended play. This inspired me to write about the importance of open play and the need to return to our roots as children.

Open ended play is play for children. In our modern, complex society, we have forgotten the classics of what play means. We as adults want to compartmentalize their day, optimize their time, and advance their play. We want kids to be busy all day so they do not get bored.

What kids really need is unstructured play. Not throwing things and screaming (unless I suppose they are princesses fighting dragons), but play where they can do anything they want.

Play is the activity children do to interpret and create their world. Every encounter they have, TV show they watch, book they read is absorbed and processed in their growing brains. But to understand what they saw, children need to play. They need the ability to process the thousands of nuances happening everyday.

Here is a great summary from Michigan State University:
“Open-ended play materials allow children to make choices, express their creativity and support their independence. Open-ended materials by definition do not have a pre-determined use. A block can be a car, phone, doll’s chair, ice-cream bar or any number of other things in play. It is through these experiences that children are able to learn best.”

These “materials” do not need to be toys themselves. They can be anything. Pillows become lava. Stones become food. PVC pipes become talking devices.

Play is endless. Imagination is endless. By giving children the tools to do whatever play they, they can freely and safely express their ideas.

Now play leads to toys. What toys are good for open play? Do I need to throw away all the toys I have? Is it expensive? Your mind is swirling with questions!

What are open ended toys?
Open ended toys are any toys that can be used in an imaginative way. Blocks are a classic example of open ended toys. Legos, Magnatiles (Picasso Tiles), Tegu, dolls (and doll furniture) are also examples of open ended toys.

Want more ideas? Cars, train sets, art supplies of paper and crayons are also open ended. As is nature. Dirt, sticks, rocks, leaves, acorns are all open ended. Have you ever gone on a walk with a small child and they collected all sorts of leaves and sticks? This is the power of their imagination.

playing with sand and toys

Most of the time, battery operated light up toys are not open ended. You press the button and the toy makes sounds, thus doing the work of play.

What about wooden toys? Are they open ended?
Have you noticed that I made very few references to wooden toys? I mention “toys” and “materials”. This is because wooden toys does not equate to open ended and open end does not mean wooden toys.

Most wooden toys are open ended because we have been making things from wood for thousands of years. Plastic toys are 40 years old – and easy to mass produce, wire up, and put lights in. In the United States (and many countries), we love things fast and cheap, and that includes toys.

Toys that light up, toys that play sounds, toys that do the work of playing are popular. You know them because you hear children press the button a thousand times, but not do anything else with the toy.

electronic toy – do you know what it’s supposed to do? I sure don’t!

Wooden toys by default are not wired or have lights on them. They are cut by saws (hand or commercial CNC machine), sanded, and painted. Electronics tend not to be part of wooden toys. Wooden toys can be blocks, vehicles, loose parts, puzzles, ships, and more.

Don’t go dumping out all the toys from your children’s collection just yet. First inventory what you have. Then ask the question, “how can my child play with this?” And last, “should i keep it? If not, can i donate and find another home?” Sometimes, the answer is the trash bin, and while I don’t encourage throwing them out, there are only so many broken toys you can give away.

What open ended toys should I buy?

I have several wooden toy lists (here, here, and here) that can help you with identifying what to purchase. And some of my lists have open ended toys, plastic or not. I’ll tell you a secret. My kids favorite toys when they were babies (under 15 months old) were: tupperware, silicon spatulas, silicon spoons, wallet, metal canisters, and stones.

It’s important to remember to buy within your budget and pick quality, known brands. We all (including myself) have been swayed away by the beauty of toys, especially wooden toys. Start with a few classics like blocks and bowls, and work your way from there.

A word of warning. Society has conflated open ended play with open ended toys. We have commercialized the open ended play to mean that “you need x,y, z toys for open ended play.” That’s not true. You don’t need certain brands to be open ended. Your children will amaze you what with they consider open ended play, and many times, they are not toys.

What about closed ended toys? Are they bad?
Not all closed ended toys are created equal. A puzzle has an ending, it is finite. Once all the pieces are put together, the puzzle is complete. But puzzles foster visual thinking, color recognition, pattern sorting, and patience – many very important traits for children to learn.

For example, Montessori teaching focuses on closed ended, self correcting materials. This allows a child to explore and work out the solution. It is a different style of learning, and a qualified respected form of teaching. Even within Montessori there is plenty of open play. My children play with mops. They don’t use them as swords but rather house play and real cleaning – developing both imaginary and real work play. (They own real mops that I shortened for them – Bona mops are great and cheap).

On the other hand, a battery toy house is not open ended. You press the button for the doorbell and the toy makes a sound. You press the food button, and the toy says, “dinner is served!”. Each button you press leads to an action, “the sound”, and a conclusion, “no more sound means no more play”.

We can talk forever about the importance of open ended play. What we know is that free play helps brain development. Free play gives children the ability to critically think and process information. It allows them to be bored and learn to entertain themselves. Free play even enables children to understand and process their emotions (NPR).

Whatever you do, don’t dump out the toy box. Reflect upon how the toys you own can be more open ended. Remove those that cannot. And gently add to your child’s collection.

If you enjoyed this article, please follow me on Instagram at @alifeoftoys.



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