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.



Bauspiel Color Streets Blocks {Review}

Glitter glitter, bling bling!

Have you seen such pretty blocks with enormous gems?!

I am thrilled to review the Bauspiel Color Street wooden blocks (Fabenstrasse, item number 0150). Bauspiel is from a small German company, Deckelmann. Deckelmann also works with Papoose Toys from Australia to sell their wool felted products.

The Color Street set consists of 45 blocks. 20 blocks are matching pair and 5 blocks are blanks. The colors range in ruby red to purple with many shades representing the rainbow.

The best part of the gem blocks are…the gems! Faced the right way, they reflect that oh so pretty dispersed light. You can compliment them with the Bauspiel windows too. It’s magic.

Should you get the Bauspiel? It depends. If your children like the bling in blocks, these sets are something special. But they come at a hefty price at $210 USD. I bought mine from Modern Rascals in Canada; they have free shipping over $100, totally worth it.

In addition, the sizes are also different from other companies. Bauspiel are in multiples of 2.5cm. That makes their blocks 10 x 5 x 2,5 cm. You cannot stack the blocks in the exactly same way. when mixed with other brands. Your kids’ brains on their toes as they work with blocks of different measurement systems.

Video review of the Bauspiel Blocks

Grimms Wooden Toys Imperfections & Issues

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Did your first order of Grimms arrive? Were you giddy with excitement to share this wonderful open ended toy with a child? Or yourself?

And then you opened the package and …

The nesting bowls smell! The rainbow is asymmetric. The blocks are moldy. Someone DREW with a black crayon!

Simultaneously you are in tears and a state of rage. Your hard earned money from the “highly recommended” toy company sent you a reject.

How could Grimms Spiel und Holz have so many mistakes in their wooden toys? You own other wooden toys and none of them have marks and kinks in them. What are all these blemishes and issues on the rainbow?

The Grimms rainbow are different from other brands because they hand make all their toys. And their style of work is a bit more on the rougher edge than perfectly sanded and smooth.

For example, the Grimms rainbows they are carved from a single piece of wood. And that piece of wood is 7cm thick. For comparison, Myers rainbows are comprised of three of wood glued together, and Raduga Grez rainbows are thinner. Ocamora rainbows are most similar to Grimms, but as they are a much smaller company (who also have had supply issues and have plenty of imperfections), I cannot make a educated guess as to their line of wooden toys.

The type of wood used for the Grimms rainbow is lime wood or also known as linden. This wood is soft and easy to work with – it’s perfect for carving, instrument making, and shields (if you lived back in the Middle Ages). Lime woods alsogets plenty of knots, occasional dents, and a bit of over/under enthusiastic sanding.

Before firing off an email to the shop you purchased from, read these seven reasons why the Grimms wooden toys might be alright after all.

Rainbow is asymmetric – If you bought a rainbow of any size, you will immediately notice that the arches do not look even. In fact, the rainbow may not even stand flat on a table. Don’t fear yet, this is because of tight plastic wrapping around the rainbow (we’ll save the plastic lecture for Grimms to another day). Once you remove the plastic, the wood will expand slightly as well as settle into place.

Uneven looking arches because of plastic wrap. Photo credit: Michelle

Knots in the wood – Totally natural and common. Some knots are a few inches large and others are tiny.

Knots in wood. Photo: Patty Hoffman.
Knots and spots are very visible on the natural rainbow. Photo: Ashley R.
  1. Black spots – Black spots are not uncommon on wood, they are imperfections in the wood caused by mineral deposits. It is not mold.
Black stripes and a small spot. Photo: Harley
  1. Natural wood pieces smell funny – The natural building boards, rainbows, nesting bowls, and bridges are oiled. The strongest smell is linseed oil. To diminish the smell, you can unwrap the toys and leave outside and air them out. Over time the smell will decrease – it can take a couple months.
  2. Rainbow stacks in one direction – The rainbows are cut by hand and slight variations in the thickness of the arch occurs. Sometimes this means the rainbow stacks “one way” and not both. If you see gaps between the arches, flip one around and then it will fit snugly.
Stacking the rainbow the wrong way (bottom) and right way (top). Photo: Lauren
  1. Black stripes – Does it look like someone took a black crayon and drew across the toy. This black stripe is known as the pith tube. It’s natural and nothing to be alarmed about. Admittedly, it can look annoying but it’s another beauty of the type wood used.
Faint black stripes with black dots visible on all pieces. Photo: Colleen.

  1. Sanding is wonky – At Grimms, they hand sand all the toys and puzzles. The rainbows are all sanded on the edges. This is one way to know you have a genuine rainbow, but it also makes it easier for children to hold. Unfortunately, the sanding on the arches can be uneven, sometimes wonky. And this imperfect sanding can drive you crazy. It’s driven me crazy too; and sometimes it’s terrible to the point that you might need it replaced – it’s very much a personal decision.

Over sanded arch section. Photo: C Wong.
Roughness, an indication of incomplete sanding, little color absorption. Could consider a discussion with the seller. Photo: Nicole Wolfe
  1. Color transfer – Color transfers happens during play – it’s inevitable. But when your toys arrive with lots of color transfer, is this normal? Yes and no. Grimms products that arrive in mesh bags (geo blocks, tree blocks, roofs and pillars) can have transfer. A few dings are to be expected. A lot of color transfer, where maybe half or more of the pieces have color marks are a cause for concern.

  1. Paint is incomplete – Some of the pieces may look like it wasn’t painted. There are some instances where the painting was forgotten (a big oops) or it was a shoddy job (the roofs and pillars were notorious for a poor paint job in the corners). Most of the time however, the paint, didn’t stick because of the wood itself. Different types woods and different parts of the wood absorb dye differently. Even on a same piece it may look like the paint isn’t even. See the image for an example.

Now that we have seen some examples of imperfections, what are issues that warrant a return?

Consider the following:

  1. Is that damage significant enough that play will be impaired? Cracks can causes issues down the line. A deep crack for example, can become worse and can even break the rainbow. However, a small dent is a cosmetic flaw. It could be caused in transit or while still manufactured. A large dent would warrant you contacting the seller.
  2. Is it worth exchanging ? Knowing that Grimms rainbows are imperfect, do you want to exchange the rainbow knowing another could have imperfections? If you return, do you have a game plan for which other rainbow to purchase? Ocamora (Spain), Raduga Grez (Russia), Myers (US)?
  3. Does the imperfection bother you needlessly? If yes, then contact the seller and return. If you think that imperfections will drive you crazy considering the price paid, then return. There is nothing worse than being upset over something. Kindly remember that most of the shops selling Grimms are small businesses – they work tirelessly to keep their businesses alive, a little kindness during the return process can go a long way.
  4. Is a piece not painted? On very rare occasions, a piece isn’t stained correctly. This should be returned.
  5. Do you see chips and splinters? This isn’t normal. Contact your seller.

In the end, it’s up to you to decide whether the rainbow is perfect or not. But I do hope you consider the above before making a return and decide if what you have is an imperfection or an issue. There’s a small business owner on the other end of your email

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Montessori + Holztiger Animal 3 Part Card Series – Printable

Do you have wooden animals? A bunch of Holztiger perhaps? And looking for new ways to help your children learn about animals?

I created this Montessori type three part card series for the Holztiger animals (don’t worry Ostheimer and Schleich lovers, I’m making sets for you too).

The Montessori three part card series is much more than a flashcard – it helps children learn words through sight, assign them to a visual representation (a photo), and match.

To make a three part series you will need to make 2 (TWO) copies of the pdf. Then the first page you cut along the lines with each animal and their name. On the second copy you have, cut the animals AND the words.

For longevity, I recommend laminating the papers. The Scotch Thermal laminator is $21.99 on sale and is a work horse.

To play:

Place a small group of animal cards out on a table. I recommend 4-6 cards. For younger children, use the animal+name card. You can group the animals by type (reptile, mammal, bird) or location (Africa, wildlife, Australia, woodland, farm), or something else (what you have on hand).

Then, place the animal cards (without name) and name only cards in another pile. Now show your children how this works if they have never done this before.

Once you model how to match, let them try!

Other ways to play:

Match the card to the wooden toy animal.

Match the animal card (without name) to the name card.

How to get the Holztiger animal printables for FREE. Sign-up below using the link and you’ll get cards delivered to you. Currently the Africa set is available but I’m working hard to get the rest done!

Signup for the Holztiger Animal 3 Part Card Series

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Grimms 1001 Nights Puzzle: Know Which Pieces Fit

If you own more than one Grimms Spiel und Holz block set, chances are you have come across the problem of knowing WHICH blocks go in WHICH sets.

Even I don’t remember, and neither do the kids. If you do want to put the set together with the original pieces, here’s my quick guide on the 1001 Nights Building Set.

There are 50 blocks in the set. Here are the types of blocks:

If you’re on the fence of purchasing a 1001, check out my video reviewing it.

5 Etsy Products of the Week – American Women Owned Businesses

This week I am featuring five products from female small business owners. They are all based in the US. They are all awesome.

Custom Peg doll – Need a peg doll to match your kid’s room? Or their favorite character? Jen is your gal. Her peg dolls are exquisite and the details are mind blowing.

Stacking hearts set by Sensory Play – $40 – This set of 6 wooden hearts are made from cherry and rainbow poplar. You don’t see many woodworkers using rainbow poplar so I find it to be real treat. Also, owner Magda is wonderful and based in the US. She also has a great Montessori and Waldorf wood toys.

Unicorns from Cranberry Creek Forest – If there is one wooden toy Cranberry Creek Forest is known for is its unicorn collection. Choose from a varieties of manes, these unicorns are more feminine looking than the well known Ostheimer Unicorn.

Narwhal from Cranberry Creek Forest – I’ve not seen anyone else making narwhals. And what’s not to love about the unicorn of the sea? Watch the BBC documentary (the one on the Arctic and Antarctic) and have your narwhals break the ice too!

Hundred Board from Mirus Toys – A gold standard in Montessori math and beyond, the hundred board is your go to for all things math. Order the wooden balls or wool balls with it (add-on in the menu) and help your children visualize AND love numbers. Plus you are supporting a brown woman business based in Washington state!

Custom Birthday Ring from Moth and Moonstone- Can’t find the birthday ring you want? Ask Katy and she will paint you an exquisite custom piece.

Hope you discovered some new businesses and get sucked into their gorgeous collections like I have!

As always, there are referral links above. I earn a small commission if you purchase something through that link. I appreciate your support from the bottom of my heart.

Montessori 3 Letter CVC Words {FREE Printable}

Kids home on that never-ending staycation?

This is a fun way to learn three letter words, the Montessori way. I made 50 (or more, I cannot remember) three letter CVC words. Then you take the individual letter and match them to the word.

More advanced children can use the a,e,i,o,u chart and make three letter words of their own.

I will caution that you should give your children this activity if they are already into learning letters and words. Don’t give this to kids who don’t have any interest. Best age group is 4-7 years old, basically kindergartners.

Things you can do:

Match words to physical objects. Fox to a wooden toy fox, Pen to a pen, etc.

Group words by sounds. Cat, hat, mat. Ram, fan, dam. You can do this for younger children while older kids can hunt for the words.

Find similar letter. If you group by sounds, you will find a common vowel. What is it? What other words have that vowel?

What you need:

Printer – color printed is needed. You want kids to learn the difference between consonants and vowels.

Laminator – It’s a bit of an investment but SO GOOD TO HAVE! I own the Scotch laminator but people also rave about the Amazon one. Either way, be sure to buy laminating sheets (will work with both brands).

Download the FREE printables:

Feel free to share the link with friends. Feeling extra sweet? Send a dollar to cover my chai costs (at home of course) in Venmo. It’s silly to say but I need to say it: please do not upload the pdfs to your own site, sell them, commercialize them.

Stay at home, stay safe! Remember you don’t have to home school overnight. Keep your kids’ brain occupied and you’re doing more than enough as a parent.

Indian Printable Coloring Pages {FREE}

Trying to figure out how to entertain the kids for 10 minutes while you try to have conference call? I don’t know either.

But I do have these lovely printables I made. They’re Indian’y with Indian secular motifs and famous places like the Taj Mahal and Lotus Temple.

They will keep the kiddos entertained while we are in lockdown/stay at home from the coronavirus.

Here are three that I have done so far. And check out my coloring page for Holi (did anyone even get to celebrate in 2020?!).

Feel free to share the link with friends. Feeling extra sweet? Send a dollar to cover my chai costs (at home of course) in Venmo. It’s silly to say but I need to say it: please do not upload the pdfs to your own site, sell them, commercialize them.

Also check out the Montessori 3 letter CVC word packet.

Stay safe and shelter in place!

$25 & Under Toy Gift Guide for 4-5 Year Olds

Now that our kiddo is invited to birthday parties, I have been trying to figure out what toys to buy.

Quality toys that won’t get dumped or fall apart.

I’ve made a list of easy to find toys on Amazon and Natural Baby Co (plus if you need a free shipping code, use this), but also a few bespoke/DIY toys.

The toys are under $25 while the book gift sets are $20-50. There is everything from Green Toys and Legos to Holztiger to small dolls.

Gift Sets

Art caddy – Box of Crayola markers, crayons (my kid loves Jumbo crayons), drawing pencils, stickers, stamps and a notebook. Sometimes I will also add glue, modeling clay, and scissors. Put them in a Sterilite storage box (or a tiered drawer from Sterilite) and parents can be happy the collection is contained. I buy all these things during the school supply sale and stock it for when needed. #winning (Also, this reads like a promo for Crayola but it totally isn’t meant to be! It’s what I love and is solid quality for little children)

Play-doh caddy – Make your own play dough (so it doesn’t smell like the store brand) and color it any way you want. Add glitter even. Or a couple drops of essential oil so it smells delicious. Pack the dough in a container with a rolling pin, couple cookie cutters and you’ve giving a kiddo plenty of open play magic time.


Plan Toys Fruit & Veggie Set – Classic play food that kids can “cut”. Also a favorite are the soft toy foods from IKEA and their metal pots and pans.

Grimm’s Large Convertible Car

Grimm’s Mini Rainbow – At 10.5 cm (about 5 inches), the Grimm’s wooden mini rainbow will delight the rainbow and fantasy dreamers out there. It’s perfect for decoration when not in use and great for small world play. Doll houses, barns, race tracks can all use a dash of colors.

Fairyshadow Pocket Mama Doll – Four years old is the sweet ago when children get into dolls and small world play. Made in California, these 4in mama dolls with tiny babies come in three skin tones and handmade love. Fairyshadow comes in many different styles and sizes for your little one to love.

Fagus mini cars

PlanToys Meadow Ring Toss

Plan City Car Transporter

Green Toys Parking Garage

Green Toys Rocket with 2 Astronauts

Green Toys Car Carrier Vehicle Set – A car that carries cars. Enough said.

LEGO City Heavy Cargo Transport – There is also a nice little truck loader set; it’s perfect for a friend getting started with Lego building and can use a simpler set (less than 100 pieces).

Green Toys Wagon Outdoor

Melissa & Doug Service Station – A parking garage with cars and a ramp. You get the picture.

Green Toys Dump Truck – In red and yellow or pink and purple. This is one heck-of-an outdoor truck toy. Schools use them, museums use them, everyone should have a GT dump truck.

Tegu Magnetic Racer – Looking for something more than Lego and Magnatiles? Introducing Tegu. Handmade in Honduras, Tegu blocks are magnetized and empower kids for lots of open ended play and building. The racer is a fun way to get started.

Snap Circuits Jr. – Introduce your children to circuitry and electricity with the Snap Circuits Junior set.

Lego Duplo Town – Truck and Digger. Also a favorite is the submarine set – a winner for bath time AND has a female person of color figure. Win for racial diversity.

Green Toys Boat and Helicopter – Another bath time win: a boat AND a helicopter. And if you haven’t noticed, I really love Green Toys.

For even more toys, from Boon and Plan Toys bath time to Melissa and Doug puzzles and Tegu travel sets, see my list below.

For extra bonus: Book & an Animal Gift Sets

Giraffe and a half + Holztiger Giraffe – Give Shel Siverstein and a wooden animal giraffe.

Little Blue Truck + Grimms Pull Along Truck

Uni the Unicorn +