Inside: Learn how to encourage open-ended play and the benefits from playing with no limits.
Yesterday, my five-year-old opened a carton of Jenga and started building structures. One was his stuffed dog’s house, another was a fountain. And one had double doors that you push with a button and automatically opens.
Jenga blocks aren’t “meant” to be built into structures, much less a dog’s house or a fountain. My son found toys that cultivated his creativity and imagination—with no instruction manual needed.
What is open-ended play
Open-ended play is anything that requires a child’s imagination, with no “one way” to play with it.
Think about the stick, which currently sits at the top spot at the Toy Hall of Fame. A stick lying on the ground is just a stick. But give it to a child and it becomes a wand, a soup spoon, a sword, the letter I, a screwdriver, a cane, and so forth.
The benefits of open-ended play
Most open-ended toys for babies and toddlers are “boring.” But the less a toy does, the more a child needs to interact and engage with it, fueling her creativity.
Open-ended play isn’t character-driven
Let’s say your daughter received an Elmo toy, complete with buttons she can press to make him talk and sing. She’s entertained and learns the cause-and-effect of what happens when she presses the buttons: she pushes her finger on a certain part of the toy, and a sound plays.
But that’s about all she can do with the toy. Because he’s a famous character, your daughter has already assigned traits to her toy. He’s male, speaks in a high-pitched voice and lives on Sesame Street. She knows the names of his friends and what he likes and doesn’t like.
Now let’s say your daughter received a regular stuffed monkey toy. It has no existing characteristics, so she can decide whether the monkey is a boy or a girl. The monkey doesn’t even wear a smile on its face, so she can pretend it’s happy or sad, depending on her mood.
She determines her monkey’s world and is more likely to play with the monkey far longer than Elmo. The monkey can evolve to her needs and imagination more than a character-driven toy.
Open-ended play promotes problem-solving, not just cause-and-effect
One limiting feature with “entertaining” toys is that kids are passive. Like a toy that plays music when your kid presses a button. It’s fun, intriguing and keeps your kid occupied… but that’s pretty much it. Sure, they learn cause-and-effect: When I press this button, I hear music. Which is great, but again—limiting.
Take instead an open-ended toy like building blocks. They have the same cause-and-effect feature, but in a wider scope. When I stack too many blocks, they fall. When I hit two blocks together, it makes this certain sound. And when I place the square on the rectangle, it stays, but on the ball, it falls.
Plus, open-ended play ideas encourage problem-solving. Because they have no clear instructions, kids need to solve the problems on their own. Using the blocks example, they learn how to stack so they resemble a house without it falling apart.
Open-ended play helps kids process information
Let’s say your son just came home from a doctor’s visit. During the appointment, he felt vulnerable. Unfamiliar people examined him, he sat in a new environment. He may have even received painful shots. He comes home and he feels like he has lost some power and control over a scary situation.
So he then finds his pretend dress-up toys, including a doctor’s costume and tools. He grabs his teddy bear and proceeds to “examine” him the same his own doctor did to him. And he needs to reclaim his power and to process the information he has just experienced.
In playing doctor, he’s able to reassure himself that everything is okay and he’s fine.
Or consider the parents who give their daughter a baby doll around the same time her new baby brother is born. She takes her doll and plays “mom” with the baby to process the vast changes a new baby can bring.
Open-ended toys lend themselves to pretend play. They help kids understand their world and any changes that may be happening in their lives.
Open-ended toys are timeless
My friend posted a photo on Facebook of an impressive Lego structure… that her husband made. I wrote back: “Our husbands should have a face off because mine makes up all sorts of things with them too.”
Many of the open-ended toys our kids play with now are the same ones we played with in our childhoods. They’re simple, timeless and last through the ages. The same zeal you once had with opening a cup of play dough is the same that your kid will feel as well.
These toys that encourage creative play aren’t fads or this year’s “hottest toys.” They’re the ones that your kids will play with many, many times.
How to encourage open-ended play
Now that you know the benefits of open-ended materials, what are a few ways to encourage it at home?
Let your child be bored
“I’m bored…” you might hear from your child. Before supplying him with entertainment, encourage him to figure a way out of his boredom first. Feeling bored itself isn’t pleasant, but your child learns the important skill of not only tolerating boredom, but how to find ways out of it. Driven to find a way to not be bored, many children get creative with their play.
Let your child lead
How often have you offered a craft to play with your kids and told him exactly how to create it? Crafts with direction serve their purpose, but let your child lead and create his own artwork. Or ask him what he wants to play and let him direct as he wants to.
Give lots of downtime
Open-ended play works well if your child has plenty of downtime at home. It’s easy to overschedule our kids, from homework to extracurricular activities to family functions. Squeeze in downtime almost every day to accommodate free play.
Offer household items
Last night, my new desk chair came in the mail. You know what that means… a giant cardboard box for my kids to play with. Household items like boxes, paper towel tubes and kitchen utensils make for great play.
Their imagination will grow from using non-toy items around the house. Just make sure they’re safe and age-appropriate.
Have an area with lots of art supplies
Art remains one of the best sources for open-ended play. Carve a space in your home that makes it conducive for art.
In our home, we have a kitchen nook where we set up a table and chair for their artwork. We don’t worry about spills as it’s in the kitchen. And the kids know this is one of the areas they can paint, play with play doh and write chalk.
Ask open-ended questions
Listen to your kids when they talk to you, then respond by asking open-ended questions. For instance, questions like:
- “Why do you think that happened?”
- “Why is the dog in the story crying?”
- “How can you help your little brother?”
- “What are you most excited about for tomorrow?”
- “How do you go about creating that sculpture?”
Fill your home with open-ended toys
We talked a lot about open-ended toys and how beneficial they are for promoting undefined play. I list a few favorites below. Fill your home with these kinds of toys and encourage your kids to create whatever they imagine.
Every home has a variety of toys for different purposes: open-ended play promotes creativity, some entertain, others encourage physical activity, some to challenge kids mentally, and still others are games that are fun for the whole family.
And toys are anything. I sometimes catch myself telling my son not to play with an item because “it’s not a toy.” Meanwhile here I am giving him pipe cleaners and a colander to play with. Kids will explore anything they’re curious about—that’s why the stick is at the top of the Toy Hall of Fame.
The same holds true with open-ended toys. They can be the simplest items or store bought. Your kid can find a leaf on the ground and consider it her next best toy ever, or she may ask for them during a shopping trip.
Need ideas on open-ended toys? Below are some ideas to start with:
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Stuffed animals and dolls
Found and foraged nature items (like leaves, rocks, pine cones and flowers)
Household items (like paper towel tubes, wooden spoons and painter’s tape)
Do you struggle with finding time after work to play with your kids? Download my FREE play ideas calendar, perfect for the early evening hours! The first sheet includes ideas for the weekdays, while the second is a blank template to fill with your own ideas. Download it below:
Encourage your child’s learning and play with these tips:
- How to Be Awesome at Playing with Your Kids (Even if You Don’t Like It)
- Encourage Independent Play with Your Child
- How to Keep a Toddler Active: 20 Fun Ways
- The Benefits of Pretend Play
Your turn: What are your kids’ favorite open-ended toys and play time? How do you encourage open-ended play?