Discover how to encourage open-ended play (as well as why you should) as a way to boost your child’s creativity and imagination.
My son opened a carton of Jenga and started building structures. One was a doghouse for his stuffed animal, another was a fountain, and one had double doors that was supposed to open with a push of a button.
Of course, Jenga blocks aren’t “meant” to be built into structures, much less a doghouse or a fountain. But they helped cultivate his creativity and imagination—with no instruction manual needed.
In other words, open-ended play.
What is open-ended play? It’s the type of play that requires a child’s imagination, instead of “one way” a toy or game can be played.
Think about a stick, which has been inducted into 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.
Compare that with, say, a toy figure of a popular television character. That child will assign it the characteristics she remembers from having watched the television show.
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The benefits of open-ended play
Before you think you need to start shopping, keep in mind that most open-ended toys should actually be “boring.” Why?
The less a toy does, the more your child needs to interact and engage with it, fueling her creativity. Take a toy that lights and beeps—she doesn’t need to do much to entertain herself. But a ball of play dough or a box of toy bricks don’t “do” much on their own if she doesn’t get creative.
While a stick or a toy that lights and beeps isn’t better than the other, open-ended toys and games offer kids a variety of benefits:
1. Encourages creativity
Let’s say your child received an Elmo toy, complete with buttons he can press to make him talk and sing. He’s entertained and learns the cause-and-effect of what happens when he presses the buttons. He pushes a certain part of the toy, and a sound plays.
But that’s about all he can do with the toy. Because the toy is a famous character, your child has already assigned traits to it. For instance, Elmo is male, speaks in a high-pitched voice, and lives on Sesame Street. He also knows the names of his friends and what he likes and doesn’t like.
Now, let’s say he received a non-branded stuffed toy. It has no existing characteristics, so he can decide whether it’s a boy or a girl. The animal doesn’t even wear a smile on its face, so he can pretend it’s happy or sad, depending on his mood.
He determines the stuffed animal’s world and is more likely to play with it far longer than Elmo. The stuffed animal can evolve to his needs and imagination more than a character-driven toy.
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2. Promotes problem-solving
One limiting feature with “entertaining” toys is that they leave kids as passive participants.
Picture a toy that plays music when your child presses a button. It’s fun, intriguing, and keeps him occupied… but that’s pretty much it. Sure, he learns 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, I hear a sound.” “And when I place the square on the rectangle, it stays, but on the ball, it falls.”
And because open-ended toys have no clear instructions, he need to make his own decisions to solve these problems. For instance, he learns how to stack the blocks so they resemble a house without them falling down.
3. Helps process information
During the pandemic, your child may have struggled with being home all day instead of at school. He didn’t understand why he couldn’t visit his grandparents, much less go on fun outings on the weekends. As much as he enjoyed being with you, this “new normal” felt anything but.
To cope, he takes his stuffed animals and pretends to hold a conversation between the two of them. The stuffed animals are “friends,” and one says to the other, “I can’t see you right now.” He mimics a virtual conversation between the two of them, much like he does with his classmates.
With open-ended play, he’s able to re-enact what he is seeing, feeling reassured that the two animals are still friends.
Or consider the parents who give their child a toy baby around the same time her new baby brother is born. She takes her baby and plays “mom” to process the vast changes her new sibling can bring.
Open-ended toys lend themselves to pretend play, giving kids a chance to cope and process all the information they’ re seeing. This type of play helps them understand their world and make sense of any changes happening in their lives.
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 open-ended toys kids play with today 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 child feels 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? The last thing you need is a rigid agenda of making sure your child is participating in open-ended play.
Still, that doesn’t mean you can’t take a few steps to nurture it throughout the day. Take a look at these simple but effective ways to encourage open-ended play:
1. Give plenty of downtime
Open-ended play works well if your child has plenty of downtime at home. It’s easy to over-schedule kids, from homework to extracurricular activities to family functions.
With too much on his plate and constantly on the go, he won’t know how to tolerate boredom, much less what to do to fill his time. He needs external stimulation to feel entertained, where a pack of crayons just won’t do.
Even if he participates in many activities, carve out some downtime during his day to accommodate free play.
This can be the hour before you start your day, when he’s free to hole up in his room and do whatever he wants. Maybe it’s while you’re preparing dinner and he’s sprawled in the living room, playing or reading. Down time gives him a chance to mellow out, be bored, and relax.
2. Let your child be bored
“I’m bored…” you might hear from your child.
This is usually the first response from kids who are used to being entertained and now must find ways to do so themselves.
But boredom is where the magic happens. Before supplying her with things to do and hovering over every step, encourage her to find a way to not be bored. She’ll learn the important skills of not only tolerating boredom, but finding ways out of it.
And that is the true gift of boredom: Driven to find a way out of it, she’ll inevitably get creative with play time.
3. Follow your child’s lead
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Are you guilty of offering a craft activity to do with your child, only to tell him exactly how to create it? Crafts with step-by-step directions serve their purpose, but include activities that let him lead. You can do crafts that allow him to create his own artwork with no “finished product” in mind.
You can also ask him what he wants to play and let him direct as he wants to, like playing in a fort in the living room. Or you play puppets, asking more questions to get him to decide the direction of his play time.
Nothing squashes open-ended play more so than others telling him what and how to play. By following his lead, you’re nurturing his creativity and problem-solving skills. As historian Rutger Bregman writes in his book, Humankind:
“Play is not subject to fixed rules and regulations, but is open-ended and unfettered. It’s not an Astroturfed field with parents shouting at the sidelines; it’s kids frolicking outside without parental supervision, making up their own games as they go along.
“When kids engage in this kind of play, they think for themselves. They take risks and colour outside the lines, and in the process train their minds and motivation. Unstructured play is also nature’s remedy against boredom.”
4. Ask open-ended questions
Encourage open-ended play by asking open-ended questions. Whether you’re playing with your child or asking about her play, open-ended questions avoid directing her play or taking over her lead.
Start by giving her your full attention as she shares stories or describes her play. Then, respond by asking open-ended questions like:
- “Why do you think that happened?”
- “What does that look like to you?”
- “What do you think will happen next?”
- “How did you create that sculpture?”
5. Designate an area with art supplies
Art remains one of the best sources for open-ended play. Carve a space in your home that’s conducive for making art.
You might set aside a table and chair in the kitchen nook, with the added benefit of not worrying about spills. Perhaps it’s an easel in the living room where your child can paint, play with play dough, or write with chalk. Or maybe it’s the dining table, transformed into an art studio between meals.
And keep art supplies in the same storage containers. Keep pencils in the same blue box, markers in the marker bag, or paints in the top drawer of her desk.
6. Fill your home with open-ended toys
Every home has a variety of toys for different purposes. Some promote creativity, entertain, and encourage physical activity. Others challenge kids mentally, while some 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.
The same holds true with open-ended toys. If you’re looking for a few ideas, below are a few fantastic options. Fill your home with these kinds of toys and encourage your child to use them as tools to create:
- Play dough
- Pretend clothes and costumes
- Wooden blocks
- Foam blocks
- Art easel
- Pretend kitchen
- Pretend food toys
- Train sets
- Magnet tiles
- Household items (like toilet paper rolls, wooden spoons, and painter’s tape)
- Fabric materials
- Stacking cups
- Stuffed animals and dolls
- Found and foraged nature items (like leaves, rocks, pine cones, and flowers)
7. Offer household items
Open-ended play doesn’t need a whole lot to work. For instance, the day my new desk chair came in the mail meant my kids now had a giant cardboard box to play with. The box became a house before transforming into a car, a canvas, and eventually a tap-dancing floor.
Household items like boxes, paper towel tubes, and kitchen utensils make for great open-ended play. Your child’s imagination will grow from using non-toy items around the house—just make sure they’re safe and age-appropriate.
You’ve seen how open-ended play encourages creativity, problem-solving, and information processing. Even better, open-ended play is simple to encourage right at home.
Give your child plenty of downtime, even if it means he gets bored (he’ll find ways to be creative either way). Follow his lead during play, and ask open-ended questions along the way. Designate an area with plenty of art supplies, and give him access to open-ended toys and even household supplies.
Let open-ended play be a regular part of his day—including creating a doghouse out of Jenga wooden blocks.
Get more tips:
- Top Educational Activities for 3 Year Olds
- How to Be Awesome at Playing with Your Kids (Even if You Don’t Like It)
- 31 Powerful Conversation Starters for Kids
- 25 Easy Activities for 2 Year Olds
And check out Ruby’s Sword by Jacqueline Veissid and Paola Zakimi, a wonderful book about the joy of open ended play:
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