Children want to learn, and play is how they do it! However, the 21st century has brought lots of bright lights and sounds to our children's toys, which can hinder creativity. Open-ended play is a great alternative that uses basic toys and materials to allow kids to experiment and explore their environment.
If you want to learn more about this type of imagination play, we break down how to provide your kids with open-ended play opportunities and what materials to use to inspire them to learn, grow, and have fun!
The Basics of Open-Ended Play
Open-ended play is an unstructured, child-led activity that provides children with simple materials that have no intended purpose or desired end-point. The goal is to allow the children to manipulate the materials as they see fit and use their imaginations to investigate their environment and different scenarios.
In contrast, close-ended play has a specific beginning and end. Examples of this type of play include puzzles, picture matching, shape sorting, and Lego kits where the child is building a specific design.
Benefits of Open-Ended Play for Kids
Open-ended play fosters creativity, builds a child's language and problem-solving skills, and helps with both their fine and gross motor development.
Other benefits are that it can build a child's confidence and ability to work as a team. Since the play scenarios can be anything they want them to be, if they are with another child or group, they must work with their peers to decide on an objective and follow through with that idea.
Director of the Center for Play Therapy at the University of North Texas College of Education Dr. Dee Ray notes that "when children play with dolls, for example, they can test out different scenarios for responding to a crying baby, including holding the doll or feeding the doll [...this creates] new neural networks and [lets them] gain new understanding." This is just one example of open-ended play.
Open-Ended Toys & Materials to Have on Hand
One of the best parts of open-ended play is that you likely have many, if not all, of the open-ended materials lying around your home. Here are some of the top open-ended toys to use in these creative play scenarios:
- Wooden blocks
- Magna tiles
- Rainbow stackers
- Nesting cups
- Tangram puzzle pieces
- Train sets
- Toy cars
- Ball pit balls
- Plastic animal toys
- Stuffed animals
- Play food
- Doctor kit
- Play dough
- Art supplies
- Musical instruments
- Play cash register
Open-ended materials can also be non-typical play items that you have lying around the house. These can include toilet paper and paper towel tubes, solo cups, kitchenware, and other basic household items.
How to Facilitate Open-Ended Play: 3 Steps for Parents to Take
There are a few key steps that parents need to take in order to encourage open-ended play. This starts with a child's environment.
1. Create a Clear Space
You want them to have an open, uncluttered space to play in. This allows them to focus on the activity at hand.
2. Give Them a Limited Selection
Next, offer them a choice of open-ended toys and materials, but limit their selection. If a child has too many options, then they will get distracted easily. Fewer toys can actually bring better engagement.
3. Let Your Kids Take the Lead
Finally, if you plan to play with your kids, remember they are in control. Follow their lead and allow them to dictate how the scenario plays out.
Open-Ended Play Scenario Ideas
For the parents looking for a little more direction, here are a few ideas to get you and your children started with open-ended play:
Legos, blocks, Magna tiles, rainbow stackers, nesting cups, and solo cups can all be options for a classic castle-building session! For this type of open-ended play, offer them one material.
Another idea for open-ended building play is chairs, pillows, blankets, and cardboard boxes. Indoor forts are always a fan favorite with kids of all ages.
Sensory play has so many incredible benefits for our kids and these activities are open-ended! Best of all, you can customize your play space by changing up the sensory bin materials for each play session. This can give you endless open-ended play options.
If you have a mini shopping cart and a play cash register, the world is your oyster! Your kids can pretend to shop at the supermarket while perusing your pantry or they can visit their local retail store, aka your closet or their costume bin, and pick out something fun to wear.
My favorite part about this activity is that it can help your kids gain some math skills. They will have to count out their money to pay if they are buying the items or determine what change is needed when checking you out.
This open-ended play idea can use play food or even play dough! They can whip up different delicious dishes for you, their siblings, or their friends. You can also incorporate the play cash register in this play idea to pay for your restaurant-quality meal when you are done "eating."
My kids love this open-ended play idea. It's best done in a large space. Clear out the clutter, but strategically place chairs and other large objects throughout the room to create a "driving" course. Then, let them race! They can use toy cars, wheeled suitcases, or even empty five-gallon jugs.
Parents can get their kids excited and keep the play going by narrating their movements — shout "Ready, set, go!", then, describe who is in the lead, if one child is gaining speed, and where they are in the room. Then, count down to see who reaches the finish line the fastest.
I love to have my kids play this game while I'm doing the dishes. It keeps all of us entertained and ensures that they don't get into anything while I'm busy cleaning.
Dress-up is another classic type of open-ended play that is great for all ages. For this activity, you can ask them to put on a skit or you can just play music, having them change their costumes every few songs.
Arts and crafts are another great activity for kids and can be a form of open-ended play. The key is providing an array of supplies that they have to figure out how to manipulate. This is another opportunity to use play dough, along with other crafting supplies.
An alternate option is to lay out white butcher paper and give your kids tangram puzzle pieces. Tell them to create different images using only the tiles and see what they create!
For parents who don't mind a bit of background music, hand over toy musical instruments or let your kids raid your kitchen. Then, have your little band put on a show for you!
This is another one of my oldest son's favorite open-ended play scenarios. I bought him a simple doctor kit on Amazon and now I am always in good health! He likes to check on both me and brother, making sure we are up to date on shots, that our ears and throats look good, and that our hearts are in tip-top shape.
This play idea can also be done with stuffed animals. Your kids can make sure their entire collection of friends is healthy. Add in some fun Band-Aids, and they can be entertained for hours!
Open-Ended Play Can Happen Anywhere
The best part of open-ended play is that it can happen at home, in the park, or even on a lake. Get creative with your materials and help your kids learn and grow by promoting this type of pretend play! It can be fun to see the odd and outstanding scenarios they come up with.