What is open ended play?
Open-ended play is basically unstructured play that has no limits or boundaries! The best results of open-ended play seem to be when children have the time and opportunity to develop their skills through this play-based learning.
Something like doing a puzzle or playing a board game would be considered close-ended games and these activities build different and important skills, too. You don’t necessarily need to choose one over the other, and it’s nice to strike a balance. Always try to follow your babe’s lead with what they might be into at the moment!
In many early childhood educational settings, there are times in the day dedicated to ‘independent play’ and this is usually when the open-ended play materials are front and center.
As a parent or caregiver at home, we can also provide this time for our children to foster and encourage skills that will be needed for their future success.
What are the benefits of open-ended play?
I remember being at an early childhood professional development conference in London, UK where we discussed how the children we were currently teaching would be graduating university in the year 2035. The point here was that we had no idea what sort of jobs we were preparing these lovely little ones for! However, If we could foster their imagination, encourage independent learning and develop their creative problem solving skills, we would prepare them to be successful in whatever career path they chose.
Because open-ended play promotes all of these things, it’s fantastic if we can provide and facilitate this for our children at an early age! Open-ended play supports and results in:
- Creative Problem Solving
- Persistence, Patience, Resilience
How can we create an environment that supports open-ended play?
“The most effective kind of education is that a child should play amongst lovely things.” - Plato
It may sound silly at first, but creating a beautiful learning environment means you’ve considered your child’s needs and interests! You’re inviting them to play in a space where they are valued as capable, independent and responsible learners. Because I whole-heartedly believe in this, I always try to create an inviting set up for my baby to play in that is not too cluttered or chaotic (it's a little tricky in a Manhattan apartment but we do our best!). Rotating toys and books is a great way to keep things fresh and avoids the “HERE ARE ALL OF YOUR TOYS AT ONCE, GO FOR IT!” type of vibe that can feel a little overwhelming.
The goal of the environment is “as far as it is possible, to render the growing child independent of the adult. That is, it is a place where he can do things for himself—live his own life—without the immediate help of adults” - Maria Montessori
Keep child-safe open-ended materials and playthings on lower shelves and areas where your child can access them! This can be tough for some of us to digest because the thought of a potential huge mess is never fun, but it really is a great way to support independence and you can set it up to avoid huge tidy ups. Modern Nursery has some great options for nursery toy storage! It will be a lot easier for your little one to execute a new idea they might have if they have the materials to do it in front of them and easily accessible, instead of having to think of what they might need then ask you for it!
What are some examples of open-ended play toys?
All of the toys listed below can be played with in a variety of ways, and can become virtually anything in role play and pretend play. The possibilities are endless!
Toys that can become loose parts such as this beautiful rainbow nesting set made with wood and non-toxic stain are excellent. I love how this rainbow can be visually, mentally and creatively stimulating for all ages! The open-ended toy concept inspires so many different ways to learn through play. The parts can become a boat, a house, they can be arranged to create a path, roof - you name it. When not used in play, it is a gorgeous decoration piece so everyone wins!
Objects from nature like sticks, wood slices and pebbles can create a forest scene, become a magic wand and more. If collecting these on a walk together, just make sure the items are child-safe!
Blocks. Need I say more? Definitely a must have resource for open-ended play. Your babe will be able to stack and create anything their mind dreams up - buildings, homes, castles, fortresses, etc. These beech wood etched blocks are not only charming and delightful to look at, they support learning even more as each block has a number, letter, animal and shape! The etchings add another layer of development through sensory touch! In addition to open-ended learning outcomes, block play also provides learning opportunities for motor skills, hand-eye coordination, spatial reasoning, language skills, social skills, engineering skills and more!
Playsilks and scarves can become capes, blankets for dolls, land and sea for small world play, etc. Bonus: they’re lovely to have from age 0 as they can contribute to sensory experiences and play for your baby!
Stacking cups can create towers, cups for tea time and used for containing and sorting!
Play dough can be manipulated into pretty much anything your babe thinks up - people, animals, parts of a scene, etc.
If ever in doubt, just know that any toy or child-safe material can be an opportunity for open-ended play and learning as long as your babe is given the freedom and space to explore it on their own!
At this point, my 1 year old Willa is having fun investigating the shape, size and weight of her open-ended toys and materials. She stacks them, puts them into containers, throws them, swipes them around and transports them to different areas of our home. We can and do model the different things we can do with our toys but we ultimately let her go with what she wants to do. She’s not creating magical lands as of yet but I know that with time, she’ll continue to explore these toys and expand her learning journey with them!
It’s wonderful to watch our children advance and evolve with open-ended learning as they embrace pretend play and develop their own ideas further. You’ll be so proud of what they can do independently, and more importantly, they’ll be proud of themselves! Have fun!