Open-ended play has recently become a buzz word online for moms with young children. I see it on Instagram reels, Pinterest, and even Tik Tok now. But it’s clear that now everyone who uses that phrase completely understands the topic.
What is open-ended play?
Open- ended play (often called free play or self-directed play) is free, self-directed play by a child without being told what to do by an adult with no explicit learning goal. Think of your child going to play with something without having any rules or parameters as well as no suggestions on ‘how to play with that’. The two main characteristics of open ended play are that this type of play is both initiated by the child and directed by the child.
This is a key aspect of open ended play that we often forget about. A child must be the one to start playing or ask for a certain toy in order to be true open ended play. This can be difficult for very young children (think two years old and younger), but the more you encourage this type of play the more they will naturally learn to do it.
A great way to support this aspect of open-ended play is to have open-ended materials or toys out at all times that are accessible to your child. This may mean keeping a few open ended toys on a low shelf or in bins on the floor.
Child directed play means that the child is playing by making their own decisions and ‘rules’ on how to play with that toy. There are no wrong ideas or wrong ways to play (as long as they’re safe), even if the child isn’t using the toy as it is traditionally used. The child makes up their own ideas as they play, and those ideas may also change over time.
It also means an adult is not telling the child what to do with the toy. As adults we often see toys or games with a singular purpose or end goal, but young children do not. And that’s exactly what we want to promote in open ended play.
Learning through play – A continuum
Learning through play is a popular and well studied topic in the early childhood education world, but can be hard for parents to understand. Children are constantly learning new things and skills by experimenting and exploring through play. But what type of play helps children?
The truth is that playful learning is a continuum that takes into account adult involvement, the extent the child directs the play, and if there are discrete learning outcomes at the end. All of the different types of play are helpful for young children
Play can be looked at as having open-ended play at one end of the continuum and on the other end, or the direct opposite of open-ended play, is direct instruction. This type of play is a parent or teacher trying to lecture and demonstrate the exact way and steps to play. While direct instruction can be helpful to learn facts children wouldn’t otherwise be exposed to, such as the days of the week, most young children do not stay engaged or learn as much. If you are trying to teach them through direct instruction, consider making it more fun by adding songs and movement activities.
Guided play is play that is initiated by an adult and does have an end learning goal, but is still child directed. The key is to ask questions, make suggestions, or provide challenges to help a child’s play focus around a learning goal without taking over the play. This type of play can be especially effective for toddlers and preschoolers who still need more guidance.
One great example of guided play is if your child is building with blocks you can guide them to expand their knowledge and extend their interest. This may look like suggesting building the tallest tower they can, asking which blocks are best for building a certain thing, or challenging them to incorporate other toys in the building.
You can even start guided play with babies. Babies have very short attention spans, and often need us to change up their play to help them stay engaged. Even the youngest babies enjoy watching us making facial expressions at them but need variety to stay hooked.
Structured play (close-ended play)
Close-ended play or structured play is play that is initiated by an adult, has little to no direction from the child, and only one end goal. Close-ended toys are toys that only have one purpose and can’t really mix with other toys.
A common example of this type of play is games or board games with a single goal. This type of play is referred to as games with rules and is the highest developmental level of play. While these can be fun at the right times, they don’t offer the learning benefits of open ended or guided play for young children. And you’ll find it hard for young children to sit through or even grasp the rules of a board game.
What open-ended play is not
A lot of the ‘open ended play’ I see on social media fall short because moms believe that just by letting their child play with open ended toys that qualifies as open ended play. Often, parents fear the child isn’t playing ‘right’ The toys alone are not the most important part
Open ended play does not mean that an adult cannot play with a child or help a child. As you’ll see below, one common tool for this kind of play is art supplies. A child can initiate using art supplies and direct what to do with the tools, but still requires the help and supervision of an adult.
This kind of play also does not mean you just let your children run wild or do whatever they want. Children this young still need boundaries to operate within and adult supervision.
Young children are always coming up with new ideas of what to play with and how to play. But that doesn’t always mean those ideas are safe even if they are engaging in open ended play. The safety of your child is obviously more important than the open-ended play at that moment.
Benefits of open-ended play
There is an enormous number of studies that have shown open-ended play is beneficial for child development. This type of play exposes children to new concepts and different skills while also building on key areas of development. The importance of open-ended play only becomes more apparent as we study child development.
Check out the National Association for the Education of Young Children (NAEYC) for all this information and even more open-ended resources.
Problem solving may seem like an adult concept or skill, but children actually start problem solving, even one year olds do it! Open-ended toys help them identify a problem or goal and figure out different ways to achieve it. This also builds a foundation that leads to critical thinking as they get older.
Fine Motor Skills
Playing with small figurines, building with blocks, and sensory bins are just some of the examples of using fine motor skills during open-ended play. You’ll notice that a lot this kind of play involves building things, setting up toys, or moving around loose parts. And all of those things help fine motor skills without a child even noticing.
The imaginative and pretend play that happens during open-ended play helps build a child’s language development as they ask for different things, narrate what they’re doing, or tell a story with their toys. Children can learn how to communicate what they’re thinking and feeling. All these things are building language and cognitive skills in a fun, relaxed environment.
One of the most important aspects of open-ended play that can be overlooked is that it builds self-efficacy in children. Self-efficacy is an individual’s belief in his or her capacity to execute behaviors necessary to produce specific performance attainments, according the American Psychological Association.
As they play this way making their own choices and decisions, they become more confident in themselves, and their abilities. This type of play helps foster a growth mindset in young children.
Collaboration is a skill that takes lots of time and practice but helps build upon problem solving skills, language development, and social skills. Their development can be greatly strengthened by open-ended play with other children. This type of play with their peers also builds understanding of social cues, emotional intelligence, and emotional development.
One of the best parts of open-ended play is that innovation encourages children to create new things and find new solutions to specific problems. Children naturally love to experiment and express themselves through some type of medium, and toys can provide that creative experience.
Best toys for open-ended play
While young children can engage in open ended play with nearly anything as children often see most objects as toys whether they are or not. If they do want to play with something not generally seen as a toy, like kitchen utensils for example,
Open-ended play is so beneficial for your child’s development, and luckily there’s so many different ways you can encourage it in your home or classroom. One of the main ways to encourage this type of play is by providing your child with toys used for open-ended play.
Part of open-ended play is that you cannot force your child to play with any specific toy or material. So choose to have toys or materials on hand that your child is genuinely interested in. You can have tons of open-ended play activities available to them, but if they’re not interested in that toy it won’t do any good.
For example, my son is currently obsessed with zoo animals. So I keep a basket of plastic animals in the living room that he continually goes back to without being prompted for independent play. However, he rarely goes for the dolls and babies for open-ended play because he’s just not interested at the moment.
One of the biggest things to take into consideration when choosing open-ended toys is age appropriateness. What can your child reasonably play with that’s also safe and helpful for them? Legos are a great open ended toy, but a bad choice for my two year old because they’re too small and a choking hazard.
You’ll also notice that a lot of open-ended toys out there have loose parts, so be sure your child is old enough to use them.
10 best open ended toy ideas
Because of the creative nature of open-ended play, there’s endless possibilities as to what types of toys and materials can be used for this kind of play. If your child engages with something without being initiated by an adult and makes all the decisions of how to play with it, that’s an open ended toy.
But if you are looking for specific toys to keep at your house, here’s a list of our favorite open-ended toys. Look for toys that can be played with in a variety of ways and do not have a single objective or end goal.
1. Building Blocks
Whether they are cardboard, foam, or wooden blocks, building blocks are one of the best open-ended toys because of the endless possibilities. We often think of just building towers, but block play is so much more than that. Children can build anything they can think of, or even use the blocks with other toys in new ways.
2. Play Kitchen
While adults generally don’t think of a kitchen as a toy per se, play kitchens (or any play house item) are amazing for open ended play. Young children love to engage in imaginative play of things they regularly see in real life, like cooking in the kitchen or being at a restaurant. As your child’s imagination grows, this toy will grow with it because there’s no ‘wrong way’ to play with it.
My son was under two years old when he started wanting to play with his play kitchen on his own. This is one of the first toys he understood after seeing a real kitchen so often.
3. Dolls and Babies
Babies, stuffed animals, barbies, GI Joes- any type of doll can be a great toy for open ended play. This is also usually a favorite among young children.
4. Construction Toys
The great thing about this open ended toy is that it can be anything you want to build with. For example, magnetic tiles are a great toy you can buy that young kids can use to construct whatever they set their mind to. But this could also be something as simple as cardboard boxes you save to let them build different things.
These types of materials are a perfect opportunity to help your child play by taking direction for them. Let them initiate and come up with the ideas, but then you help them execute their plan.
They can also build with pliable materials like play dough or clay. Check out our complete play dough guide here.
5. Action Figures
Action figures of any kind make great toys for open ended play because they are amazing for pretend play. They can be used with virtually any other toys, and fit whatever your child’s imagination is feeling that day.
Again, choose something that your child is especially interested in. For my son, it’s these sesame street characters.
6. Animal Figurines
Similar to action figures and dolls, animal figurines can be used for any type of pretend play that your child comes up with. These can be used on their own or with other toys your child likes to play with. This could also mean a stuffed animal if your child has more interest in those.
Imaginary play is a key concept in open ended play that you’ll notice your child often starts on their own. Their own imagination is constantly running at this age, and a dress-up bin is a great tool to have in any play area to encourage that.
As young children get older, role play becomes a bigger and bigger part of their open ended play. Kids love to imitate what they see or hear in real life, and dress-up is one the best way to easily do that.
8. Sensory Bin
Open-ended play materials don’t always have to be traditional toys you buy from a store. Sensory bins are an awesome option that you can make yourself and fit to your child’s interest or needs. Check out our complete sensory bin guide here.
Sensory play is a great open-ended play option that also builds fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, critical thinking, and cognitive flexibility.
9. Art Supplies
This is another form of creative play and open ended play that you can not think of as a toy. And this is something we don’t recommend leaving out in a play area. Art supplies are an amazing way for a child to express their creativity.
Just remember that art at this age is not about the finished product. It’s about the process (read about all the benefits here).
This is another option that’s not a traditional toy, and it’s also free! Take your children outside to run around and play in the dirt. Natural materials like pine cones, sticks, or rocks make great ‘toys’ that can be used in so many different ways while also building a child’s imagination.
This is a great way to build gross motor skills as well. If you need some ideas to start, check them out here.
And you’ll notice that a lot of these toys can overlap or mix with one another. The best open-ended toys don’t have any one ‘right way’ to play and can be played with anywhere and mixed with other toys to open up new opportunities and create different ideas for play.
Check out more open-ended sensory play!
Try our newest sensory bin for open-ended play. This one is easy to make at home, and young kid’s will love it! Get the full step by step here.
Or try these fun projects that involve open-ended play!
Use those art supplies you have on hand for some fun cotton ball painting! This is a great open-ended play activity that also encourages your child’s creativity. Read about it here.