I’m sure you’ve heard of open ended play before. Or if you haven’t, you might have heard of free play or unstructured play. These are essentially similar in terms of objectives, intent and benefits that they bring to young children.
Before I go on and on about how important open ended play is for young children, let’s first talk about close ended play. Yes, close ended play! We seldom talked about close ended play, but in essence it is actually as important as open ended play.
Close ended activities are activities which have clear and specific directions or instructions of how they should be carried out. They have an end result or a specific objective to achieve. What are some examples of close ended activities? Puzzles, board games, science experiments, activity worksheets etc.
Are close ended activities important?!
Yes!!! A big resounding YES! They are important in instilling focus and discipline in your children, they help to build attention in your children and teach them how to have the end in mind.
But why all these hype about open ended play if close ended play is equally important?
WHAT IS OPEN-ENDED PLAY?
Open-ended play allows your child endless possibilities during playtime. There are no instructions, rules, or preset sequential guides for children to follow. Unlike close-ended games and activities, there is no “right” answer or “right” way to complete and finish the project. During open-ended play, children have the ability to make their own decisions and fully engage their creativity and imagination.
WHY IS OPEN-ENDED PLAY IMPORTANT?
It enables children to practice their leadership and decision-making skills.
Open-ended play gives your child the opportunity to be a leader. When children aren’t handed a set of instructions, they make their own. Rather than telling a child how to do something, open-ended play leaves the decision-making up to them. Give your child a board game and they’ll follow the rules as told. Give them a set of building bricks with no end result to follow, and they’ll build a creation entirely from their imagination. They become the creative leader of their play time and develop critical decision-making skills.
It encourages children to be more open to experiment with new ideas and learn new concepts.
There’s no “wrong” way for children to engage in open-ended play. When children have the ability to play without instruction, they become less concerned with doing the activity correctly.
Open-ended play instills confidence in your child to experiment with new concepts as they realize there’s no right or wrong way to engage. When your child sits down with a set of colored pencils and a blank piece of paper, they can draw and color anything their imagination desires. They can practice their handwriting, or write their name. Children can draw a lion, a bird, a castle. They can draw whatever they’d like without having to ask if they’re doing it correctly. Children become less afraid to make mistakes, which pushes them to try new things.
It promotes problem solving skill in children, one of the most important skills needed in today’s world.
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, it makes 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 solve problems on his own. For instance, he learns how to stack the blocks so they resemble a house without them falling down.
It encourages creativity and imagination in your child to flow freely.
In today’s world, kids are told what to think and do in most situations. Open-ended play is a chance for a child to use their imagination. Electronics have taken away a child’s ability to use their imagination because it does everything for them. For just a little bit, open-ended play allows a child to pretend and to use their imagination, which is ever-so-exciting.
And more importantly, many of the open ended toys and materials are TIMELESS.
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 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. Look at the Paw Patrol toy you’ve bought for your 4 year old son, do you think he will still express the same level of excitement and passion for this toy 4 years later when he’s 8? Now, look at those building blocks or magnetic tiles you’ve bought, do you think your 4 year old son will still be interested in tinkering with them 4 years down the road? I know many friends who are still tinkering with Lego blocks even at 30 years old!
Timeless toys and materials also mean that they can be used again and again with your 2nd child or your 3rd child, and they will still instill the same interest and passion, and benefits in the child!
I’ve heard many parents complain to me, “We have so many open ended toys and materials at home, but my kid doesn’t touch them.”
Something I’ve learnt in my personal parenting journey of 5 years, is when it comes to open ended play, sometimes it requires a little guidance and ideas and enabling from you as a parent. Especially if open ended play is newly introduced to your child at the very initial stages. Below are some tips!
HOW TO ENCOURAGE OPEN-ENDED PLAY?
Provide some downtime for your child.
If your child has a really packed or busy schedule for the day, it will be more difficult to engage him in open ended play. He will be exhausted, much less interested in ‘creating’. Instead, ensure he has some down time in the day. “Mummy, I’m bored”, when he whines and complains about boredom setting in, this is usually the best time to encourage him to tinker with his open ended materials or toys.
Throw him ideas to start him off, leave it as a comment or an open ended question. Don’t make it sound like an instruction for him to follow.
”Do you think your animals would like a farm to stay in?”
”It’s a really hot day, hmm, it would be nice if there’s an ice cream stall right here in the house!”
”Wow, you have so many vehicles here. I wonder if it is possible to have a carpark big enough to park all of them.”
Follow your child’s lead.
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 your child 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 can ask 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.
Ask open ended questions during the play.
Encourage open-ended play by asking open-ended questions. Whether you’re playing with your child or asking about his play, open-ended questions avoid directing his play or taking over his lead.
Start by giving him your full attention as he shares about his open ended play:
“What is this figurine doing here?”
“I see that your house has no windows. Do you want to tell me about that?”
“This structure looks interesting, do you want to tell me what is it?”
Play with them!
Sit with them, be present, show them some ways of using these toys and enjoy some sweet time together. I would steer clear of telling them what to do with the toy.
Rather, I would simply play next to them.
They will watch you and copy what you're doing. Before you know it, their own imagination will take over! This will not only help the child see the possibilities with the toy but also foster a stronger connection with you.
It is really important, especially at the start of the open ended play, to just sit with your child and play next to him. Tinker with his open ended toys and materials.
Build a house with those blocks, and he might add a roof to it, a garden in front of it, and he might put his animal figurines around the house.
Build a carpark, and he might add a “slide” to it. He might start building another structure next to it and call it the “petrol station”.
Soon you will realize that he is building onto your imagination and creativity! And even when you leave him alone to his play, he might not have realized you’re gone because he’s so immersed in his own open ended play now!
Fill your house with open ended toys and materials.
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.
Open-ended materials are usually materials or items you can find around the house, below are some examples:
- Pipe cleaners
- Scoops and spoons
- Popsicle sticks
- Tissue boxes
- Pom poms
- Bottle caps
- Toilet rolls
- Stones / Pebbles
- Play silks
- Art and Craft Materials
The same holds true with open-ended toys. Fill your home with these kinds of toys and encourage your child to use them as tools to create. Below are our top 10 highly recommended open ended toys which we personally own (and some ideas of how to play with them)!
1) Magnetic Tiles
We have 1 set from Magnatiles and 1 set from Playmags. These magnetic tiles are the ones which are taken out most often for his open ended play!
2) Lego Building Blocks
I actually personally prefer the Duplo blocks to Lego blocks, because they are larger in size and more versatile in terms of open ended play.
3) Grimm’s Rainbow
One of my favorite brands for high quality, sustainable and non-toxic wooden toys! We use these wooden rainbow pieces as bridges and tunnels for his vehicles, or to create animal enclosures or to do color sorting. Possibilities are truly endless!
4) Grimm’s semi-circles
These semi-circles are newly acquired so we haven’t had a chance to explore with them much yet. But they are definitely a perfect accompaniment to the Rainbows!
5) Grimm’s wooden peg dolls
These peg dolls are so great because they can be anyone that your child wants them to be! One day, the red peg doll is a firefighter; another day, the red peg doll is a little girl; and yet another day, the red peg doll is a farmer. We use these peg dolls in almost every pretend play session!
6) Gluckskafer’s building slats
Another great brand for wooden toys, our other go-to brand aside from Grimm’s! These rainbow building slats is another hot favorite in our home!
We really really love these tracks, and the only regret I had was not buying it earlier!!! I had previously spent money on 2 ready-made track sets which didn’t hold my boy’s attention for long. He got bored with each set after about 1 month.
On the other hand, because the waytoplay tracks can be manipulated for different configurations, every play is different and as interesting as the last!
8) Grapat Loose Parts
These loose parts are really pretty and so so versatile! We have the water drops, the cone trees, the honeycomb and many more.
9) Pretend Cooking Sets
There are tons of different brands out there! We own a mixture of pretend cooking sets from Melissa & Doug, and IKEA.
And sometimes, all you need are cardboard, some loose materials and imagination to do pretend cooking!
10) Play dough sets
And yes, how can we forget good ol’ play doughs! I prefer home-made play dough (you can get them from The Tiny Trove or Doughnme) sets because the texture feels better and smoother and they are non-toxic!
Or you can always make your very own play dough at home!
Those are our 10 recommendations on open-ended toys!
If I got to really choose 3 that we cannot do without in our house, it would definitely gotta be:
- Magnetic tiles
- Pretend cooking sets
- Waytoplay tracks
I hope the above helps you to get started on your open ended play journey with your little ones! Remember, give them the freedom and flexibility to explore these open ended toys and materials on their own terms. And more often than not, you might be pleasantly surprised by how creative and innovative your little one can be!