What Is Open Ended Play and How Does It Help Your Children?

Open Ended Play

There is a lot of chatter in parenting circles about open-ended toys, but there isn’t often a very good description of what exactly “open-ended” means. Couldn’t a child use any toy in a way that results in play without a specific purpose? The answer to that is both yes and no. Chances are pretty good that your child will use a closed-ended toy in an open-ended setting at least once, so why should you specifically seek out and add open-ended toys to your toy chest?

What is the difference between closed-ended and open-ended toys?

Children are incredibly versatile in how and why they use the toys they do. It’s truly an impressive sight to watch children make their own magical world out of relatively few supplies, and they build a lot of life-long skills in the process. The main difference between closed-ended toys and open-ended toys is the resulting play. Closed-ended toys have a set starting and stopping point, but the sky is the limit with open-ended toys.

There are certainly benefits to both closed and open-ended toys. Closed-ended toys, for instance, teach valuable problem-solving skills, and they encourage kids to practice sequencing, ordering, and persistence. Little kids also have many opportunities to improve their concentration and focusing skills when playing with close-ended toys because they have such a specific way to play.

Examples of Closed-Ended

  • Puzzles
  • Nesting blocks or cups
  • Board games
  • Craft projects with an end goal (ex: model plane kit)
  • Shape sorters

Open-ended toys offer a completely different type of play than close-ended toys (though many close-ended toys end up being used in open-ended play at some time or another). Because they don’t have a set purpose, open-ended toys have limitless possibilities for play. That little yellow block? It can be a boat, a cookie, a hammer, and a doctor’s tool. A red scarf? That’s a baby blanket, a fancy shawl, a tablecloth, or something to play peek-a-boo with.

Open-ended toys also give children opportunities to think outside the box and play what and how they want. There aren’t any rules to follow, and there isn’t a right or wrong way to play. Open-ended toys encourage imagination and creativity, and they also facilitate pretend play, which has all sorts of additional benefits. As an added plus, since there isn’t a start or stop, kids tend to play independently for more extended periods when they use open-ended toys.

Examples of Open-Ended

  • Magnetic tiles
  • Art supplies
  • Playdough
  • Blocks
  • Cardboard boxes
  • Train tracks
  • Cars
  • Dolls
  • Non-character people (wooden people)
  • Stuffed animals
  • Costumes
  • Large pieces of fabric
  • Toy animals (sorting, reenacting, etc.)

The Do’s of Open-Ended Toys

Even though there isn’t a right or wrong way to play with open-ended toys, some toys are better than others. Remember, if you have high-quality, open-ended toys, you need fewer toys overall because each toy can serve limitless purposes. Here is a list of some do’s as you look into different kinds of open-ended toys.

DO go natural when possible.

Natural toys like the Goose Grease peg dolls or anything from Raduga Grez are fantastic additions to your toy collection. Look for toys that come from sustainable sources that are finished with natural substances like beeswax or natural water-based paints. High-quality wooden toys are not only good for the environment, but they will keep your kids healthy and happy throughout their childhood years (and beyond!).

DO get gender-neutral toys.

Letting children play with all kinds of toys is one of the best ways to help them discover who they are and what they like. Some toys are designed to appeal to boys or girls, but the truth is that all children love playing with everything. When you are in the market for open-ended toys, look for things that are gender-neutral in colors and design. Kiko and GG and Moon Picnic have a lot of prime examples of gender-neutral, open-ended toys.

Open-ended toys give your child a chance to grow and develop in different ways than closed-ended toys. Since they strengthen different skills, one group of toys isn’t better than another, but open-ended to allow your child to imagine and create in ways that closed-ended toys don’t. All in all, it’s best to have some of both kinds of toys.


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