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What is open-ended play, why it’s important for kids & toys

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I am a huge fan of open ended play and toys. 

But what is open ended play you may ask? 

Open ended play refers to unstructured, imaginative, and self-directed activities where there are no specific rules, outcomes, or predetermined goals. 

One of the biggest benefits of open ended play is that encourages children to explore, create, and interact with their environment in a way that allows for infinite possibilities and outcomes.

I absolutely love the fact that they grow with your child and the play possibilities are endless. Whenever I have the occasion, I recommend them to all my mom friends.

Types of play series:

  1. 7 Valuable Construction Play Benefits for Your Little One
  2. What is open-ended play {+ 27 accessible toy ideas your child will love} (this one)

What is open ended play?

If you ask me, open ended play is the best kind of play that has been on earth forever. I am pretty sure our parents, grandparents, great-grandparents, and all our ancestors knew about it. The only difference nowadays is that it has a name to it. 

This type of play is the best thing for your child as it allows kids to explore and express their creativity freely without any pre-determined limitations.

That’s exactly what we, humans did in the past. There were no fancy toys or money to buy them. So we (our parents especially) had to get creative and find different ways to use existing resources to create our toys or play with different materials and tools and use our imagination for free play.

I can still hear my mom saying that she used to build dolls out of unused clothes…

By the looks of it, we are going back in time. More and more parents are transforming their living room into a Montessori classroom (read more about Maria Montessori here), looking for open-ended activities, various household items, or even recycled materials to entertain the little ones.

It’s fascinating how there are no rules to follow, no expectations, no right answer or wrong answer,  and most importantly, no pressure. Unlike closed-ended toys or closed-ended activities that already have a determined outcome.

Children have the capability and the possibility to make their own decisions and fully engage their imagination while playing.

The creative nature of open-ended play means you can make up your own games, build cool things, and basically do whatever you want. It’s like being the boss of your own adventure – no rules, just pure imagination fun which is also good for brain development!

What is open-ended play, why it's important for kids & toys 1

Open ended materials

Here are some open-ended resources that can help your child play freely and without too many boundaries, but always under adult supervision:

  • cardboard boxes – yup the ones you receive your parcels in 🙂
  • sand / kinetic sand – I feel like it’s less messy as it’s moist, which makes it easy to create shapes with.
  • water – quick tip: try adding a few drops of food coloring and/or bath foam to create some colorful bubbles. I did exactly this one time for my son and his hands ended up with food coloring on them – so this is something you should be aware 
  • fabrics
  • building blocks or bricks
  • paper
  • washable paint
  • wood
  • loose parts
  • pine cones
  • peg dolls
  • play dough used with printable play dough mats – can be a fun rainy day activity.

Remember that these toys don’t have to be wooden. The idea is that you have endless possibilities to play with certain toys and that’s what makes it open-ended.

Useful ResourceThe Power of Open-Ended Materials

Why is open ended play important for young children?

One of the main benefits of open-ended play is early childhood development, which means that through open-ended play your child will learn how to solve and make certain decisions on their own. This is crucial for them later on in life as teenagers and adults for understanding of the world.

If you’d like to do some more research about the stages of intellectual child development from infancy through adulthood, follow this link.

What are the open ended play benefits?

  • creativity and imagination – engaging in open-ended play nurtures a child’s creativity by allowing children to explore endless possibilities, invent scenarios, and create their own worlds, fostering creative thinking.
  • problem-solving skills – the perfect opportunity for children to learn to think critically, make decisions, set rules, and solve specific problems independently as they navigate different challenges presented during children’s play.
  • leadership abilities – children have the opportunity to develop and refine leadership capabilities in a fun and interactive manner, laying the foundation for effective leadership skills that can be applied in various aspects of their lives.
  • independence and self-confidence – children gain a sense of autonomy and confidence as they explore and make decisions during play without the constraints of specific rules or outcomes.
  • cognitive skills – it stimulates cognitive abilities such as memory, attention, and logical thinking, promoting mental agility and intellectual growth.
  • social skills & communication skills – through collaborative play, children learn to share, negotiate, and language skills. Kids learn to communicate with peers, developing essential social skills like cooperation and empathy.
family with kids playing with wooden blocks
  • emotional regulation – open-ended play provides a safe space for children to express emotions, handle conflicts, and learn to manage feelings like frustration or excitement in a supportive environment.
  • fine & gross motor skills – activities within open-ended play often involve manipulation of objects, physical movement, and coordination, aiding in the development of both fine and gross motor skills.
  • adaptability & flexibility – being engaged in open-ended play encourages flexibility in thinking and adaptability to changing situations, important skills in navigating various life scenarios.
  • curiosity & exploration – it encourages curiosity about the world, promoting a natural inclination to explore and discover new things, fostering a lifelong love for learning.
  • holistic development – overall, open-ended play supports holistic development, addressing various aspects of a child’s growth—physical, cognitive, social, emotional intelligence, and even moral development—laying a strong foundation for lifelong learning and well-being.

Types of play series:

  1. 7 Valuable Construction Play Benefits for Your Little One
  2. What is open-ended play {+ 27 accessible toy ideas your child will love} (this one)
our favorite open ended toys

Here are some open-ended play examples 

  1. Building with Blocks: Children can use a set of blocks of different shapes, sizes, and materials to construct anything their own imagination desires, from simple towers to intricate structures.
  2. Pretend Play: Whether it’s playing house, pretending to be superheroes, or imagining a fantasy world, pretend play allows children to create stories and explore different roles and scenarios.
  3. Art and Craft: Providing various art supplies like paper, paint, clay, and crafting materials allows kids to create without limitations, expressing themselves through drawings, sculptures, and other artistic creations.
  4. Sensory Play: Using materials such as sand, water, playdough, or sensory bins filled with different textures and objects, children can explore their senses, manipulate materials, and engage in hands-on exploration.
  5. Nature Exploration: Encouraging children to explore nature, collect leaves, and rocks, or observe insects, fostering curiosity and connection with the natural world.
  6. Loose Parts Play: Offering loose parts like buttons, shells, fabric scraps, and other assorted items allows children to manipulate and combine objects in a variety of ways, fostering creativity and problem solving.
  7. Dramatic Play: Setting up a play kitchen, dress-up clothes, or providing props for different roles (doctor, chef, firefighter) enables children to enact scenarios and explore social dynamics through role play.
  8. Construction and Engineering: Providing materials like sticks, connectors, and recyclables for building allows kids to engineer and construct various creations, promoting problem-solving and spatial skills.
  9. Music and Movement: Allowing children to explore musical instruments or engage in free movement and dance encourages self-expression and creativity.
  10. Outdoor Exploration: Creating opportunities for unstructured outdoor play, such as digging, climbing, or exploring natural environments, lets children interact with the elements and engage in physical activity while fostering a sense of adventure and discovery.

Best types of toys That Kids Will Love

Here are some great toys, and some of them are my son’s favorite open-ended toys. These are tried and tested by my son over the years. He’s 6 years old when I am updating this article and he’s still playing a lot with the toys mentioned in the below list. 

For convenience, I’ve listed the best open-ended toys by age group so you can easily find what works best for the child in your life.

Best open ended toys for babies (0-12 months old)

  • Rattles and Grasping Toys: rattles and toys are designed for easy grasping to encourage sensory exploration. Tip: your baby won’t see colors yet, so try to incorporate black-and-white items.
  • Soft Fabric Blocks: Squishy, fabric blocks that infants can grasp, stack, and explore textures with.
  • Teething Toys: Safe and textured teething toys designed to soothe gums and encourage tactile exploration.
  • Activity Gyms: Play gyms with hanging toys and mirrors to promote visual tracking and tummy time.
  • Cloth Books: Soft, cloth books with simple textures, bright colors, and high-contrast images for sensory stimulation.

Best open ended toys for toddlers (1-3 years old)

  • Wooden Blocks: Basic wooden blocks of different shapes and sizes for building, stacking, and imaginative play.
  • Play Dough and Tools: Non-toxic play dough and tools for molding, squishing, and imaginative creation.
  • Shape Sorters: Sorting toys with various shapes and colors to encourage problem-solving and coordination.
  • Pretend Play Sets: Play kitchen sets, doctor kits, or tool sets for imaginative role-play and social interaction.
  • Large Construction Sets: Larger building sets like Duplo blocks, train tracks, or magnetic tiles for more complex creations and fine motor skill development.

Best open ended toys for preschoolers (3-5 years old)

  • Art Supplies: Crayons, washable markers, paints, and various art materials for creative expression and exploration.
  • Dress-Up Clothes: Costumes and dress-up clothes for imaginative role-playing and storytelling.
  • Small World Play Sets: Playsets with miniature figures (toy animals, people, vehicles, farm) for creating diverse imaginary worlds.
  • Board Games: a simple board game involving matching, counting, or cooperative play to encourage social interaction and problem solving.
  • Building Sets with Connectors: Sets with connectors and more intricate pieces for building more elaborate structures and fostering creativity.
free activity sheets for toddlers

Best open ended toys for school-aged children (6+ years)

  • LEGO or Building Bricks: More intricate building sets like LEGO for complex constructions and problem-solving.
  • Art and Craft Kits: Advanced art kits or DIY craft sets for more sophisticated creative projects.
  • Strategy Board Games: Board games require strategic thinking, planning, and critical decision-making.
  • Science Kits: Kits for simple experiments and hands-on science exploration to stimulate curiosity and learning.
  • Outdoor Exploration Tools: Binoculars, magnifying glasses, or nature exploration kits to encourage outdoor exploration and discovery.

Related article: 64 Best Boy Toys for 1 Year-Old + Types of Play

More open ended toys for various age groups

  • Montessori Screwdriver Board – This is a great board to keep any toddler, especially boys, busy for hours. They learn how to manipulate certain tools and they develop their motoric skills by handling all those little screws. Don’t leave your child unattended while playing with this board. There are lots of choking hazards around.
  • Wooden Balance Board – a great example of an open-ended toy that will grow with your child. In those early ages, it will act as a ramp for cars. Later on, your child can use it for different balancing and movement activities.
  • Foldable Pikler Triangle with Ramp – Also known as toddler gym, this foldable pikler is perfect for motor skills development. It involves climbing, pulling, sliding, balancing, and many others. Besides being super fun, it’s also great for self-confidence, concentration, achievement, and many others.
  • Wooden peg people – Normally peg people are versatile and can be used for different toddler activities. I used to make our own just because I love creating things with my hands plus some of my friends told me I should start selling them. That’s how my new shop came to life.
  • Loose Parts Set – loose parts are the perfect example of open-ended play materials. Therefore introducing loose parts in your child’s life is essential to feed children’s imaginations. This will “push” them to think and create freely without any rules or boundaries. Read more to learn more about the importance of loose parts play. 
  • Balancing Stones – Inspired by a Japanese game called Tumi-Ishi, it’s all about balance! The game teaches about patience, a sense of balance, hand-eye coordination, logic, observation, and perseverance. That’s exactly why more and more parents introduce the game to toddlers and children. Your child can stack, build, or balance the stones. 
  • Rainbow Cubes – Probably the least exciting toy, but it’s extremely valuable in your child’s development. Used for stacking, sequencing, or building, these little cubes will teach your child fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. Later on, your little one can use it with other Waldorf wooden toys, such as the rainbow stacking toy, to create more complicated activities and games. Here’s a nice account on Instagram or this one for inspiration.
  • Education Rainbow Pebbles – More suitable for older toddlers (3+), but not necessarily. Young toddlers may use it for stacking and sorting. Whereas older kids can use it to recreate images using these loose parts.
What is open-ended play, why it's important for kids & toys 2
  • Color Sorting & matching – Look how cute they are! There are so many activities with these. Learning and sorting colors, transferring, and pretend play are just a few examples.
  • Rainbow Rings – The wooden rings are another item from the “loose parts” category. These will help your toddler work on their fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. Plus, they make a great accessory for peg people. You can create tons and tons of activities.
  • Sensory Bins – I love discovery bins. It’s a great opportunity for your child to learn, touch, and feel new items. You can easily create your own using things you already have in your home. Or you can go ahead and purchase a sensory treasure basket.
  • Wooden ABCs – Another great example of a great way to teach your child the alphabet. Check out my FREE printable alphabet flashcards for toddlers.
  • Wooden Vegetablesa great opportunity for your toddler to see and learn more about vegetables. Plus it’s good for fine motor skills. 
  • Wooden stacking train – Besides being a super useful toy for your child’s development, it can be a wonderful shelf decoration too.

Related article: 10 Must-Have Educational Toys for Toddlers

FAQs on what is open ended play

  • What’s open-ended play, and why is it a big deal for kids?

    Open-ended play is like the ultimate free-play mode! It’s where kids get to dive into activities without strict rules. And why’s it so important? Well, it’s like a creativity, problem-solving, and friendship boot camp—all rolled into one.

  • When should my little one start with this kind of play?

    The cool thing is, that open ended play kicks off super early! Babies start exploring textures and sounds, while toddlers and older kids get into fancier stuff based on what they can handle.

  • How can I get my kid into open-ended play at home?

    Wanna be the open-ended play MVP? Hook ’em up with fun stuff like blocks, artsy gear, or even outdoor kits. Then, let them do their thing with no rules attached. Oh, and joining in on the fun is a bonus!

  • Are there specific toys that work best for this kind of play?

    Totally! Think building blocks, squishy dough, art supplies, dress-up gear, and cool nature kits. Basically, anything that lets kids explore and create without anyone saying, “Nope, you can’t do that!”

  • What’s the big deal about open-ended play compared to structured stuff or screen time?

    Ah, good question! Open-ended play is like the superhero of fun because it brings out creativity, problem-solving, and social skills in ways other activities can’t. It’s all about letting kids be themselves and learn by doing fun stuff, not just staring at screens!

Conclusion

You know what’s really cool? At the end of the day, open-ended play isn’t just fun and games—it’s like a secret powerhouse for kids’ growth. It’s this magic thing that helps them be super creative, solve problems like champs, and get better at making friends, set outcomes and think smart.

When kids get to dive into playtime without rules or limits, it’s like giving them a superpower cape. They can explore, dream up stuff, and just let the child’s imagination run wild. And guess what? All that stuff they do, whether it’s building towers, squishing clay, or setting up train tracks, is actually laying down the groundwork for mega-important skills like being creative, working together, and bouncing back when things get tricky.

So, it’s not just playtime—it’s like a magic wand that will them up to be confident, independent thinkers who can take on anything life throws their way. Let’s cheer on their adventures because, in every game and every make-believe world, they’re learning and growing big time.

Don’t forget that you can download my Activity Sheets for Toddlers and Preschoolers for FREE using the form below.

Kinga

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10 Comments

    1. We use them too! My son likes them a lit. They are all over the house! Haha

  1. Lindsey | GreenMamaLife says:

    Yes! Love this so much! I’m always trying to explain to parents that electronic “educational toys” actually stifle brain development and growth while simple, imaginative play toys improve intelligence, confidence, and problem dining skills! Thanks for sharing!

    1. Happy to hear that Lindsey. I can’t say I don’t allow my son screen time at all because I’d lie. But I focus on open ended play and Montessori activities 🥰

  2. Great toys! Christmas and my son’s birthday are both in December! I will need to remember these!

    1. Awww.. that’s so cool. I absolutely love December and anything Christmas related ❤️

  3. I love these ideas to help promote open ended play. I know my boys would probably enjoy all of them. It’s always great to see their creative minds at work. Sierra Beautifully Candid

  4. Great Article! My son is 3 years old and I can buy him all the toys in the world but he would rather play with a box or something colorful in the house. I recently stopped buying him a lot of toys and now focus more on educational projects. I will use some of these you have on the list.

    1. That’s so good to hear Kelly. Kids don’t need a lot of toys. That’s why I am a huge fan of toy rotation. I am absolutely certain that he’ll love anything from this list. Best of luck

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