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Many of the greatest education philosophers such as Maria Montessori and Rudolf Steiner (Waldorf schools) were great supporters of open ended play.
They believed that children learn better when they are given greater freedom and autonomy and when they are allowed to explore by themselves and in their own way.
This type of play has attracted quite a bit of attention, both in schools and among education researchers. The available studies suggest that this type of play is highly beneficial for kids. This article will attempt to respond to the following questions
- What is open ended play?
- What advantages are associated with this type of play?
- How can you introduce it at home?
- What are the best games and toys to promote open ended play?
What is open ended play?
Open ended play refers to any child-led activities that have no pre-set objectives, meaning that the outcomes can be as varied as they can be surprising.
Given that this type of play does away with rigid reference structures, different children can benefit in different ways from this play.
Open ended play helps kid explore different materials in different ways and for their own sake – pebbles, sand, clay, play dough, twigs, sand, fabric, and so on.
Examples of this type of play include:
Role playing – for example, you child can pretend to cook dinner, transform twigs into magic wands to change frogs into princes, or play out any role that they can imagine.
Artistic activities – art and craft activities are very effective at promoting open ended play because your child is free to produce whatever they imagine. This includes activities such as painting, mosaic, drawing, clay modeling, and so on.
Any games or toys that do not encourage children to reach a predetermined outcome are great for open ended play. For example, your child can use blocks, bricks, or even empty cardboard boxes to construct different types of objects.
What are the advantages of open ended play?
Many advantages are associated with open ended play.
- It sparks creativity. Children have no guidelines, and they are therefore encouraged to come up with possibilities and outcomes of their own.
- It promotes activities (speaking, mimicking, using different facial expressions, etc.) that help your child to improve their language and communication skills. Communicating different emotions or watching others’ display of emotions also helps kids strengthen their emotional intelligence skills.
- It encourages kids to think out of the box because they learn that there are no “one solution fits all” outcomes.
- Open ended play is an easy and effective way to help your child develop their gross motor skills. This type of play encourages kids to engage in activities (running, walking, skipping, balancing, and so on) that help them strengthen their balance and coordination skills.
- This type of play not only helps kids develop many skills, it is also an activity that many children enjoy.
- It turns kids into explorers and sparks curiosity – “what happens if I add this sand to this mixture?”, “What about if I add these leaves?”, “And what if I add a bit of paint?”. By exploring by themselves, children are able to reach solutions alone: “next time, instead of the salt, I’ll try adding a bit of flour and see how that goes”.
How to make open ended play work
There are easy ways which can help you promote open ended play at home. Changing how we communicate with our kids can also help them learn to express themselves more freely and more independently.
- First, it is important to limit your intervention to encourage open ended play
- Asking your child questions with no fixed answers is an easy way to make them think about different ways of doing things
- Letting your child know that there is no “wrong answer” is also an easy way to help them learn to think creatively
- When you read together, encourage your child to reflect on the characters. For example, you can ask them what they would differently if the book was about them.
- Take your child on nature walks and let them explore by themselves…Watch them transform the objects that they find in their environment into magic wands, planes, and other things in their imagination.
Certain types of toys and games are great for encouraging kids to practice open ended play. The best thing about open ended toys is that your kid can use them differently, meaning that you can get away with just a few (but well chosen!) toys! The trick lies in choosing quality toys that will last and last.
Here are great options for open ended toys that will grow with your child.
The best toys for toddlers
Blocks are the ultimate open-ended toy because there are so many different ways that your toddler can use them – learning to count, moving the blocks from one hand to the other to develop their fine motor skills, building towers and knocking them down to learn about cause-and-effect, using them for pretend play, and so on.
Building blocks are great for developing your child’s creativity, visual perception skills, and fine motor skills.
The youngest kids will love these bright and beautiful soft baby blocks that they can safely chew on.
If you had to get only one toy, I’d recommend the Lovevery Block set because it has everything your kid could possibly need for the development of their fine motor skills, their visual discrimination skills and their creativity, and a lot more!
Open ended toys for kids between ages 3 and 5
Role playing is an activity that this age group enjoys, so anything that can help them sharpen their imagination skills is a great option. For example, both boys and girls will enjoy a kitchen set like this one.
You can also encourage your child to play with playdough or clay.
Both peg dolls and more traditional dolls are great open ended toys that help develop children’s creative and imaginative skills.
Tegu magnetic blocks are also great for this age group. These magnetic blocs with puzzle-like construction abilities will ensure that your child enjoys hours of imaginative play.
The best toys for kids between ages 6 and 8
Your child will create beautiful objects with their Magna tiles. I love Magna tiles because of their 3D dimension, their colors and shapes, and because they teach different concepts (math, creativity, and science).
Rory’s story cubes are a simple but powerful tool to ignite your child’s imagination. These cubes allow them to invent unique infinite stories. It will also make a great addition to your family game night!
If you have to get your child only one toy, then get them this Kapla Box. With 200 blocks, they will amaze you with the objects that they will imagine and create.
Open ended toys and games after age 8
Fill a box with recycled materials (cardboard, paper, string, toilet rolls, empty yoghurt boxes, buttons, etc), natural objects in your environment (twigs, pinecones, seeds, grains, leaves, etc.) and resources (glue, tape, paint, etc) and let your child unleash their creativity.
Classic Lego bricks are a great open ended toy because your child can use them to create whatever they want because with these bricks, the target is not to create a specific project. Consider getting them classic base plates that are compatible with all major brands (like these ones).
Although open ended play is necessary for the development of multiple skills, kids also benefit from close ended play which has a clear objective: solve a specific problem, finish a puzzle, build a Lego set, and so on. It is therefore important to expose them to different types of play.
An easy way to encourage both types of play is to propose different types of toys and resources then allow your child to choose and play freely with the different objects in their environment.