Open-Ended Play

Two Red Haired Boys Build Tower While Playing with Black BridgeWood Classic Love Letter Wooden Alphabet Block Toys

Table of Contents

Make The Dream Come True

It seems like a dream. The idea that you can buy fewer and more beautiful toys that will greatly enhance the quality of learning and playtime for your children seems like yet another empty ‘Instagram’ promise. The tantalizing thought that your home will be easier to organize and clean without piles and piles of toys makes the thought sound too good to be true.

But carefully curating a collection of open-ended toys delivers all those benefits and MORE. Multiple studies from reputable sources (such as Michigan State University, the National Institute of Health, Research Gate, and the Children’s Hub) crow the praises of open-ended play. By fostering a play environment filled with ‘loose parts’ and simple, classic toys, you are giving your children the ability to:

  • Develop their creativity and imagination
  • Enhance language and vocabulary skills
  • Increase social connection and skills
  • Develop and fine-tune motor skills
  • Develop foundational math and physics insights and knowledge
  • Increased attention spans, problem-solving, and cognitive flexibility
  • Increases emotional regulation and empathy
  • Encourages problem-solving
  • Increases independence
  • Develops storytelling skills
  • Have FUN!

But what IS open-ended play, and how do you foster it in your children? And what are some examples of open-ended toys? How do open-ended toys achieve all of these (and more) goals?

Let’s walk you through the exciting and life-changing world of open-ended play.

What is Open-Ended Play?

First, let’s answer the question about what open-ended play IS.

Open-ended play is play without pre-determined rules or outcomes. Children are free to explore, invent, and create their games using tools and toys they find in their environment. One object can fulfill multiple purposes in the hands of a child engaged in open-ended play.

Example: The Stick

Take, for example, the humble stick. Sticks are theorized to be the oldest known toys in the world, having been played with by children from before recorded history. And although modern children may not play with sticks precisely the same way as their Paleolithic ancestors, they retain the same instincts and joy in the simplicity of the object.

A stick can become a rocket, shooting off to the moon. It can become a sword, cutting down fierce dragons and terrible monsters in the classic battles of good versus evil. It can measure distances and help create new forts or rules for a newly invented game. It can mark a ‘goal’ or become a sturdy flag when a rag or play silk is tied around its top. It can become a little man who joins his stick wife and children in a game of ‘house.’

We could go on and on about how a child can transform a humble stick into hundreds of imaginative and impressive uses that fill hours of happy playtime.


In Contrast: Many Modern Toys

In contrast, many modern toys are designed with one purpose in mind. They might talk, sing, teach a certain skill, or be modeled after popular movie or story characters. Although these toys can also be helpful and fun for learning, children will find themselves functionally limited by the design and nature of these single-purpose toys. They will enjoy exploring the one purpose behind these toys, but once the limits for that purpose have been encountered, they will lose interest. Popular characters or figurines can be more flexible. However, children will still find themselves constrained by the pre-existing storylines for the character, which limits their play and full creative expression.

Let’s explore an example. For instance, board games are designed to be played with a particular set of rules. As beneficial as it can be to learn the rules of a game, the game needs to be packed up and put away when its one purpose has been served. Unless, of course, the child is permitted to play with game parts outside of the bounds of the game. For instance, the play money found in popular board games can be used to ‘buy’ food at a grocery store or become ‘tickets’ to a play. But even then, children will often find themselves naturally limited by the ‘rules’ these objects impose.

Similarly, toys that serve only one purpose will naturally have a limiting effect on children’s imaginations. That is why children often become bored with new toys, tossing them to the side once they have solved the puzzle. Children LOVE to explore the dimensions of a new toy, learning everything they can about it and how it works. And it is amazing to see how quickly their brains process the learning the toy gives them. Once they have explored its limitations and possibilities, they will naturally move on.


Limitless Exploration

But with open-ended toys, the possibilities are nearly limitless. One set of simple, classic toys can entertain and engage children through multiple ages and developmental stages.

For instance, black and white alphabet or prism blocks will stimulate the optic nerves of newborn babies. As the infant grows, they will develop and refine their motor skills as they grasp and let go of the blocks. They will begin to learn about texture, weight, cause, and effect, and the relentless tug of gravity as they practice stacking, clapping, and knocking over towers of blocks. When they grow into the toddler stage, those blocks can become ‘cupcakes’ made in an imaginary kitchen or magic seeds that grow in a carefully planted, imaginary garden. Growing older, the children will use the classic blocks to build castles and houses and make intricate ball runs. The learning continues when they are ready to learn their alphabet, spelling out simple phrases and even adding up mathematical problems with the blocks. And lastly, beautiful wooden blocks can be used as clever and pretty décor as the child grows.

And this is just one example of how versatile open-ended toys can be! By carefully choosing what kind of toys you bring into your home, you can create almost limitless play and learning opportunities for your child, while also reducing the amount of clutter and ‘overwhelm’ that piles of close-ended toys can bring.

By purchasing fewer toys, you can invest in higher-quality, heirloom toys. By focusing on natural materials and avoiding plastic, you also create a more environmentally-friendly footprint. Higher-quality, natural toys last longer, are easier to repair, and are much less likely to end up in landfills.

Curating An Open-Ended Playroom and Outdoor Space

 There are many, many open-ended toys that you can bring into your space. But to simplify life, we’ve compiled this handy list that offers enormous flexibility in playtime for your children while also bringing beauty and organizational simplicity to your home and play spaces. Some of these are ‘free’ or very inexpensive. Some require more of an investment. But all of them are excellent learning tools that will foster the many benefits that open-ended play gives to your children. And, because some of these toys are pricey, we included suggestions for more affordable or even ‘free’ versions of the more expensive toys where possible.

Note: These toy suggestions are not developmentally appropriate for all ages. Please make sure that the toys you provide your small children are not choking or suffocation hazards.

Open-Ended Toys

Alphabet Blocks
    • Classic alphabet blocks are some of the simplest, most educational, and most versatile toys you can give your child. They will help develop reading, spelling, and writing skills but can also become castles, imaginary food, and marble track obstacles. They are one of the best toy investments for curating an open-ended playroom.
    • Making your own wooden toys can make these highly versatile toys even more special. Check out the Toymaker Kit to learn how to easily create and customize charming toys for your loved ones!
Prism Blocks   
  • Similar to alphabet blocks, the alternative benefit of Prisms is that they can be used to create highly complicated and beautiful puzzles and geometric patterns. The simple design on each block will challenge the spatial reasoning for both children and adults, making these toys a highly versatile and elegant toy.
Building Blocks
  • Whether left natural or colorfully painted, building blocks will become one of the most versatile tools in your playroom! You will be amazed at the playscapes and imaginative uses a child will create with these simple, classic toys.
Play Silks
  • Sheer and lovely, play silks can become flowing, colorful hair, accessories to imaginary costumes, draped to make a play tent or laid on the floor to become ‘water,’ ‘mountains,’ or the sky in homemade playscapes. They quickly become a favorite sensory experience for young children, who delight in the soft and silky texture.
  • Play silks can be expensive! But you can get a very similar effect by using thin, clean, old rags/shirts/bedsheets, preferably colored or with pretty patterns, and cut into long squares and rectangles. Although it is impossible to replicate the feel of silk with these types of materials, children will still benefit enormously from exploring the variety of textures that different fabrics from homemade ‘silks’ give them.
Cardboard Boxes & Tubes
  • Often FREE, cardboard boxes and tubes are easily some of the most fun toys your child will ever play with. Boxes can become forts, boats, palettes for coloring and artwork, swords, and more! Whether a child uses the tube out of a toilet paper roll, the box from leftover groceries, or the exciting, GIANT delight of a refrigerator box, they create various storytelling experiences that bring endless hours of play. Toss in a roll of duct tape and scissors for older children, so they can cut and tape the boxes into new shapes and sizes to suit their imaginative games while also helping them to learn basic engineering skills.
Art Supplies
  • Whether it is salt dough, crayons, watercolors, or blank paper, your child will DELIGHT in exploring colors and expressing themselves creatively. Remember to save some of their creations, writing down the date and name of the artist, to remember the joy they had in art when they were younger.
Hula Hoops
  • A classic outdoor toy, hula hoops can be used for much more than just hula-hooping. These toys, great for developing gross and fine motor skills, can be rolled, tossed, and built into forts or obstacle courses. Choose wooden hula hoops for a more environmentally friendly and durable option.
Blankets and Pillows
  • Blankets are for much more than just snuggling! Use them to cushion hard floors, to become great ‘lakes’ for playscapes, to drape over chairs to create forts, and to become elegant dresses or capes. Pillows can become stepping stones over hot lava, mountains in a playscape, and doors to a fortress. The possibilities are endless!
Rainbows and Wooden Stackers
  • Beautiful and incredibly versatile, rainbow and wooden stackers quickly become parents’ favorites because of their ‘collapsible’ nature, making them easy to store. But these highly educational toys can be stacked to create a variety of towers that challenge a range of fine and gross motor skills, made into ‘houses’ for dolls and animals, ‘tunnels’ and bridges for vehicles, ball runs, and so much more. Although more expensive, these toys are among the best investments when buying high-quality wooden toys.
Faceless Peg Dolls
  • These simple dolls are often perfect for fitting into small hands, making them very comfortable toys. They can be used to practice matching colors, as ‘people’ in imaginary play, to create patterns in mandalas or puzzles, to play counting games, and much more!
Pom Poms
  • Pom Poms are colorful and offer an excellent sensory experience for children who love exploring their fluffy, soft texture. They can be used for color sorting and quickly become play ‘food’ or other props in various imaginary games.
Loose Parts
  • Small, loose toys can be used in a variety of ways. Children love exploring the different textures and will also enjoy finding and collecting these ‘parts,’ which helps them to develop a sense of curiosity and love for nature. Sorting them into trays helps them to learn how to ‘match,’ and an adult can help curate the learning experience, by helping to collect loose parts to help learn different colors, holidays, or seasons. They can be made into patterns, or older children can be challenged to find and spell the word that represents each loose part. Here are some examples of just some of the free loose parts that can be found and collected by an inquisitive child.
    1. Stones/Rocks
    2. Pinecones
    3. Acorns
    4. Leaves
    5. Flowers
  • Balls come in a variety of shapes, sizes, and uses. From marbles that can be used to create marble runs, to bouncing balls and sports balls of every size, children will enjoy developing both fine and gross motor skills as they practice catching, kicking, chasing, and throwing balls in a wide variety of games.
Climbing Triangles
  • Children love to climb, and simple, classic climbing triangles (such as the classic Pikler design) can be used as a jungle gym, tiny ‘forts,’ homes for stuffed animals and dolls, and so much more. Some designs easily fold up small and tight, making it easy for parents who might not always want large play equipment in their homes.
Nesting and Stacking Cups and Boxes
  • One of the earliest developmental tools you can buy for your child! Nesting boxes and bowls teach your little one fine motor development as they carefully learn how to stack and balance the toys. But they can also become ‘bowls’ for imaginary food or ‘houses’ for little animals or people in imaginary playscapes as the child ages. Buying high-quality stacking toys is another excellent investment, as they serve many uses, store compactly and meet multiple developmental needs of a growing child.
Balance Boards
  • Fun and challenging, a child will quickly learn how to develop their fine and gross motor skills as they wobble and struggle to balance on the moving board. But by turning it upside down or leaning it against a couch, the same toy becomes a slide, a barn for animals, or a bridge over an ocean. Although more expensive, these simple, beautiful boards are another great investment that will grow and age through multiple stages of development for your child.
Sandbox and Tools
  • Children LOVE sandboxes. The texture and smells of the wet and dry sand are constantly exciting as they explore how to build castles, carve channels for rivers, and create playscapes for vehicles and animal toys. Providing some simple tools, like shovels or buckets, helps them make more elaborate imaginary playscapes and endless hours of play. Additional and tremendous benefits include exposure to the good microbiome in natural dirt, and sand helps them to build both their immune system and a love for the environment!
Outdoor ‘Gardening’ Tools
  • Children adore learning about nature. They are naturally drawn to it and will be fascinated by growing plants and seeds. Giving them the tools that help them to dig in the earth to find worms, roots, or pebbles will delight them and fill many hours. Rakes can be used to create piles of leaves and grass. If given their own garden boxes, they will be thrilled to spend time with a loving adult who can show them how to plant seeds and grow their own food. Garden tools will be used in a variety of ways by children to explore and encounter their natural environment.
Balance Beam and Stepping Stones
  • A simple piece of wood and stepping stones don’t just foster gross motor skills in your child. Whether you purchase ready-made toys in the store or encourage your child to use logs, wood planks, or stones, these ‘toys’ become challenges in an obstacle course, the bridge over a raging river, or a secret, magic path to a rainbow kingdom. If a child can pick up and move these objects, the courses, and imaginative uses they can create with them become almost limitless!
Baskets, Wood Boxes, Trays, Buckets
  • You will be amazed at the enormous range of uses a child will come up with for empty containers. Small children will love to collect and sort objects in their containers, while older children will use them to create playscapes, store ‘treasures,’ and for fun water play. Larger containers might even become extra ‘rooms’ in homemade forts and castles.
Bowls, Measuring Cups, Kitchen Tools
  • Simply letting your children play with kitchen tools will bring hours of enjoyment. Children love and learn by mimicking and participating in adult activities like cooking. Measuring cups will teach them the basics of measurement, weight, and volume simply through experimentation with liquids or loose parts, such as beans or lentils. Metal bowls can become musical instruments, and wooden spoons can scoop pom poms or mix up imaginary (or real!) food. Let your child play with your kitchen’s non-breakable or sharp utensils for hours of fun!
  • Ahhh! The classic stick. Whether it’s a magic wand, a sword, or propping up the edge of a tent, your child will learn about texture, weight, balance, and gravity through the many ways they explore these simple and natural toys.
  • Children LOVE to play in the water. Most water activities necessitate adult supervision to be done safely. But water play gives a child an intense and enjoyable sensory experience that will teach them about fluid dynamics, weight, evaporation, temperature, and more through safe water play. You can give your child many valuable lessons by using water, whether it is letting them explore the melting of ice cubes into liquid water, watching watercolors disburse in the liquid, or allowing them carefully measure water into containers. The options are almost limitless and will help them develop a love for cherishing and preserving this natural resource as they grow older.
Bubbles and Squirt Guns or Bottles
  • Give a small child a squirt bottle, and you have given them hours of entertainment. Whether they use it to help water the plants, to explore the evaporation of their sprayed artwork on hot pavement, or to engage in a water fight, they will have a blast! Add some bubble solution with bubble wands or strings so the little ones can explore creating bubbles, both large and small.
  • It is incredible the fun and joy that children experience on playgrounds! Playgrounds are not only a great place to learn and develop fine and gross motor skills, but they can also foster outstanding imaginative play. Their structures become caves, forts, castles, large vehicles or boats, towering cliffs, and more! Take your child to a public playground or build one in the backyard. Then step back and watch the fun stories they will create around these very versatile structures.

The "In-Between" Toys

Some toys occupy the ‘grey’ space of being both open-ended and putting limitations on the uses a child can use. Explore some of these options below. 

  • Dolls are considered open-ended, especially when they have ‘neutral’ faces. The neutrality of the doll or animal’s face allows the child to choose a range of emotions and expressions for the toy, depending on the game they have invented.
  • To foster maximum creativity and imaginative expression from your child, avoid dolls or characters from stories or movies. These often ‘lock’ your child into a pre-programmed idea. Although children can significantly benefit from reenacting beloved stories, they can also get ‘stuck’ on those ideas, limiting their ability to see how a character can be developed. They can just as easily use a peg or Waldorf doll to recreate those same, beloved characters, using their imagination to dramatize the storylines they love. But they won’t be ‘locked’ into the storyline, making it possible for the same toys to be used entirely differently the next day.
  • We like to collect dolls that are of similar sizes. By collecting a wide variety of smaller dolls easily stored together, the children can create all sorts of imaginative and fun worlds with them.
  • Animal figurines can also be very open-ended, but by their nature and form, children will find themselves ‘locked’ into using the animal figurine in a particular way. There are some open-ended toys, such as Legos, that can be created to mimic a variety of animals that the child can make themselves and tear apart to create another creature.
  • However, the games that a child can create using their animals are still incredibly varied. Noah’s Ark, farm games, or trips to the ‘zoo’ happen regularly and with great enthusiasm. Children are still capable of creating a variety of different storylines using animal figurines.
  • Similar to our collection of dolls, we collect animals for our children that are similar in size and shape to the dolls. This way, they can be used together to create storylines, and we do not need to collect many different ‘sets’ of animals or toys to fit into different, pre-programmed storylines.
  • Similar to animals or dolls, vehicles ‘lock’ the child into a certain storyline around the shape and purpose of the vehicle. However, having some limitations placed on their imagination with these toys can still lead to incredibly creative games. Multiple studies have indicated that vehicle and construction play with objects, such as train tracks, enormously benefit children.
  • Like the dolls and animals, our wooden vehicles were bought and collected with the entire ‘set’ of dolls, animals, and playscapes in mind. Considering the set as a whole minimizes the number of toys that need to be bought and enhances the overall beauty and versatility of the entire ‘set.’
Play Food
  • Children love to ‘make’ food with imaginary food! They will use them in various scenarios, such as trips to the grocery store, growing food on their ‘farm,’ or whipping up a tea party for their dolls in an imaginary kitchen. Although the shape and type of play food can limit their imagination, children can still engage in various imaginative play with play food.
  • If you want to still provide this experience for a child without ‘locking’ them in with pre-formed food, you can give them pom-poms, salt dough, or colored wooden blocks that they can imagine are different types of food.
Interlocking Toys
  • Interlocking toys can be used to create amazing playscapes or creatures. Some more popular include Legos, Duplos, train tracks, Lincoln Logs, or magnetic tiles. These toys can often be introduced at young ages and enjoyed even by adults, as more complex and intricate designs can be created using these tools. The options are almost limitless, depending on the amount and colors of toys you provide your child.
Cleaning Toys
  • Like gardening tools, small children LOVE to mimic the adult activity of cleaning and chores. Unlike gardening tools, the uses for indoor cleaning tools are more limited to certain activities. Although a broom can also be used as a sword, children will be likelier to use these tools to mimic their ‘grown-up’ purposes.
  • If you want to limit the number of toys you are bringing into the playroom, consider only getting a few child-sized cleaning tools, like a small broom or mop. But a child could also be very content with REAL adult tools, such as a hand broom, dustpan, or long-handled duster. Rags and towels can also be great treats, as they pretend (or actually help!) to mop up spills and messes around the house.