The Benefits of Open-ended Play

Hey gang, listen up! We’ve got a fantastic article for you on the benefits of open-ended play.

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Manhattan Toy’s MiO Playing Eating Sleeping Working set provides open-ended play to inspire any builder’s imagination – from age 3 and up. Made of natural wood construction, all dolls have hand painted wood heads and beanbag bodies. The large storage box with built in handle cut-outs and fitted cover do double duty as large room and grassy patio.

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The Benefits of Open-ended Play

When I look back at my childhood I had almost no toys. The toys that I did have ran on imagination instead of batteries. I spent the majority of my time outside in all-weather on epic adventures. In addition to having almost no commercial toys, I didn’t have the structured playdates that we see today. The only thing that my mom directed was what we ate for snack.

Nowadays it seems like you’re expected to have at least one major structured activity at a playdate. Somewhere along the line I fell victim to this notion. My best friend and I have ran ourselves ragged overseeing the construction of bird houses, hand painted Christmas ornaments, and Popsicle stick structures galore. More than once I have waxed nostalgic about my childhood, feeling jealous of how good my mom had it. There were no structured mega projects, or epic playdates. I mostly entertained myself creating my own fun.

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As a child I attended a Waldorf School where the teaching philosophy for the lower grades was guided by the principles of open-ended play. Our dolls had no faces or just a simple lined smiley face, and many of the classroom play furniture pieces were made of solid color stained wood. There were many dress up costumes, but none were branded or made to look like a specific character. We played with a lot of sand, sticks, clay, modeling beeswax, paints, crayons and blocks. The purpose of this kind of play is to allow the imaginations of children to run wild.

When playing with these types of toys there are no wrong answers, no specific plans to follow, no script, and no definite conclusion to the play. Because these toys have no labels children engage in role play which helps them to better understand the world and their place in it.  This is very different from closed-ended play where there is a certain script or rule to follow or a specific end to the play. Examples of closed-ended toys are puzzles, toys with a specific function like action figures, and electronic toys that only interact with one or two other same branded toys.

open-ended play

My teachers also didn’t shepherd students towards a structured activity that they directed and oversaw. They simply let us play, entering into the play only when asked to participate in a game or activity that we ourselves directed. I see now that my mother was just following the same lead as my teachers. She was allowing me to create my own games and activities and really only participated when we needed her for a specific role or to use a tool that we weren’t allowed to touch. By not buying me all the toys I longed for after seeing them in commercials on TV she was really doing me a favor. I am still an “outside the box” thinker and I create things every day.

Here are a few ideas for creating open-ended play out of items you have on hand:

open-ended play

Sensory bin

There are so many different ideas for these on the internet. There are many variations on this idea including ones filled with rice, beans, dry pasta, rocks, sand, and even water. All you need is a large low, flat storage bin with a lid to keep it in. I have a friend who changes them monthly based on holidays and seasons. Kids can spend hours digging in these.

Pasta Cutting

Cook up a mega batch of spaghetti pasta. Once it has cooled you put it in a large bowl or bin. Give your children safety scissors and let them hack at the noodles to their hearts delight. If you want to make it extra fun you can add liquid food coloring to the water while cooking to make colored noodles.

Water Painting

Collect paint brushes of various sizes and fill a bowl or bucket with water. You can have them simply paint a cement patio, porch, driveway or even large rocks. The great thing about this is that as it dries it fades, leaving a fresh space behind for more painting.

Mud Drawings

For these you will need a rimmed baking dish or tray and dirt. Simply fill the tray with moistened soil and pat it down, scraping away any excess. Equip your children with forks, sticks, and paint brushes and let them draw and paint the dirt. These are great because they can be smoothed out for an unlimited amount of drawings.

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Easing up on the structured playdates and activities will allow our children to get more creative. Open-ended play fosters creativity and intelligence by allowing your child to be a creator as well as problem-solver. If we offer our kids only closed-ended toys not only are we teaching our children to think inside the box as a rule, but we may end up with kids who frequently complain about how bored they are. Instead of teaching children how they should play and what the specific functions are of objects, toys, and games we can allow them to decide for themselves.

destiny effertzDestiny Effertz is a mother of 3 boys; twin 3 year olds and a 5 year old. She worked for many years as a civil litigation paralegal prior to having children. Now she spends her days formulating new pie recipes, throwing epic kid parties, planning family vacations, and planning and executing pirate adventures and trips to far away planets with her boys.

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