There is no shortage of buzzword lingo for identifying the best way for young children to learn and play. Sensory play, creative play, and cooperative play are all important but here we are bringing it back to basics, open ended-play. Breaking down what exactly is open-ended play, what toys can be called open-ended, and clear actionable strategies to encourage open ended-play for young children.

And before I dive in, it’s no secret play, and hanging with my crew of kids is absolutely my jam. I often say my #1 parenting hack is simply finding a short window of time each day to connect and play with each one of them. It isn’t going to happen every day but I 100% see a MAJOR change in their moods and mine when we haven’t been prioritizing play together.

This wasn’t always the case, play didn’t come naturally to me as a mom despite years of formal training, working with hundreds of kids as a teacher and literacy program coordinator and teacher trainer. But we found our groove and here are my best tips and tricks!

What is open-ended play?

Open-ended play is exactly what it sounds like, play that has no concrete stopping point, single answer, or defined goal. Children develop creativity, process relationships, develop conversational skills, and explore their place in and feelings about their world. Conversation during open-ended play has endless possibilities for additional skill development. This includes small and large motor skills, social and emotional development, as well as cognitive skills such as colors, counting, and learning shapes, to name just a few.

On the flip side would be close-ended play. Most of the materials and toys of a Montessori-aligned space are close-ended. Montessori toys provide a concrete answer, and intentional and specific skill development and children develop a sense of mastery in completing them.

While there is room for both in a child’s world, for young children especially, open-ended play is highly impactful for growth and development. AND open-ended play is amazing for connection and play independently or with siblings or caregivers.

What are Open-Ended toys?

Open-ended toys are those that leave their play and exploration “open”. If it talks to your child, flashes lights, or has buttons we can quickly wipe it away from the open-ended hotlist. Puzzles are not often open-ended toys. However, some puzzles can become open-ended when puzzle pieces become blocks or pretend-play toys (like these Begin Again Puzzles).

Open-ended toys broadly include blocks, train sets, art materials, animal figures, and pretend toys. Additionally, many materials aren’t intended to be toys at all but can be used a dozen different ways for hours of play. In our house, muslin blankets are top of the list there as they become table cloths at the restaurant, capes for saving the day, beds for baby dolls and stuffies and the list goes oe. Along with paper towel tubes and egg cartons which have had too many uses to begin listing here.

How to encourage open-ended play

Encouraging open-ended play requires no set materials, training, or preparation. Open-ended play can happen outdoors in a natural play environment or in an expensive and meticulously curated playroom. It most often happens in spaces that fall somewhere between. However, there are some guiding supports to make the process a bit more impactful for learning and developing skills with young children.

Children can naturally turn just about anything into a toy, but how do we encourage extended and more in-depth play with open-ended toys? And in reality, how to encourage more collaborative and independent play through open-ended toys, books, and activities. We will first dive into what makes an open-ended toy and then provide several tips and tricks for encouraging open-ended play that sparks creativity and promotes independence.

5 Tips for Encouraging Open-Ended Play

1- Offer a small variety of open-ended materials

The emphasis here is a small variety. When children have too many options for play they quickly enter the ‘dump and run’ game. All toys are explored and then scattered. What’s left is a big mess and little actual engaged play. Open-ended play often should be able to travel and not necessarily be bound to a single space. But in reality– this isn’t always safe or practical so setting limits and boundaries is okay! In our house legos are only allowed on lego tables in the basement. This keeps babies and puppies safe and supports a boundary that is appropriate for the ages of the children using them.

2- Parallel play alongside children

Infants and toddlers will continue to play in parallel or use the same material alongside caregivers and peers. Expecting any sort of cooperative or “sharing” to take place isn’t developmentally appropriate and only sets up frustration for caregivers and toddlers alike. Examine, explore, and ask questions to encourage children to begin to play. Older children may begin to then play cooperatively and build layers to the play by introducing more friends or materials.

3- Listen more than you speak

It is incredibly difficult for adults not to jump into value statements and instruct children on how to use materials. Possibly for an intended or assumed purpose possibly because it feels like the good and right thing to do. This immediately closes the infinite doors of a child’s imagination. Begin thoughts and leave no response “I wonder what…” while holding a toy horse. Alternatively, make open-ended observations instead of asking questions. Instead of “are you building a house with the magnetic tiles” say instead “I’m curious about what you are building”.

4- Encourage process over a product

Avoid celebratory language around the outcome of play and encourage children to express pride in their process and what feels fun and good to them. While painting I would say to a child “I’m noticing you are using a lot of blues and greens today. You are focusing so carefully on keeping the paint on the paper” and not “that is beautiful. I love it!”. Giving children your time, your attention, and your engagement is far more powerful than non-specific and general positive praise. This isn’t to say you can’t toss in compliments from time to time, you just don’t want to be ALL that they are hearing.

5- Embrace a mess (within boundaries)

Imaginative play is often temporarily messy. While messes and disorder can be triggering for adults, encouraging children to play freely is so important. This doesn’t mean that once play has ended the mess remains, an important expectation to start early is to clean up their ideas. Especially if this is hard for you, establish clear boundaries and limits at the onset. “We will build with the blocks for 20 minutes and then we will work together to put them back into the basket.” Make clean up fun if your child is especially resistant, set timers “lets see how many we can pick up in 3 minutes” or give an option “do you want to put the blue blocks in first or the yellow blocks?”.

There is certainly time and space for both open and close-ended play for children. Finding your own family balance will ebb and flow within your own family dynamics. Do reach out if we can help support or problem-solve with you as you incorporate more open-ended play with young children in your life.