Open Ended Play and Child Development

Open Ended Play – An Important Part of Child Development

Open Ended Play – An Important Part of Child Development

Have you heard the term “open ended play” before? You may have, but may still be wondering what it actually means. Well, the definition of open ended play is quite simple – it is child-led play with various materials that have no predetermined goal or use. In short, it’s a gateway to building imagination, creativity, competency, self-esteem, and so much more. Open ended play is really the best type of activity a young child can have in their life.

In the recent years, parents have been obsessed with making sure their children’s lives are enriched from the day they are born. Parents buy educational toys, apps, and videos. They take their kids to countless activities, all in hopes of boosting their brain power and development. But the truth is, so little of that is needed in the early years. In fact, overscheduling our young ones is not doing them many favors. In order for the brain to grow and develop properly, it needs rest, downtime, and time to create and imagine.

Now, I’m not saying go and immediately clear your schedule, throw out all the noisy educational toys, and delete all the educational apps. No. What I’m saying is, take some things off the schedule and allow more time for free play. Allow your child time to imagine, create, and have no boundaries on their play (provided it’s safe). Sit back, and watch the magic happen.

Stages of Development

While there are many renowned psychologists that have put forth theories of development, I am personally, a fan of Erik Erikson’s work. Erik Erikson came up with an 8 stage human development theory based on age.

StageAgePsychosocial CrisisVirtue
10 – 18 monthsTrust vs. MistrustHope
218 months – 3 yearsAutonomy vs. ShameWill
33 – 5 yearsInitiative vs. GuiltPurpose
45 – 12 yearsIndustry vs. InferiorityCompetency
512 – 18 yearsIdentity vs. Role ConfusionFidelity
618 – 40 yearsIntimacy vs. IsolationLove
740 – 65 yearsGenerativity vs. StagnationCare
865+ yearsEgo Integrity vs. DespairWisdom

What does this have to do with open ended play, you may ask? Well, look at the psychosocial crises that children undergo between the ages of 18 months and 5 years – Autonomy vs. Shame and Initiative vs. Guilt.

Open ended play helps address both of those crises. Because there are no limits or rules on the play, the child is allowed to explore and create as they see fit. They become autonomous in their play. This in turn builds their confidence, self-esteem, and independence. And those news skills are used to propel them into their new stage.

In the Initiative vs. Guilt stage the child will be testing boundaries in a different way than they have before. They will be asserting their sense of self in a much more forceful and aggressive manner (that’s why a lot of 3 year olds push, shove, bite, hit, kick, and throw) and need an outlet to process all their new emotions, and their growing understanding of the world. And open ended play gives a fantastic outlet for that. In this type of play they can act out their feelings and emotions, play out what happened in their day, act out their worries and fears, or take on a new persona altogether. It’s a win for everyone.

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What Materials Are Needed for Open Ended Play

The great part of open ended play is that anything goes (although if you want some specific suggestions, I will be sharing those a little later). You can repurpose old items into something new and exciting. An old phone can make a great new remote control for a spaceship. Your old pots and pans, a fabulous addition to the play kitchen. And what about old scarves, hats, skirts, and jackets – they can be used for any sort of dress up and theater play.

And of course you can add new items like blocks, magnetic tiles, paper and paints, miniature people, animals, plants, and stacking bowls. You can also use materials to create sensory bins and small worlds. All of those different items work on developing different skills for your child. They can build their fine motors skills, critical thinking skills, empathy, emotional regulation, and help with different sensory experiences. And all of this helps them grown and develop.

Is There A Right Way To Do Open Ended Play

Before I share with you some of my favorite items for open ended play, let’s talk about some rules. Those rules are mainly for us adults and not the children. The whole point of open ended play, as I said before, is to allow the child to lead the play and to not set any goals for it. It’s not to achieve anything specific. Instead, it’s an opportunity to explore, imagine, and experience.

There is no right or wrong way for the child to play with a specific toy. In fact, this is the time to teach your child to think outside the box and find a different purpose for the toy. And by teach, I mean give them the toy and see what they will do with it. You’ll be surprised by the ingenuity your children will show you, and maybe even learn something new yourself.

Another great thing about open ended play is that it can be independent or done together with a caregiver. Just make sure if you are participating in the play, that you allow your child to lead. See what they’re doing and mimic it. If they correct you and tell you that you are not playing right, listen to them, and ask them how you should be playing. Don’t impose your rules on the play and just observe what your child is doing. It will be an eye opening experience for you, and a powerful experience for your child. In open ended play your child finally has full control and autonomy. And that is what they’re currently craving and having so many meltdowns about.

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Benefits of Open Ended Play For Toddlers

Material and Toy Recommendations for Open Ended Play

And now, as promised, are my recommendations for materials and toys. Most of the items I recommend are from Etsy because they have beautiful sensory bins and wooden toys, and feature small businesses, but a few items will be from Amazon.

Sensory Bins

I can’t say enough great things about sensory bins. They are the best toy for toddlers and preschool aged children. Sensory bins help children work on their fine motor skills, sensory experiences, spark curiosity, can even serve as a calming activity, and are just never endless fun for kids.

You can make your own sensory box with any sort of bin, some pebbles, water beads, colored rice, or kinetic sand. Then add plastic animals, fake succulents, rocks, tissue paper, or frozen food. The sky is the limit. Or you can purchase pre-made sensory bins, if you’re not feeling crafty or inspired.

Christmas Sensory Bin
Construction Sensory Bin
Space Sensory Bin Open Ended Play

My Sons’ Favorite Sensory Bin

Make sure to watch your child’s interests. That will guide you into what type of a sensory bin to create or purchase for them. My boys are really into dinosaurs right now (surprise, surprise) and this Cool Sand Dino Discovery Tray ended up being the perfect bin. They love dumping out the kinetic sand and hiding all the dinos. And, as you can see, they expanded their play to include other characters in the there. And that is the beauty of open ended play – the possibilities are endless and limitless. There is no right or wrong way to play.

Wooden Toys and Small Worlds

Wooden toys make for beautiful, non-toxic, and safe additions to the open ended space. There are different stacking toys, matching toys, and of course, the balance board. And you can also add wooden toys to create beautiful small worlds. Small worlds are a wonderful way to help your child expand their imagination. And you can even weave some educational topics into this type of play.

Open Ended Play on a Balance Board
Rainbow Stacker Open Ended Toy
Color Matching Stacking Open Ended Toys
Wooden Christmas Open Ended Toy Set
Small World Open Ended Toy
Small World Tree Accessories
Balancing Block Toys

Animals For Open Ended Play

And of course our beautiful small worlds need some participants in them. That’s where things like different animals and people come into play. Our current favorite is dinosaurs! But your child might be into barn or marine animals. The possibilities are endless.

Magnetic Tiles and Building Blocks

This one is such a favorite for kids. Most kids love building and creating out of various blocks and magnetic tiles. Both my boys love sitting in their playroom and creating cities, castles, boats, spaceships, etc. The possibilities are endless and so are the benefits.

Final Words on Open Ended Play

So, there you have it. I hope you incorporate more open ended play into your children’s lives. Just always keep in mind that our result driven culture has driven us to always achieve, achieve, achieve, with no real reason as to why. Play is never wasteful and in fact, a very necessary part of life. So, make sure that you teach your kids that early. They can play just for the sake of playing. And you can sit back, relax, and watch them create magic with their beautiful unstructured play.

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