Open-Ended Play and its Benefits

Open-ended play is the concept of allowing children to play creatively and freely without limitations or boundaries. Open-ended toys can be played with in many different ways, only tethered by a child imagination, which tends to lead to unlimited possibilities!

Emily shares with us her experiences of open-ended play…

Discovering Open-ended Play

I have been aware of the concept of open ended play since about 2014/15. It was always something that I’d expressed an interest in introducing to my own children.

Grimms rainbows are a great place to start with open ended toys
Grimms rainbows are a great place to start with open ended toys. Image credit Emily Prowse-McLean

With my first child, Jacob (5), I dabbled with open ended play. I was only just really starting to understand and discover the Waldorf school and the benefits of open ended play once Jacob was a year plus. I bought Jacob his first open ended toy when he was about a year old – a Grimm’s 12 piece rainbow. I loved it so much, I loved the way it looked and I loved it’s possibilities. 

Bajo mendelsons are great for stacking. Image credit: Emily Prowse-McLean

When I was pregnant with Nic I really threw myself into the open ended school of thought. I did a lot of reading, I joined Facebook groups, read blogs. I really got into it and was excited to introduce Nic to it from birth. 

Open ended toys can be whatever you want them to be!
Open ended toys can be whatever you want them to be! Image credit: Emily Prowse-McLean

Nic was exposed to all kinds of open ended toys from birth. I stocked up when I was pregnant and over the first 6 -12 months of his life. I noticed a big difference in the way he played. We had the Conical tower and the Wankel and I remember Nic playing with those from 7-8 months, taking them off the base and playing with the pieces, and from 10 months he was actually stacking them on the pole. His hand-eye coordination was incredible from a young age, and I believe that it was the toys he was exposed to that encouraged that.

The benefits of open ended play

Open ended toys are fantastic and there are so many benefits to this type of play. It allows children to express themselves through their games, encourages freedom and creativity, and allows games and stories to unfold in limitless ways. In open ended play there are no problems to solve (unless the child has created a problem to solve within the game of their own accord) and there are no right or wrong answers.

Grimms Rotating Spiral being involved in an imaginative story. Image credit: Emily Prowse-McLean

There are no rules, and there is no time limit or end to the game. The rules are what the child sets themselves. Open ended play enhances imagination, the ability to think symbolically and abstractly and can build creativity and intelligence.

Image credit: Emily Prowse-McLean

Early open ended toys are fantastic for increasing cognitive skills, hand-eye coordination and dexterity. Not just that but many natural wooden toys and natural play scarves are fantastic for sensory development due to the varying textures. 

Child led learning

What I love about open ended toys and the play that follows, is that children learn by themselves. They discover their own world in their own way, they build skills at their own pace and they develop their little characters as they experiment in their games. 

Many open ended toys/crafts/other loose parts include:

  • Beads​Fabrics/scarves
  • Clay​Sticks
  • Sand​Pipe cleaners and other craft supplies
  • Paint​Stamps and ink
  • Crayons/markers 
  • Boxes

These are examples of things I have used with my children – Nic especially. Now that Jacob is in full time school I have 6 hours 5 days a week to fill with activities to do with Nic. While I encourage him to go off and play on his own and create his own games, I also like to do some activities together. Nic and I paint, draw and colour in daily. Nic loves to play with modelling clay, and we quite often have activities centred around that- the other week we made a woodland mobile with found objects and Okonorm Clay, and also insects and spiders using pipe cleaners and beads.

Drawing and painting is a great open ended activity
Drawing and painting is a great open ended activity. Image credit: Emily Prowse-McLean

During the holidays I gave the boys a huge cardboard box and some paint and left them to it – they were covered head to toe in paint, but they had the most amazing fun for the whole day. I noticed that day that Jacob’s creativity exploded, and he started to draw things that he had never tried to draw before. It was amazing to see.

Wooden toys

Wooden blocks for open ended play
Grimms large stepped counting blocks and blue pull along elephant. Image credit: Emily Prowse-McLean

Nic plays a lot with his many Wooden Waldorf toys – His absolute all time favourite toys are building blocks, he is always building things and creating games with them. Some of his other favourites are the Grapat lidded cups and bowls and acorns, and the Grimm’s rainbow. These are quite often the centre of most of his games, the simplest of things really do make for the best games; so much so that it’s inspired me to try and clear out a lot of their toys that are more single use, as they are often overlooked- this is because they usually only have one function or purpose, and once that purpose has been explored there’s really not much else that can be done with them.

Grapat cups with lids. Image credit: Emily Prowse-Mclean

What I love about open ended toys is that they grow with children – their ‘purpose’ changes and develops along with the child. A Grapat Nin or Mago may well be just something nice to hold/chew as a baby. As children grow they become familiar looking shapes that can be stacked/ integrated into basic set ups; through to when they are older and can be used as people/monsters/ whatever the child decides; and because they have no set facial expression they can be or feel whatever the child wants them to. The same with any open ended toy- play silks can just be nice soft thing for a baby to grasp/ cuddle etc through to when they grow up and are using them as tents/ capes/ hats, whatever!

Grapat wooden toys for open ended play
Grapat Magos and 7 moons. Image credit: Emily Prowse-McLean

The beauty of open ended toys and play is that it can be whatever your child wants it to be, and it grows along with your children and their imaginations and personalities. 

Inspiration

Grimms Counter Rotating Spiral. Image credit: Emily Prowse-McLean

The benefits of open ended play are plentiful and the choices of toys/ products out there to encourage this type of play is wonderful. If you’re not sure where to start or how to get into it- join groups, join the Babipur hangout, go on Pintrest and read blogs. They made a massive difference to me and still help me today when I’m in need of some new ideas for activities with my smallest.

Huge thanks to Emily for sharing her ideas with us on open ended play x

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