What Does Open-Ended Play Mean? And The Best Open-Ended Toys

The Play Collective

Nov 23, 2021

What is Open-Ended Play?

Let’s dive in to hands-down the question I’m asked the most – “What do you mean by open-ended play?”

It’s a term that can be a bit confusing, but let me break it down for you so you can easily understand and apply it in your own homes if you’d like.

Open-ended play is play that doesn’t have one set end goal. There isn’t one way to play or one way to accomplish the task. There’s no clear outcome in open-ended play. Instead, there are endless possibilities. This type of play allows children to express themselves freely, try new things, solve problems, make their own decisions, push their limits, and test their strengths. It also allows them to learn from others, work together as a team, and understand individual strengths and passions. It provides endless opportunities to use their imaginations, let their mind wander, and explore. All of these are skills we want our children to have experience with, right? Open-ended play is the easiest and simplest way to encourage those things!

With open-ended play, there isn’t a right or wrong way to play. It’s just play and it’s fascinating. It’s so fascinating because when you see your child explore and play in such a way that strengthens their development so naturally, it’s just amazing to watch.

Open-Ended play is beneficial for all areas of child development. Critical thinking skills, language development, fine and gross motor skills, confidence, self-efficacy, and team building are just a small fraction of the benefits open-ended play provides. AND! It’s very, very simple and takes little to no effort! You simply have to provide the materials.

The best thing is with open-ended play, you need much less. It’s not about the amount of toys you have. It’s just about the simplicity of them. A lot of wonderful materials are free – recycled and natural materials. There are also amazing resources for open-ended toys that are high-quality items that will grow with your child and likely be there to be passed down to future generations. But know that you do not need a complete refresh of your toys to start encouraging open-ended play!

My Top 15 Favorite Open-Ended Toys

Magnatiles | You can never have too many Magnatiles! Endless fun for the entire family and you never tire of Magnatile play. The Quibix are fun (they’re 3D). Other brand options are Picasso tiles and Connectix Tiles!

Wooden Blocks | We have some from when I was little + a set from Lakeshore Learning. Gem blocks, rainbow blocks, water blocks, and Kapla are also great block options that we have/are coming for the holidays and we love!

Legos/Duplos | Duplos are wonderful for little ones and LEGOs are obviously one of the most popular children’s toys of all time.

Grapat Pieces – mandala, rings, and coins are some of our favorites!

Train Tracks | We love Brio, personally!

Animals | We love the Schleich brand. They’re great because they’re such high quality and can go in water, mud, etc. without any problems. I love that they’re very realistic looking, too.

Figurines such as wooden peg people, mice, etc. | A few of our favorites are Haba Friends, Maileg Mice, Grimm’s Peg People, and Tender Leaf Toys People

Art supplies| Take this in any direction you’d like, I could list things, but there are so many great options. Our favorite brand of drawing/creating “tools” is Ooly by far! You can see a whole list of some of our favorites here in the process art section of my Amazon shop!

Recycled materials – Truly, kids love this stuff! Anything recycled, anything! (Think about how much kids love boxes. The endless possibilities of a cardboard box is a great example.)

Balance board | We have this one. Wobble Boards are popular, too!

The Nugget | We’ve had ours for 3.5 years and it’s still the #1 played with item we own! Gross motor + imaginative play forever and ever!

Wiwiurka Gross Motor Toys | We have the balance beams, pickler triangle, XL rocker, and ladder/slide

Bicycle or Scooter | A balance bike is a great place to start and don’t tell anyone, but I’m that kind of parent that wouldn’t mind it being played with inside during the winter. 😉 We are basically the biggest fans of Micro Kickboard Scooters that ever lived, too! The boys got them when they turned 1 and 2 and have been scootering like crazy ever since.

Balls/Marbles | Any and all balls/marbles would do! We have the Grimm’s balls as well as a few larger ones. Our marbles are just second-hand/vintage.

Play Silks | The kids use these for peek-a-boo (the baby!), capes, bags, scarves, play mats (for grass, dirt, sky, etc.) during small world play, and 1,000 other things!

Cars/Trucks/Vehicles | In my dream world, our trucks would all be Fagus trucks! Green Toys, Hot Wheels, Tonka, Bruder and Grimm’s are all great options and brands we own!

There’s honestly no greater joy than watching your kids play so creatively, so freely, and so uniquely! It’s simply the best and I hope you get to enjoy watching the little ones in your life do the same.

The Play Collective is a way for me to share my passion, joy, and knowledge of play + childhood development with all of you! You’ll likely find posts on this topic from my husband, James, as well. I graduated from Indiana University with a degree in Child Development & Early Childhood Education. I taught kindergarten in a Reggio Emilia-based school for 4 years before running the photography business full-time. James taught preschool in a progressive, outdoor education based school before becoming their marketing director and photographing with me. Together, we have 3 children (4, 3, and 1). Welcome to the chaos + the fun! We hope you feel inspired and connected in this space!

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