Encourage Play with Open-Ended Toys

As important as it is for parents to engage with their children, it's also equally important for our kids to be able to play by themselves. There are many ways to encourage our children's ability to play alone but an easy way to get started is to make sure that the majority of your toys are open ended.

What are Open Ended Toys?

Simply put, open-ended toys are ones that can be used in a variety of ways and are more likely to encourage open ended play. There is no one set way to play with an open-ended toy. Think of a stick, for example, which can be used as a shovel, a sword, a bat, a flagpole, or a fairy wand.

The way I like parents to think about open ended toys is thinking about how much of the “work” a child has to do. You want your child doing the work. Open ended toys are often described as toys that are 90% child and 10% toy because they leave plenty of room for a child's input.

A set of building blocks can be used to build a tower for a princess or a busy city full of skyscrapers.

Open-ended toys provide more opportunities for children to engage in critical thinking and problem-solving. They foster creativity, imagination, and exploration. Playing with open ended toys helps develop both gross and fine motor skills needed to be successful in school.

Why are open ended toys better than closed toys?

Basically open ended toys actually encourage REAL play and we know play is how kids learn emotional skills AND social skills.

“Closed toys” or “toy-directed” toys do the opposite of this. A light-up monster truck that makes a crushing noise leaves very little to the imagination. These types of toys are typically used for only short periods of time–and are considered one and done.

Closed toys typically make noise, have batteries, light up, talk, move….these are all things the toy is doing that now your little one doesn't have to do….think of it as the toy taking away the child's chance to play to their fullest potential.

Infographic comparing open vs closed toys. Open toy is a set of wooden blocks and closed toy is a large red plastic train that has buttons for lights and sounds.

Benefits of Open Ended Toys

Some other practical benefits (and biggest advantages) to open-ended toys is that they hold a child’s attention for longer periods of time (so you may actually be able to cook dinner without a child pulling on your leg) AND they save money in the long run (who doesn’t need a little extra money?!).

Open ended toys typically span a variety of age groups and are made of better quality materials, which allows you to buy less AND use them for longer periods of time. So no more having to buy toys for a specific age group, or having to buy the latest and greatest new toy released at Target.

The biggest benefit of providing open ended toys is that they allow for open ended play. When children are given time and space to play they develop better social, emotional and cognitive skills.

This desire for open ended play is what motivates children towards the box that the toy came in, or why toddlers can spend hours playing with Tupperware in the kitchen.

What are the best open-ended toys for kids to grow with?

Building blocks and LEGO are the perfect example of an open ended toy. Notice how both of these toys have the ability to be played with in a variety of ways? Those are the types of toys that you want to give your kids access to. Some of our favorite open ended toys are:

Less is More: Having Fewer Toys Means Better Quality Play

Think about how stressed and overwhelmed you are when you walk into a room full of stuff. You don't know where to start. Your head is spinning. You may attempt to start to do the task you intended on doing, but then you get distracted by all the things. Yes, part of that is mom brain. But that overwhelm is also due to having too much clutter.

It is much better for your kids to have fewer but better quality toys. So rather than having five different toys that each do one thing, select a single toy that can give your kids endless options for open ended play.

Selecting the right toys for your playroom is the first step towards building a home that is ready for purposeful play!

Should you buy wooden or plastic toys?

At the end of the day, the quality of play isn't impacted so much by whether a toy is wooden or plastic. It's just that more often than not, wooden toys are more open ended.

In addition to that, we all know that the world does NOT need more plastic junk in land fills. The less plastic stuff (and less stuff in general) we buy the less ends up in landfills. We always try to buy items that are made from more natural materials when we can.

What if my kids won't play with open-ended toys

If you find that your kids won't play with their open-ended toys, then they might need a bit of help getting started. Especially if they haven't had experience playing with open ended toys. I would suggest you go ahead and take the lead by starting to play, it won't be long before they've caught on and jump in to play with you.

You could also try to set up their play space with an inviting scene–also called an invitation to play. You can set up a road with some trucks or cars, put a large pile of blocks in the center of the room, or put out a handful of toys that all have the same theme–for example, space (we love to do this and include a few books that fir the theme too!)

Think about how your space is organized. If toys are hidden in bins with lids or too high up it will be harder for kids to engage with those toys. Make sure to keep only a minimal amount of toys available at once–it will sort of force your kiddos to get creative!

You can also consider doing a toy rotation. I have to admit that I am not the best at this, but I do have an article about how you can rotate through your toys to always have fresh “new” toy options.

When loved ones insist on gifts

Sometimes it's hard to communicate holiday gift ideas to family and friends when you are trying to be more mindful with toy buying. The best advice I can give is to gentle explain that you're hoping to minimize the amount of stuff your kiddos get and then give them a few recommendations (if they ask!). 

We always suggest that family and friends bring books, art supplies, or outdoor toys because those are things that don't take up as much space in the house!

You can learn how you can transform your home and lower the amount of toys in your life with our Purposeful Playspace Course.