What is Open-Ended Play & Why is it Important?

Open-Ended Play: Its Value and Characteristics

If you had a dime for every time you told your child to “Go Play!” I bet you’d be in the Bahamas right now on a kid-free vaca, little coconut drink in hand missing your kid…. Because well, that’s just how it goes as a parent. Haha, the guild is real!

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Speaking of guilt, maybe you have felt a tad bad about telling your child to go play 80 times a day, selfish even well, DON’T! By directing your child to “go play” you are promoting what is called open-ended play and by doing so you are actually being proactive by looking out for your child's best interest. 

According to world-renowned Swiss scientist and developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, “Play is the work of childhood.”

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Piaget’s life's work involved studying the cognitive development of children. She believes that children take an active role in the learning process, essentially performing experiments all day long.

Every child is a little scientist, they interact with the world, making observations as they go about their days.

Children continually add to their knowledge of the world via these interactions, sometimes building upon existing knowledge or adapting previously held beliefs. Piaget held that, rather than being ‘little adults’, children have inherently different methods of thinking than adults.

Furthermore, there are both qualitative and quantitative differences in the thought processes of younger versus older children.

Based on Piaget’s theory of child development, and knowing that children learn EVERYTHING from their environment, what, exactly, should parents put in that environment? What should children play with?

What is Open-Ended Play? What does it Mean Exactly?

To understand what open-ended play means for a child let’s look at this from a definition standpoint and break down the phrase itself.

Open-Ended (adj): unrestricted, without determined, rules, limits, or boundaries.

Play (noun): engagement in an activity that gives a sense of enjoyment in recreational activities, utilized most by children.

So.. what is open-ended play? It is play with no direction, play with no limits, rules, or interference, it is letting a child use their imagination free from predefined limits. 

Does this mean you should let your child go in the kitchen and “play” with the oven… No.

Open-ended play should be done in a safe space, with access to open-ended toys and indirect adult supervision or interference

Why is Open-Ended Play Important & Does it Really Add Value?

Open-Ended play fosters a child's ability to build resilience, act independently and intentionally all while improving their ability to focus. All of which are valuable life skills your child can learn just from playing!

When you purchase something like a toy laptop, it can only be a laptop. Children aren’t encouraged to use their imaginations and are confined by the limitations of the toy.

With open-ended play, you docs on open-ended toys without predefined uses to spark creativity.

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In short…

Toys Matter A LOT When it Comes To Child Development

There’s certainly no shortage of toys available to purchase. Go to WalMart or Target, and you’ll be inundated with loud, colorful playthings at every price point.

“Ooo should we get a doll? Or a drum set? Or this educational light up toy?” Something you need to ask yourself before you purchase a toy is – What will your child learn from that – how will a doll impact your child’s development?

Now, I am not saying don’t get your child any toys to play with, but It’s time to start focusing on making the best choices we can as parents when it comes to purchasing toys.

We’ve all been the parent cleaning up after our preschooler’s birthday party. Gathering wrapping paper and packaging, plastic silverware and half-eaten, frosting-heaped cupcakes.

Surveying the room, now filled with new playthings, we see our wondrous, already-gifted child, playing……..inside a box. THAT – that box – is an open-ended toy. AND that is what your child wants to play with and is the gateway to open-ended play.

The Benefits of Open-Ended Toys 

How on earth, you wonder, could a cardboard box, whether open-ended or not, have more inherent play value than a scientifically-researched, state-of-the-art, $50 toy? WHY is my kid more attracted to that BOX than he is to this top-ten-parent-recommended plaything?

Great question. The answer is perhaps less complicated than that cardboard box. One word: options.

Open-ended toys have limitless options, while that $50 electronic keyboard has exactly one function – to play music. Valuable? Of course! What fun it is to play music! A keyboard will produce hours of melodic (read:noisy) fun…until it doesn’t.

Either it breaks, the batteries wear out, or the child gets just plain tired of it. Or someone (not you – of course, not you) hides it.

But the box? You will have to wrestle that box out of your kid’s hands.

As in, literally have to throw it out when your child is out of the house.

You may even resort to taking that box to your mother-in-law’s on trash day so that your kid doesn’t ‘rescue’ the box and bring it back into the house.

This box has more value to a child as a plaything than anything else that they received Why? It boggles many parents' minds why their child would rather play with such mundane objects…. But somewhere our brains know what is best for us and a child has yet to learn how to ignore that premonition.

So, what exactly, is your child learning, developmentally, while playing with a box?

Open-Ended Play Helps Develop Fine Motor Skills

Ripping off the remaining wrapping paper and tape is great exercise for small fingers and hands. Perhaps your child will decorate the box using crayons or markers – maybe even paint. All of these activities strengthen those muscles that enable a child to hold a pencil, tie shoes, grasp a crayon, move a bubble wand, and zip a zipper.

Gross Motor Skills

Crawling, jumping and running through and around the box improve your child’s gross motor skills, as does balancing and mastering an obstacle course. Every time he climbs into or out of that box, he is getting stronger and more proficient at moving his body!

That Box Can Help with Social-Emotional Development

Your child might have siblings, and they might play with that box together. What a great opportunity to build social-emotional skills like working together, sharing, compromising, negotiating, empathy, sympathy, etc. It’s a BIG job to manage your own feelings! Inevitably, conflicts will arise – how will your child get through these conflicts? Will he talk, cry, whine, hit, or something else? Each time he navigates a disagreement, he learns tools for the future!

Open-Ended Toys Promote Language/Literacy Skills

Deeply connected to social-emotional skills, language skills are necessary for all of us to get through the day. We communicate verbally as well as non-verbally. Has this box suddenly turned into a bus? Through pretend play, your child will use language to test out new words relating to buses! Drive, horn, honk, exit, money, seat, etc. – what fun he will have trying out this new vocabulary! Language and literacy also refers to the written word, which might involve making tickets for the bus, or writing the name of the bus on the side of the box. Maybe your child will need a name tag because he’s the bus driver!

Cognitive Skills- Improve Your Child's Problem-Solving Abilities

Your child will be solving problems and making decisions in his own head before you hear one word of it! Where does his bus go? What’s that one song people sing about a bus!? Oh, yeah! ‘the wheels on the bus go round and round…’

Does your child focus on creating his bus? Is he busy for thirty minutes solid before coming up for air? Or maybe he’s distracted by so many ideas at once. Open-ended play can be changed immediately by your child – with no adult help!

Imagination – Play Without Borders is the Foundation of Learning

This is where a box beats out a keyboard every time. On Tuesday, your child is ‘driving a bus’ with that box. By Thursday, the box has turned into a castle, and your child is the king. Your dog is a knight. Imagination has no limits.

Open-Ended Play is Invaluable & Very Important for your Child's Development

Bet you never thought of a box in that way before… or even that a box could have VALUE – or, really, any open-ended toy. No amount of technology can do for the developing child’s brain what a box, a pile of clay, or a tub of wooden blocks can do.

Tell your gift-giving friends, and remember this on your next visit to the toy aisle. You don’t need expensive toys – nor do you need a lot of toys. For engaging, self-directed learning to happen in your home, you need toys to encourage open-ended play.

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