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An Ode to Open-Ended Play

Open Ended Play

Play is beautiful. Play is important. Play is the way in which children grow into the adults that will one day look after our planet. There are a thousand ways a childhood can be beautiful, but we firmly believe that open-ended, self-directed play should always be at the centre. Simple, open-ended toys are a wonderful way to facilitate this. Why do we think this? Read on!

There is a good reason that many children love the freedom of being outdoors. The play materials they gather, whether they are flowers or branches and sticks, are open-ended. They can project their interests and ideas onto these materials and turn them into what they desire. A branch can be a witch's broom, the start of a den, or a magic wand! A flower can be the start of a crown or the special ingredient in a magic potion. We should factor in the same potential for creativity in the resources and toys we bring into the home. There will always be a place for themed toys that follow your child’s interests, but we believe the best way to facilitate deep, meaningful play is by having a baseline of simple, natural toys that can be whatever the child wants them to be. Here are our top selections for the type of toys that will encourage freedom, creativity and independence in your little ones.

Construction play

Simple building blocks are a great start to this kind of play, which encourages mathematical thinking, problem-solving and spatial awareness. A simple set of blocks can become a tower, a house, a way to count and a way to turn the imagined into reality. Start with a set of wooden blocks and expand as your child grows in age and interest! A few of our favourite brands here include Kapla and Connetix. Both brands encourage a huge variety of skills, from supporting critical thinking, fine and gross motor skills, through to perseverance and cooperation when used in groups. Fantastic! 

Artistic play

Something as simple as a pad of paper and crayons or beginner-friendly pens is a wonderful place to start here. Little ones will begin to mark make, and as they grow, begin to write and draw pictures representing their interests. Encourage little ones to think about different strokes, colours and shapes they could make to support critical thinking and fine motor control. Adding paint and different artistic mediums will only expand on the joy and play potential! As little ones grow, try out more complex projects like creating collages from cut-out magazines to junk modelling with leftover food boxes - great for supporting recycling and sustainability. You could even create art pieces based on their favourite books or stories! 

Loose parts 

Loose parts are a vital part of play and encourage role play, counting and more. Simple wooden pieces are a lovely way to begin loose parts play, but you can also do this with natural materials like stones, shells, conkers and more. Little ones will count, create pictures, or even turn their loose parts into role-play materials like ‘cakes’ or soup! If this area of play interests you, one of our favourite brands is Raduga Grez. Creators of beautifully simple, open-ended toys, the brand embodies the concept that the simpler the toy, the more room for play, creativity and imagination there can be.

Physical play

Little ones love to move their bodies - so let’s encourage this with play materials that help them do so! This can be open ended materials for the outdoors like planks and rope to make obstacle courses, right through to buckets and funnels for gross motor water play. The more open-ended ended the better for little ones to explore their imagination and physical needs. 

A few final thoughts

Of course, on top of all this, we recommend adding beautiful books, playmates and lots of outdoor time! If you are interested in reading more about the theory and research around open-ended play, we highly recommend the My First Five Years and 100 Hundred Toys websites. Happy playing!

Emily Hanson

Freelance Writer, Education and Play Specialist

Emily Hanson is a freelance writer with specialisms in education and play. Emily holds a PGCE and M.Ed from the University of Cambridge - although her proudest achievements are her two beautiful daughters.

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