Open-ended play is play that allows children to express themselves freely and creatively. It is the type of play that there are no rules to follow and no pressure to produce a specific finished product. Over time, I have minimized our toy selection down to only a small amount of open-ended toys, with the exception of puzzles and this letter sound toy. It is also the only toy we own that requires batteries. My reasoning for this is that I would rather my children be the ones making the firetruck siren or the moo of the cow as they are playing.
There is certainly value in some “close-ended” activities such as puzzles and board games. For the majority though, I find that because open-ended toys have multiple uses, they encourage much more imagination, spur on creativity, and engage children longer.
Here are my Must-Haves for Open Ended Play:
Blocks- In our house blocks have been used time and time again as towers, barns, dog houses, and many more things. My son has had these wooden blocks since he was barely crawling and still plays with them regularly. We recently got these big interlocking blocks and love them as well! If your child has developed enough fine motor skills, smaller blocks like these are also great.
Playdough and clay- We enjoy making our own playdough, but this natural dye clay is also a really quality set if you prefer to buy yours. You can find my DIY playdough recipe here. Our favorite playdough tools include this ALEX toys wooden tool set and this Melissa and Doug dough and tool set.
Baby dolls and accessories- My daughter plays with babies every single day. We had a “Baby Doll Brunch” for her second birthday and she got all stocked up on every baby doll accessory she needs to take great care of all of her babies. Some of her favorites are this stroller, this baby carrier, baby bottles, a rocking chair, a baby bed, blankets, pacifiers, and a high chair.
Stuffed animals and puppets- We have a huge box of random stuffed animals that we have collected over the years and a similar puppet set. My kids give them voices and names and stories. They often play puppet show, tea party, or picnic with a bunch of their animal friends.
Art supplies- We incorporate art and crafts into specific homeschool lessons, but we use the same materials for free playtime as well. I've compiled a list of our favorite art supplies. In addition to this list, my kids love drawing on our easel.
Play kitchen and accessories- We have the IKEA play kitchen in my daughter’s room and it gets a lot of use! We love this dish set, these pots and pans, and any play food by Melissa & Doug. I have also picked up wooden kitchen bowls and utensils from garage sales and thrift stores to add to her kitchen as well.
Dress-up clothes- This can be anything from Daddy’s shoes or a blanket cape, to a doctor set. We have a princess dress, a dinosaur costume, sunglasses, pearls, purses, firefighter helmet, and more little dress-up accessories that are always being used.
Toy animals and mini replicas - Miniature real-life toy replicas are probably the most used item on this list in both schooling and playtime. We use them to act out stories, for letter sound matching, categorization, in playdough, and many other ways. I am slowly collecting different animal groups, but so far we have these dinosaurs and these sea creatures. I also love these jumbo farm animals from Learning Resources.
Tent or fort- Of course this could be made from blankets and chairs, but we got this play tent with a tunnel for our kids for Christmas last year. I have been amazed at how many ways my children have creatively played with it. The tent has been the Three Little Pigs’ house, a library, the post office, and many more things. They also like to bring books in it and “read” with a flashlight.
Marble Run- My kids absolutely love this marble run. We got it about a month ago and they haven’t stopped creating pathways for the marbles. It has been neat watching them learn what works and doesn’t work as they build, and having to work as a team to create.
Household items- Last but not least, some of the best toys for open-ended play are everyday household items! More than toys, you will usually find my kids playing with blankets as capes or fort walls, our clothing for dress-up, cardboard boxes for cars or boats, and the list goes on. Try to look around your home through the lens of a child. You’ll be surprised what you see.
I hope that gives you some ideas if you are leaning towards a more simplistic, open-ended play atmosphere for your household. What are your children’s favorite toys that encourage imagination and creativity? I would love to hear!