What are open-ended toys and why does my child need them?
It seems anyone and everyone are talking about the importance of open-ended toys these days, myself included. While I am not a child psychologist or a degree-holding child educator, I am a mom. A mildly informed mother who had a growing sense of dissatisfaction with the way I watched my children play.
Something just wasn’t settling right with me on the growing need to continuously add to an already overwhelming abundance of toys that my children had.
Even with the copious amounts of playthings, my children were always bored, complaining, disinterested. For a while, I thought I just wasn’t buying them the right things. Or maybe it was normal for a child to get bored so quickly.
Surely it was normal for me to be tossing out broken toys every day, right? Don’t all families have this same problem with quality and quantity?
It wasn’t until the Christmas of 2018 when I finally realized it was the toys themselves that were the problem. Not the amount of them. Or my children’s attention span. Or my lack of formal education training.
My husband and I decided Christmas Morning 2018 was going to look like Santas Workshop exploded in our living room. It was crazy. Really crazy. It wasn’t that we spent a ton of money on big things, but we concentrated on the quantity that was displayed.
Our poor children.
There was so much and they were miserable. Too much to see, too much to open, too much to process.
The toys on Christmas morning and all the toys they already had were causing so much overwhelm to my children that they had lost the ability to play. So we decided to trim the fat and take a different approach. We got rid of a lot.
Play is how children learn. How they learn social skills, life skills, behavioral skills. By providing them with only certain types of toys I was effectively removing all of these important aspects of play.
As well as quantity, we were also making the mistake of buying only close-ended toys.
So what’s the difference? Does it really matter that much?
Yes. It does.
Close-Ended toys are toys that have a clear endpoint. Or toys which have a clear way to play with them and do not allow for creative deviation. The toy is used from start to finish and then the child moves on to the next activity.
Close-ended toys are great and are essential but so are open-ended toys.
Open-ended toys in comparison have no completion point, the play is ongoing and these toys can be used in a variety of different ways. Open-ended toys are ones that encourage imagination and creativity.
A standard puzzle is a great example of a close-ended toy. Once completed the task is done and the child should move on to something different.
Think as well of a Minnie Mouse doll. She can only ever be Minnie Mouse. There is no creative liberties to be had with this type of toy.
Alternatively, a set of blocks is an example of an open-ended toy. Blocks can be used over and over in whatever way a child decides to use them. To build a castle, a tower, a bridge. To be used as pretend food, or a bed for a doll. Endless possibilities.
Instead of Minnie Mouse, an open-ended brandless doll can be a baby, a mommy, a princess, best friend, police officer, basketball player… whatever a child can dream up is possible when they aren’t restricted with a predetermined close-ended toy.
Open-Ended toys help children’s brains develop.
The most important time in a persons brain development is before age 5.
What is it that our children are doing day in and day out before they start formal education at age five? Playing.
The importance of the type of play your children are getting is critical. We should be using this time to set our children up for lifelong learning instead of just shoving whatever is new and popular into their hands because we think its something they should like.
Really it’s not even what we think they should like, its what the big marketing machine has told us that our children will like.
Of course, our kids love the new, loud, electronic, plastic toys. BUT is that what is best for nurturing their little brains at this critical point in development? Most likely it’s not.
Creative Play with Open-Ended Toys
MSU makes a great point about creativity and how we value it in adults vs children. Somewhere along the line, we decided that children should be expected to do at they are told without questioning. As adults however complex problem solving, quick decision making and an ability to take in multiple perspectives are sought after traits.
This type of brain functioning is developing before the age of 5.
“Open-ended play materials allow children to make choices, [and] express their creativity.” “It is through these experiences that children are able to learn best.” Michigan State University
Toys that Encourage Imagination
When my oldest was in PreK I vividly remember having a conversation with her teacher about how important play was in learning. She remarked on how scary our education system is becoming because there is so much less time to play in our new curriculums.
This memory is so vivid because a) she was so passionate that her eyes started to water as she became emotional and b) it was this conversation which first sparked my interest in learning how vital play is in learning and development.
According to PsychCentral imaginative play “can take people’s minds to places where no one has gone before.” Why is this important?
Its imaginative play as children that leads to the ability to be innovative as adults.
Open-Ended toys encourage Independent Play
I used to think there was something wrong with my kids when they couldn’t just keep themselves occupied. “Go find something to do” I would say and they just could not do it. They could not pick an activity and do it without direction.
One of the most beautiful things about open-ended toys is that they encourage open-ended play, also called independent play.
Independent play helps children become self-reliant, self-regulating, and socially independent
Self-directed play helps children create their own calm, helps them focus and explore at their own pace.
Examples of Independent Play
- Figurines (dinosaurs, peg dolls, animals)
- Building (blocks, magnetic tiles, legos)
- Pattern and color sorting
- Playing Kitchen
- Coloring, painting, drawing
- Play Dough, kinetic sand, putty, slime
- Cars, trains or construction toys
- Dress up
Open-Ended toys can save so much money
Let me say this again; open-ended toys CAN save money. Notice CAN is capitalized. While you can certainly get away with so much less when you have open-ended toys you will have to learn to hold back when it comes to buying. Why? Well, because in my experience they are beautiful and mildly addicting to collect!
In all seriousness though, our toy collection is so minimal but with such a large impact that I no longer feel the need to be buying things on a regular basis.
Longevity – Well Made Toys
For the most part, open-ended toys are well made. This in itself was part of the appeal for me.
Not all toys are created equal however so if you are making the switch to open-ended just do a little research.
When my family decided to do away with Barbie we knew we still wanted a toy that could be played with in a dollhouse. We went through a few options before we found something of “heirloom” quality that we knew could withstand our childrens play and be passed on to any younger siblings.
While we could have larger quantities of some of the cheaper, less well-made items it was more important for us to have less of a higher quality toy. Why invest in something that will have to be thrown out and replaced over and over instead of paying a bit more for a long-lasting item?
While we are on the topic of longevity, one of the things I love to do is buy used toys. I love finding a good vintage wooden toy. The idea that the toys my children are playing with have been around longer then they have is pretty cool.
Imagine if ALL toys were made to last? Wouldn’t that be wonderful?
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A few of our Favorite Creative Thinking Toys
- Picasso Tiles
- Grimms Large Rainbow
- Wood and Acrylic Building Blocks
- Color Mixing and Stacking Blocks
- Melissa and Doug Wooden Blocks
- Sarahs Silks
- Wobble Board
- Balance Stones
Used for Multiple Children
Not long after we made the switch to more toys that encourage imagination I saw my 1-year-old playing with items we had purchased for our 6-year-old. I remember thinking to myself “not many toys appeal to children at these two ages simultaneously”.
Since then I have seen over and over how broad of an age range open-ended toys can appeal to.
It is more than just age differences too.
Children of different interests can play with the same toys and create all different kinds of experiences. Magnetic tiles can create spaceships, castles, a doll bed, a veterinary clinic or as a counting, color, shapes or pattern learning tool.
Less is more
Contrary to my previous sentiment about obsessive purchasing of beautiful open-ended creative play toys, less really is more. Most of the toys for my three children are housed on one 8 cube shelving unit. Not all, but most.
We have no overflowing toy boxes, closets, under the bed storage, hidden toy rotation tubs, or “keep the clutter behind closed doors” type of organization systems.
When you have less to chose from everything gets used. Everything gets loved and enjoyed.
There is hardly ever any missing toy situations.
Our toys are given greater care because there are not a multitude of other options should something happen to the ones we have.
If something gets dirty, banged up or broken my kids ask for it to be fixed. Not thrown away and another purchased.
If you’ve ever dealt with a child who demands new toys then you will understand how amazing it is to suddenly have that same child want to hold on to something broken instead of asking for something new.
Open-Ended toys are a great way to be Eco-Friendly
The older and more knowledgeable I get the more I understand that my purchases carry much more than monetary weight.
The consumerism culture is quite scary when you sit back and recognize it for what it is. Somewhere along the way we got used to fast and cheap and forgot to care about HOW we were able to get things so fast and so cheap.
We stopped considering the environmental, social, & economic factors that go into a fast consumerism culture.
Yes, we can now produce toys by the millions but at what cost?
What are these toys made of?
Who is regulating them?
Are they safe for my kids?
Are the workers who are producing them safe?
Are they being treated humanely?
How is the production of these toys affecting our environment?
What happens to this toy once it is no longer used by me?
Wooden Toys are Environmentally Friendly
Just to be clear, not all our toys are wood. Many of them are, and I do prefer a QUALITY wood toy over most plastic ones but I would be lying if I said we are 100% wood in our house.
I do think a mix of toy properties is what works best in our family and I am okay with that.
For example, we do lots of sensory play and honestly, I would never dream of putting most of our wooden toys in water, playdough, sand or anything that I would have to wash off. I stick with high-quality plastic animal toys for that kind of play.
With that being said, I love the sustainability of buying wood. I love the longevity. I love being able to paint over something if I want. Like when I upcycled Wooden Play Kitchen. I love the natural textures and softness of wood.
I love that with a wooden toy I can choose to purchase from a maker who is passionate about sustainability. Or who produces non-toxic products. I can choose a company that values quality.
Less is More
Without going too far into the consumerism rabbit hole, its obvious that open-ended toys are great for the environment simply because you don’t need as many toys as you might if you were strictly buying close-ended toys.
Less buying, more conscious buying and being better are great ways to give the planet a little extra love.
Open-Ended toys are great for a minimalist lifestyle
Minimalism is so trendy these days and for good reason. We are all overwhelmed. We might not understand how we got so overwhelmed but we have decided that minimizing is the way to get out of it.
Spoiler Alert – Consumerism is the real problem and until you address this issue the minimalist lifestyle will never work. This, however, is an entirely separate topic which I won’t get into here.
However, since the basic principals of minimalism are less is more open-ended toys certainly fit in this category.
For my own children, I feel that adding more choices, even open-ended choices would limit their enjoyability. So we stick with less. They make it work.
Heres an example of what I mean. My oldest likes playing with figurines. My middle loves playing with dolls. My youngest is just into exploring everything she can. We have a wooden crate that holds a set of building blocks. The girls will dump out the box and use it to fit their own interests.
My oldest has used the crate as a house, spaceship, and school bus. My middle uses it as a bed and my youngest loves sitting in it and having her sisters push her around.
Now let’s talk about how many other “toys” we would have to buy in order to achieve the same type of play. Just in the above example, we would have to add a dollhouse, a spaceship, a school bus, a bed and ride along toy. Five toys vs one? Any minimalist would tell you that the one toy is the better choice!
Easy to Clean Up
Again, since we are dealing with less the clean up will obviously require less time as well. The beautiful thing about open-ended toys in my experience is how well my children are able to put away their own things.
Beautiful and aesthetically pleasing
Okay, so yes, technically this isn’t really for the kids but if mamas happy that’s got to count for something right?
Our toys are beautiful and can be kept on display without adding any visual clutter. No need to shove them out of the way in order to make our home look tidy.