Everything You Need To Know About Open Ended Play

Everything You Need To Know About Open Ended Play

Entering the world of parenthood or even the early childhood profession brings with it an overwhelming array of new terminology - from infectious bugs that sound like nursery rhymes (hand, foot and mouth) to sleep regressions and progressions (and you probably still haven’t worked out which one is which). What we all have in common, regardless of how well prepared we feel is that we want to provide our children with the best possible start to their life. 

You may have come across the term ‘open ended play’ or ‘open ended toys’ and thought to yourself “what in the world is this all about?”. We recently asked the community of U.Me Play what they value in their children’s resources (particularly open ended) and we’ve combined it all to bring to you everything you need to know about this concept, so let’s get into it!

What exactly is open ended play? 

Open ended play is the type of play that is open to go in any direction that the child chooses. There is no preconceived finished product or ‘point’ of the play.  As an adult, it is so easy to feel the need to provide our children with experiences that we can then determine their level of achievement, skill or knowledge. For example, we may be tempted to focus more on puzzles or stacking rings because we can then assess our children’s competence or feel that sweet sense of gratification that our child is meeting their milestones. Open ended play challenges this notion by removing this responsibility from the adult and activity and places trust in the child as the leader in the play. Further to this, it is about placing trust in the idea that play is enough. 

What is an open ended resource / play item ?

You’ll soon catch on that I rarely use the term “toy” in my writing. The word toy is narrowing to the vast complexity of play and the huge variety of materials that can facilitate this play. An open ended resource is any item that can be used within play in a variety of different ways. Open ended means that it can be whatever the child wants it to be and can be played with in a variety of different play scenarios. A simple example is loose parts – for example our U.Me Play Rainbow Coins can be used for different types of play: 

  • Art – to make mandalas and patterns 
  • Role play – money in a shop 
  • Imaginative play – Stepping stones in a small world set up 
  • Maths – counters in a game, sorting colours, one to one correspondence
  • Manipulative/ cognitive – posting coins in a tissue box (or our u.me play boxes)
  • Construction – perfect for adding the finishing touches to block masterpiece

Here at U.Me Play we value high quality play items whether they are open ended, in the middle or fixed. For instance, many Montessori concepts often include ‘closed materials’ such as puzzles as these are still a great learning tool for children. To help you understand the difference between open ended and product focused closed resources easier to understand I have created a continuum of openness. 

Continuum of Openness

Our perspective on open ended vs closed or semi closed play items 

A balance of both creates an engaging environment. For example a set of cars combined with blocks and our building planks and rainbow could make for hours of play making roads to destinations we haven’t even thought of yet!

The U.Me Play’s Community Values

I recently asked our little growing community why we value open ended play.

The overwhelming benefit was the multitude of ways that one item can be played with. Multiple use and longevity made investing in open ended resources worth it. The beauty of open ended play items is that they grow with the child, as the child grows they use the same materials but in different and more complex ways. 

Another common value we share is that open ended play supports the development of creativity and ignites higher order thinking skills. The less the resource/toy does, the more the child has to think and come up with ideas of their own, a strong foundation of learning and building their self-confidence.  

Finally, we acknowledge that when we are always focusing on product dependent activities, children can feel under pressure. Like they are in a constant pop quiz or test of how smart they can be. This really isn’t play when we think about it like this. Open ended play can help children express themselves, their ideas and build their confidence. 

Some tips to provide successful open ended play spaces 

  • If your child has been brought up with lots of battery operated interactive toys then they may look at an open ended resource, pick it up, bang it on a few surfaces and then drop it and move away. This is normal as the child has become expectant that the toy will do the playing for them and that they simply follow the toy’s lead or even worse – become mesmerised by the noises and lights and not even be required to play at all. If this sounds like a bit of a play trap that you have fallen into, start slowly removing some of these types of toys from your play space and replace with some foundational quality resources - such as a block set, our Rainbow Buddies, coins and rings and maybe some concrete open ended resources such as animal figurines or our beautiful Rainbow Wooden Cars

  • If your child has never played with open resources, be patient, lower your expectations and role model a few different ways they use them. 

  • Less is more – provide a few invitations to play but don’t provide a ‘completed’ environment. So you may set a few blocks up in a stack and a basket of blocks next to it inviting the child to stack. A common mistake is setting up a Pinterest worthy play space and then the child enters the play with nothing left to do – so be careful to provide an invitation not a finished product. 

  • Use a shelf or an open space and make your play items look organised and inviting. Rotate these regularly depending on the level of engagement, e.g. if your child no longer shows interest in a particular item, rotate that item with something else.

Remember our motto here at U.Me Play – a toy is simply a toy in the absence of relationship. So being there and being present is crucial if you want your child to explore their creativity independently. You don’t have to over take or even be overly involved. Sitting back and giving a thumbs up and showing genuine interest in what they are doing is all your child needs from you.
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1 comment

This is a great post! It’s easy to refer to when I get confused on the type of resource I am looking at purchasing. Thanks so much. Can’t wait until you offer shipping to Canada!


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