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What is Open Ended Play?

by Sarah Haines 05 Feb 2022

Have you ever heard the term ‘open ended play’ and wondered what it is?  We are asked for toys that promote open ended play almost daily!  I’m such a big believer of toys that support this concept, especially for little ones under 5 years old.  It’s brilliant for kids but not for every parent – read on and I’ll explain! 

‘Open ended play’ or ‘unstructured play’ refers to play time where the child can choose their own adventure.  There is no script and no goal, it’s all about your little one getting creative!  There are huge benefits to open ended play: 

  • It improves cognitive skills and helps map those important neural pathways 
  • Allows your little one to express properly where they at in terms of skill level and challenge themselves appropriately 
  • It gets their little imaginations firing  
  • Helps improve decision making as they are in control and choose how they go about their play time 
  • Supports independence  
  • Allows them to explore new and different concepts 

It’s a brilliant concept with lots of benefits!  It’s a huge benefit to you as well as once they get the concept you can take a step back and actually finish a coffee that’s hot!!  It can be exhausting as a parent feeling like you have to fill your little ones times 100% of the time.  Open ended play supports them developing the ability to play on their own – win win! 

Having said that, open ended play does not work well if you just leave your child with a stack of toys and expect them to be happy for 2 hours on their own.  It takes time to develop the skill of open ended play and there are a few tips and things to keep in mind to make sure open ended play is successful.  

  1. If you can, declutter their play area to remove distraction.  When Elsie was under 12 months I used to pack up toys the night before and leave one toy out in the middle of the room for her to find in the morning.  She would beeline for it and occupy herself while I got myself a morning coffee!  Bonus! 
  2. Test their skill level.  You don’t want play to be too overwhelming as that will have the opposite affect you want.  Perhaps your little one doesn’t want 100 blocks out, maybe they work better with half that to start with.  Maybe they need you to give them some examples and practice with them before they take off on their own.  
  3. Let them get messy.  Do they want to play with something in water or outside?  If possible, let them decide where to play!  Our Elsie is obsessed with taking everything into the bath at the moment.  She sometimes has multiple baths per day and we are totally fine with that! 
  4. Optimise your environment.  Kids play best when they are calm and that means something slightly different for every little one.  Elsie likes to know where I am and doesn’t like silence, so I pop some music on in the background (anything from The Wiggles to Ella Fitzgerald!).  I’m not a fan of the TV on during open ended play as it’s another distraction.  Figure out what your little one likes and if you can, make it happen. 
  5. LEAVE THEM ALONE TO PLAY!  This is the toughest part, especially for parents that like to be in control!  Bite your tongue, sit on your hands and just let them play!  Let them make mistakes and play with the toys inside out and upside.  Give them free reign to do whatever they want to!

    There are so many toys that support this concept!  Some of my favourites are: 

      Once your little one hits 5 years old, whilst open ended play is still important so is learning to achieve a goal and follow instructions.  This is where it’s absolutely fine to start advancing to toys that have goals – science kits, art and craft kits where you create something specific, brick kits and puzzles.  Open ended play is still super important for this age though – learning to occupy themselves will help reduce the school holiday boredom! 

      If you haven’t already, try open ended play with your little one and see how they go!  Enjoy that hot coffee! 

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