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13. Open-ended play

Jun 17, 2020 • 7 min read
Open-ended play with blocks

Open-ended play is brilliant

It encourages experimentation and perseverance and keeps your children busy for hours, buying you the time to have five minutes' rest and a nice cup of tea. In this guide we'll look at how you can get more of it in your life.

Table of contents:

What is open-ended play?

As a child, do you remember the feeling of just sitting with a material, of exploring it, without any end-goal in mind? It could have been pebbles, water or wooden blocks, sand, fabric or play-dough. The point is that you didn't know what you were going to do when you started, only that you felt the urge to experiment.

Open-ended play is play for its own sake, play without boundaries.

When you decide to complete a puzzle or play Snap!, there is only one way to do it. These games are closed-ended. There is enormous learning value to such activities - many require great skill to complete and you also learn how to finish tasks, follow rules and take turns. But these are distinctly different skills to the ones developed through open-ended play. 

Why is it important?

To use open-ended materials is to be challenged to use your imagination, to investigate and to problem-solve. You learn to play independently, without the safety-net of instructions to follow. Your confidence grows. You become more patient and more resilient.

In this sense, open-ended play is more far-reaching and profound in its impact, than play where toys and games with only fixed outcomes are featured.

The best open-ended toys

Open-ended play with Grapat loose parts

Some toys lend themselves especially well to open-ended play. They are the toys that have no rules - and no batteries. They’re probably the toys you played with as a child, and they’re also often the most unassuming and inexpensive to acquire.

Here are great toys for open-ended play

Perhaps the best open-ended toy is the simple wooden block. Unlike a model that can only be built one way, a construction made from blocks can be anything from a horse to a house, a castle to a cave.

Stack it and you have a tower, drop it in the bath and it's a boat, hold it to your ear and it's a phone.

Open-ended materials 

  • (Clean) recyclables, such as toilet rolls, cardboard boxes and yoghurt pots
  • Collage materials
  • Mark-making materials such as paint, chalk, charcoal
  • Natural materials: sticks, stones and pine cones
  • Fabric
  • Household items like wooden spoons, bowls and saucepans
  • Garden tools such as buckets, spades, jugs
  • String
  • Sand
  • Homemade loose parts, such as a box of buttons or a packet of nuts and bolts
  • Water

Open-ended play can simply be the exploration of materials - for example some paints and a sheet of paper. At first you make a few exploratory strokes of paint on the page with your fingers. Then your interest turns to how the paint drips from a brush, and you take increasingly large dollops and enjoy watching them fall.

This might lead to dragging the brush through a puddle of paint, observing the streaks of colour and how they mix. Then, perhaps, the activity changes again, as the aim becomes to cover the page completely. Before long, there is so much paint that the paper starts to soften and holes appear, which is in itself fascinating and sparks a whole new series of experiments.

This is open-ended play in its purest form. It was started with no goal in mind and there is no pretty picture at the end. One activity suggested another, and everything was interesting.

How to play with open-ended materials 

  • Let your child take the lead. It’s not open-ended if you’re taking charge or setting goals!
  • Allow mistakes and mess to happen. Since there is no end-product in sight, open-ended play is relaxed. Tidying as you go may ruin their train of thought.
  • Don’t help your child fix something or do it ‘the right way’, unless they ask you for help.
  • If they do ask for help or you want to help maintain momentum, try to get them to solve the problem first. Open-ended questions are most useful because they have to think about the answer. Why is it like that? Who could live here? How will it stay together?

You’ll know it’s going well because your child is deep in thought, lost in the activity.


I'm Alexis, father of four and founder of One Hundred Toys. I taught in London primary schools for thirteen years, specialising in the early years. Now I write about all things play here on the blog. Read more

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