The Ultimate Open-Ended Play Guide - Sticks & Stones Education

The Ultimate Open-Ended Play Guide

The Ultimate Open-Ended Play Guide

 It’s about time I tackle open-ended play since it’s something I believe so strongly in as a teacher. Open-ended play is fundamental to my preschool classroom. This style of play encourages children to experiment and be creative. It inspires perseverance and can keep children engaged in play for increasingly extended time, building their knowledge, skills and ability to focus and concentrate.

When I think about my childhood and the types of toys that left an impact, they were toys or materials that inspired extended play, allowed me to be creative, and they also kept me busy for hours upon hours, for days and days. We had a sand box, set of unit blocks in a wooden trolley box, a doll's house and a mud patch for mud pies, and in the bathtub a mermaid, a huge sea sponge, and a 1970s mission brown face washer. There were also little bears (I totally get the love of Maileg) and tiny tea sets.

This guide is dedicated to defining the meaning of open-ended play, exploring the value it offers children’s learning and development and supporting you in supporting children. We’ll inspire you with easily accessible resources and some amazing kick-ass toys and resources.

I’m an early childhood teacher and a mega fan of open-ended play. In a couple of the open ended play groups I’m a member of, there are often posts asking … “I’m going to start an open ended toy collection for my child, but I can’t afford {insert name of a very expensive European brand}. What can I buy?”

Open ended play doesn’t mean a particular brand nor does it mean wooden arches or designer wooden loose parts. They are just one possible component of open-ended play. Any block set, is technically an open-ended toy. Loose parts, purchased, recycled or repurposed items are also open-ended resources. 

Don’t get me wrong. While the European brands are gorgeous, they are certainly not the only options. And I would go so far as to say that if you are starting out, that’s not where I would begin. I’m an early childhood teacher so I’m a fan of the traditional kindergarten unit block set. Add loose parts, animal figurines, people figures or wooden dolls and other small world play resources and you have the makings of a truly inspiring and epic open ended play space.

So, let’s deep dive into what open-ended play is and how you can incorporate it into your play spaces be they home, play group, or early learning services.

What Is Open-Ended Play?

Open-ended play has no directions, no instructions and no rules. Open ended play resources and toys are materials that have multiple uses. Some common examples of open ended resources and toys are sand play, loose parts, wooden blocks, sculpting media like play-dough, clay-dough or clay, and even lego! The materials can be purchased or hand made. They can be made in Australia or made in Europe. One is not intrinsically better than the other.

The reason a person may choose a European brand is because they are beautiful and hand made using particular colour sets and gradiations. It could be because their marketing and branding is so aligned with open-ended play that it is assumed they are one and the same! That is truly an indication of their superior marketing strategies. I mean we call tissues Kleenex. 

Children don’t really need an adult to guide their play. They may need a little nudge here and there, but for the most part, they don’t need us. You could in fact argue that we hinder their play. Children are natural players, and when we offer them open ended materials, they use their innate creativity and drive their own play. This allows children to exercise their independence and agency and express themselves.

What Are the Benefits of Open-Ended Play and Why is open ended play important?

Open-ended play:

  • encourages creativity and imaginative thinking,
  • develops problem-solving skills,
  • improves fine motor skills,
  • promotes physical development,
  • supports language development,
  • increases focus and concentration,
  • promotes independence and independent play,
  • supports children in learning to make decisions,
  • promotes social development, 
  • supports children emotional learning, 
  • helps children build important life skills, 
  • helps to reduce stress and anxiety, and 
  • is an enjoyable activity.

Open-ended play encourages creativity and imagination:
Open-ended toys and materials have many functions and this allows children to use their imaginations and encourages creative thinking.

Open-ended toys have many uses or functions. It’s not up to us, the adults to decide what they are ultimately are. That decision lies with children. Children see opportunities that we are often blind to. Children are naturally creative thinkers and pillows can be beds or be used with cushions from furniture to become forts, caves, cubbies or nests for birds or even dinosaurs! Cardboard boxes can be stacked to create dolls houses or castles. Boxes can be laid end to end to become a train or placed side by side and turn into race cars. Children’s imaginations are absolutely limitless.

Open-ended play develops problem-solving skills:
When offering a child an open-ended material such as a set of wooden blocks without a pre-existing knowledge base of what to create with blocks, the child needs to problem solve what to do with the blocks. Children have to experiment with trial and error. They have to feel the weight of the blocks, their texture and finish (is it smooth or rough or grippy?) and then explore how they might fit together. Without this pre-existing knowledge how would a child know to stack blocks? How high can you build before the tower wobbles? How far does a row of blocks stretch? How high and how stable Thinking back to some of the creations my students have made over the years, it really does inspire me as their educator. Children can make magic with a set of blocks and loose parts.

Open-ended play improves fine motor skills:
Open-ended toys and resources such as wooden blocks, loose parts, and modeling media like playdough need children to use their hands to manipulate them. This then in turn helps children to develop their fine motor muscle strength as well as their dexterity, hand and eye coordination, and spacial awareness. As this type of play is fun and creative children won’t have a clue that its learning! This type of play is the precursor to writing and cutting. I often see templates or programs that push cutting skills or pre-writing skills when what we really need to be doing is supporting open-ended play with different materials.

Open-end play promotes physical development:
Open-ended play isn’t just working those small muscles or nurturing creativity. It also promotes the physical development of larger muscles. Think of balls, hoops, bean bags, homemade pompoms, beams, scarves, ropes, large pillows and cushions, tunnels. When children use their bodies in new ways they are developing their strength, agility coordination and their balance.

Open-ended play supports language development:
Open-ended play inspires language. Children will use language to describe their play and their creations. They tell the stories of their play, and the more complex their play becomes, the more complex their language. Educators and parents can extend children’s language development by asking open-ended questions, listening to children’s narration and then repeating their expressions back to them and gently modeling grammar, vocabulary and speech. Open-ended play also allows children to use multiple forms of social communication. This includes physical communication such as body language, facial expressions and gesturing.

Open-ended play increases focus and concentration:
Open-ended play supports children’s developing concentration spans and enables them to focus and attend to tasks as their play is open-ended and self-directed. With open-ended play, there is no finishing line, until a child decides they are done, but they can return to their play at any point, be it later in the day or the following day or even the next week. I’ve seen children return time and time again to block play, and each time their creativity becomes more and more complex as they remember their past ideas, and then innovate new ones.

Open-ended play promotes independence and independent play:
Open-ended toys and resources offer children creative freedom. This creative freedom promotes a sense of agency and fosters independence. Because children are in the driver's seat of their play. They have the freedom to create, make choices around where the play goes, what parts they’ll add in or remove. Open-ended play encourages and nurtures independence in children’s play. I often see parents asking how to nurture their child’s independence and this form of play is a great way to support it.

Open-ended play helps children understand their emotions:
Open-ended play can be an opportunity to explore their feelings. Often times children have big feelings such as anger and frustration or fear and anxiety. Play is an opportunity for children to try out situations in play and work through those feelings. This supports the development of emotional regulation skills. Pretend play lets children explore situations, both real, perceived or imaginary and then explore how they feel in each of those situations.

When it come to open-ended play, children are in the lead of their own play, not the adult. I often seen educators and parents asking for help on how to best set up play provocations for their children. While yes, it can be beneficial to set up beautiful spaces that invite children in, its not necessary! Children are far more creative and inventive than we are, so we should really try and let them take the lead on this one! You’ll actually find that children play far more independently when left to their own creative playful devices than if we intervene or try and be involved.

The benefits of open-ended play materials is really endless. The materials have multiple uses and keep children engaged for countless hours, day in and day out. I know this because I sit back and watch my preschool class each and every day and their engagement and creativity knows no bounds. Open-ended play supports children in being creative and expressive through the language of play. This unique style of play is where children can have things represent other things with no outside pressure from others to have an end product. There is no failure in open-ended play, just trial and error and successful engagement.

Open-ended play supports children in becoming explorers, artists, designers, architects and engineers who build, construct, deconstruct and rebuild, manipulate, problem solve, innovate and collaborate or even work independently making their imaginations come to life.

What are open ended play materials?

I often seen posts where someone is overwhelmed by the beautiful branded open ended play resources and loose parts. It’s easy to think that open-ended play needs to be supported with beautiful heirloom quality toys and resources. The truth is that so many of the basics are either already in your playroom or classroom or in your home and garden.

According to Fiona Bland in her article for TeachWire:

“Children are naturally curious and explore the world around them through play experiences. Open-ended play can be described as play that has no pre-determined limitations and no fixed answer – children simply follow their imagination to allow the play to go in any direction their creativity takes them. As there are no set outcomes, there is no ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ with open-ended play.”

In simple terms, open ended play is child led imaginative play using resources that have multiple possibilities

The opposite of open-ended toys are toys that have a single use or single purpose. While they may have fabulous developmental outcomes for children, they have limited possibilities. Some examples of this would be a puzzle or a board game. While puzzles offer fabulous learning opportunities to children, they are simply a puzzle to be solved. Games are to be played and invariably have a winner. Battery operated toys are often singular experiences, pushing a button, it does a thing. Done.

A great example of an open-ended resources and one that aligns so beautifully with our name: Sticks & Stones Education, is sticks! A stick can be a magic wand for a witch or wizard, a mark making tool with lines drawn in the sand, a building material that forms the sides of a shelter big or small. It could be a sword or used for drumming. It could be a knife, fork or spoon in a mud kitchen.

Open ended play materials are often synonymous with loose parts. They can be used on their own or combined with other parts. They provide children with learning opportunities to gather, sort, classify, construct and deconstruct. They can be used as one idea or another. They can be used in many different ways limited only by children’s own imaginations.

Open-ended Resources You May Already Have!

Your home, our classrooms are made up of open-ended play materials. Sometimes we just have to shift our focus, open our minds and support children in creative play. If it is a safe item, it can be used in open-ended play. Open-ended toys and resources are often items that have traditionally lined our shelves.

Some examples of these off the top of my head include:

  • Blocks: traditional kindergarten wooden unit blocks, coloured wooden blocks,
  • Connecting blocks such as Duplo, Lego, magnetic blocks, stickle bricks etc
  • Sensory sands such as kinetic, magic and cotton sands
  • Play-dough, clay dough and clay
  • Large sheets for forts and cubbies
  • Sand and water play in the outdoor environment
  • Mud kitchens or a dirt patch
  • Recycled and repurposed loose parts: bottle tops and lids, containers, fabric scraps, wooden offcuts
  • Natural loose parts: pebbles, stones, river stones, sticks, branches, tree slices, branch cuts, twigs, leaves, mulch etc 

The Must Have Open-Ended Toys and Resources for Every Playroom + Classroom

Wooden Blocks

One of the open-ended play resources I always suggest as a great starting point when setting up a play room or classroom is natural wooden unit blocks. While I do love the fancy pants branded european heirloom sets (you know the sets - the stunning gorgeous ones that we don’t yet stock here at Sticks & Stones Education) … I think the first starting set should be a plain set of natural blocks. The form the foundation of a great play space.

From your set of natural wooden blocks you can then add in other blocks and open-ended materials that will compliment, enrich and extend children’s play. This means that the wooden set you started with grow with the children both as they age in years, but in terms of the complexity of their play. Wooden blocks give children the opportunity to build, learn about geometry, physics, engineering and be imaginative. We have another blog on the value of block play in the works … so when that’s completed I’ll link it here.

So start here with a set of wooden unit blocks. Then add in baskets of animal figurines, people figurines, stones, play silkies and you have created an amazing open ended play space for children to engineer and design and play!  Then when you are ready to embellish your collection, throw in some coloured blocks, arches, planks, half circles, home-made tree blocks, wooden offcuts from the local Mens’ Shed or hardware store or a frieldy tradie.

Playsilks + Scarves + Fabric

You can’t go wrong with playsilks! We are a proud stockist of Play Silkies and they are absolutely stunning and versatile. So of course we are going to sing their praises. From the stary galaxy to the blue sky sprinkle with white fluffy clouds to fairy floss whimsey to the stunning vibrant earth inspired colours, the Play Silkies are just gorgeous.

play silkies jumbo galaxy play silk

I would remiss though as an early childhood teacher who has an appreciation of a budget and sustainability if I didn’t also suggest scarves and fabric scraps. Head to your local opportunity shop and dig into their scarf bin and see what you can find. The reason I suggest both play silks plus other materials is because it enriches the play. The children are being exposed to multiple textures - the silkiness of the silk, the rougher texture of a woolen scarf or the slippery nature of an artificial satin. All of these serve a purpose and combined together they really do enrich children’s play and creativity.

Figurines: Animals, People + Fantasy Characters

A selection of animals and people offer children the opportunity to make up their own stories with featured characters. Children can invent their own imaginative stories or they can recount familiar ones such as fairy tales. This also gives children the opportunity to play out scenarios that might cause them some anxiety, such as getting lost, or navigating an illness in the family.

There are some gorgeous wooden heirloom animals and people dolls, but again, they can come at a higher price point. You also can’t use your gorgeous wooden figures in water or out in the mud or in a sensory tray. The beauty of plastic (yes, I know!) lies in it’s versatility. They also do last years and years when cared for. We stock CollectA, Safari Ltd and Wild Republic as they are gorgeous, realistic and are an affordable investment in children’s play.

Loose Parts
When you think of open-ended play the first thing that comes to mind for me is loose parts, especially natural loose parts. Loose parts inpsires children’s creativity, innovation and problem-solving. Children are able to pick and choose different elements and materials and combine them together in unique desiens. There is no right or wrong way with it comes to loose parts. Loose parts can be expensive, or they can be found and free. They are the ultimate open-ended play material.

Natural materials that support children’s open-ended play:

  • natural rough river stones
  • pumise stone
  • tumbled polished stones in reds, blacks, quartz
  • tree stumps can become seats, stepping stones, different levels for small world play, protection from the floor is lava, safe bases in games of tag, a fairy circle in a magical forest …
  • tree logs and chunky branches
  • branch cuts and slices aka tree cookies
  • small twigs of different lengths and thicknesses
  • sand and gravel
  • water and dirt making mud for food, pies, potions
  • sun dried flowers
  • grass and dandelions and clover
  • pine cones of all sizes: mini cones, small pine cones, large pine cones
  • seed pods: gumnuts, bud cones, mini pine cones,
  • bark: can be paper, pretend food in a mudkitchen, bedding for pretend animals
  • feathers: found, dyed, harvested
  • leaves: green, dried, coloured, leaf skeletons
  • mulch, bark, paper bark
  • natural pebbles
  • sticks and stones and sea shells
  • rocks of all shapes sizes and textures

Repurposed materials that supports children’s open-ended play:

  • tyres: car, truck, motorcycle
  • pallets and fence palings
  • milk crates
  • buckets, tubs, catering containers
  • pots and pans and kitchen utensils
  • plastic garden pots of all shapes and sizes
  • cable spools in wood and plastic
  • gutters, pipes, half pipes
  • wooden crates and boxes
  • boxes of all shapes and sizes and materials
  • PVC pipes of all sorts of lengths and sizes and connectors
  • planks of wood of different lengths
  • cardboard tubes
  • fabric scraps of various textures, colours, patterns and materials
  • plastic bottles of various shapes and sizes
  • supportive materials are string, twine, rope, sticky tape or masking tape

Open ended materials encourage creative thinking. Using these materials children involve themselves in concrete learning which leads to explorations that occur naturally, rather than adult directed. When children engage with open ended materials, there is no right or wrong answer. It provides an opportunity to plan, create and investigate!

References + Further Reading:

Want to read some other blog articles on open-ended play? While the concepts remain the same, how each author has expressed their experiences or shared images from their own experiences are different. Here are a few I have found for you along my travels on the interwebs: 

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