3 Benefits of Open-Ended Play

Okay, before we start, this isn’t a blog about how to encourage your child to play independently for extensive periods of time. Engaging children in play can sometimes feel hard, but it’s not because of you! It’s their attention span.

Childhood development experts say that a reasonable attention span to expect of a child is two to three minutes per year of their age. This means that your 2-year-old will be engaged in an activity for about 4-6 minutes! Yup. That’s it.

Now that we have set our expectations right, let’s look at how we can make those snippets of play the most fun, engaging and educational experiences for your child.

As a teacher and mum of an almost-4-year-old, I decided to explore the world of toys when my son was just a little bubba. I wanted to invest in toys that would grow together with him and had more than one purpose. That is how we started our journey to learn about open-ended play.

Open-ended play is play that has no set or fixed way for a toy to be used. There is no set outcome and no 'right' or 'wrong' way that the toy should be played with. A child’s mind is designed to explore and discover, to learn and make! They love to test ideas and find answers, to try and try again until they find a solution that works.

Open materials allow children to make choices, express their creativity and support their independence. For me, the three main reasons to introduce open-ended play to my child is:

1. It allows kids to explore, test and try 

Sometimes, I can almost see the connections in my sons’ brain being built, like: ‘if I place this block on this one it will fall. But if I turn it around it can balance’. Or ‘this Lego creation I used as a surfboard yesterday can be a capsicum for my play kitchen if I add the green stem’. The idea that anything can be everything is just amazing. The only downside is that sometimes adults find it hard to keep up. My son gets very annoyed when I don’t immediately realise that yesterday’s jail is now a hardware store, for example. Open-ended materials offer beautiful opportunities for cooperative play and creativity.

2. It takes away the fear 

The fear of failure is a big hurdle for many children to overcome. Kids need the freedom and confidence to take risks, explore new ideas and observe cause & effect. By offering play opportunities that focus on these, we put them on an exciting path to figuring out what works and what doesn't. As there are no rules in open-ended play, there is no right or wrong way to play. How wonderful is that!? We can create a safe and nurturing environment where the child learns through play.

3. It teaches social skills 

Open-ended toys often lead to pretend-play. With my kids, we’ve done it all. ‘You are the mum, I am the dog with a broken bone and dad is the cranky neighbour’. Through pretend play, your child explores a wide range of emotions, which are expressed in a contextually accurate way. By role playing, kids learn to read social cues like tone of voice, facial expressions, body language and how to respond appropriately.

Learning how to play with open-ended toys might be a little difficult for kids if they are used to toys that do the playing for them. They might need to ‘unlock’ that creative part of their brain at first. My suggestion is to play with them. Sit on the floor and build with blocks, or play with cars and dolls. Let them lead, and ask questions that enhance their play. Before you know it, they will be creating the most wonderful scenes without even needing your help.

Does all this sound exciting, but you don’t know where to start? You probably have lots of open-ended toys already that you just don’t know about!

Lego, Playmobile and Knexx are great examples of open-ended play, as with these materials, there is no reason for us to show kids how to play with them. Your child’s imagination is key. You might be building a zoo one day and a space rocket the next. Take away the instruction booklets and add animal figurines, or nature finds like rocks and feathers to encourage them to play more creatively.

Other open-ended play items that you might already have at home include:

Kinetic sand/a sandpit

Knexx/meccano

Playdough

Cars/trains

Dome climber

Animal figurines

These toys are ideal ways of encouraging your child to use their imagination and play!

Lisa is a qualified teacher working at a school for students with additional needs. She is the mumma of a wonderful and wild toddler. She loves day trips, weekends away and good coffee. She enjoys setting up open-ended educational play activities. She has a ginormous drawer full of bits and pieces that ‘will come in handy one day’, which she uses to set up simple and fun toddler craft activities. You can follow her son and their adventures on Instagram at life.with.moon.and.co