Simple Ideas For Open-Ended Play

Transcript of this week's "Developmental Thought," a short excerpt from the full episode. For additional information, music, play ideas and the complete interactive family experience, please listen to the entire episode.

Open-ended materials are simply items that can be used in lots of different ways and in different environments (say, indoors or outdoors), and can be combined and often redesigned or repurposed by the young child in any way that child or her playmates decide. Open-ended materials can be found in nature (think, a stick, a leaf, sand, a pinecone, gourd or piece of bark), can be recycled from other materials (such as a paper roll, tissue paper, lentils, a cardboard box), they might be objects in the home (pillows, scarves, flower pots, kitchen utensils, pots/pans) or can be actually marketed as “toys” that you can find in the store (balls, simple stuffed animals or puppets, stacking toys, art materials, costumes, shape sorters, musical instruments). So, what is something that is not open-ended? Most toys that require a button to be pushed to make noise, or that sing when they are moved – these are toys that have essentially one function: they teach cause and effect. Now, there is, of course, a time and a place to “teach” or work on cause and effect, a valuable and important cognitive skill… but play is comprised of much more than that. Infants and toddlers have a natural desire to create, and then to practice something again and again – we see this when they start to learn how to move their bodies, when they make noise by hitting a block against another block, when they babble “babababababa,” when they go up and down the same ramp 25 times… and if there are lots of ways that child can play with an object or with the materials in front of her, then she will continue to play – to experiment - in new and different ways.  

Think about what we all find interesting in life - that which is new, different, or somehow newly put together to reveal a different aspect we never noticed before. Young children, we know, are like sponges - whatever we expose them to, they soak up. How can we create experiences that allow our little ones to observe the world through simple pleasures? By going outside, jumping in puddles or leaves... by playing in sand or mud, by moving through the air in fast and slow circles, or feeling the air on our faces on a bicycle. By listening to music, to wind, to rain. Sensory experiences, different qualities of light, temperature and air, texture and sound... by creating something out of what our adult selves often consider to be nothing, we offer the real learning, and create wonderful opportunities to expose our children to rich vocabulary. 

So, what are some of the benefits of open-ended toys? We’ve touched upon some of the developmental aspects of that, in that open-ended materials often allow children to explore and be inventive in the way they are used… young children are naturally inventive, and you might have already noticed that your little one is often more interested in the regular objects you have lying around the house rather than the expensive toy that the grandparents purchased for her birthday…. Often, children end up exploring their environment, taking regular objects, and converting them into toys – a prime example of this is the little one who is on the move, sitting up, and able to open the kitchen cabinets to take out her favorite “drum set,” a pot and a pan! An older toddler who is engaging in what’s called “symbolic play,” or the kind of play that uses objects to symbolize and imitate what they’ve seen others doing, might take out the same pot and pan, and a wooden spoon, and start to stir, imitating her parents in the kitchen.

Often, children end up exploring their environment, taking regular objects, and converting them into toys.

Open-ended materials often encourage creative thinking in that a child must explore its properties and how it might be used. In addition, when you have a house or play area full of open-ended materials, they can often be used together in new and inventive ways. A scarf or blanket might serve as a great hiding place for a building block until it’s ready to peek-a-boo! A clump of play-doh might balance beautifully on top of a wooden car, or fit inside a shape sorter. A puzzle piece might fit inside one cup, but not another. This leads me to my next point, which is that often, open-ended materials encourage problem-solving. What fits where? How can I get this to work that way? Can I get that out if I pull this?

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The last point that I want to bring up is that using open-ended materials also tends to save us a LOT of money. Not only do we often save money by using common household objects or natural materials instead of expensive electronic gadgets that purport themselves to “teach such and such” skill… (which of course, you all know by now is probably not the most effective way for children to learn, right?? They are going to learn best through exploring, interacting, and imitating YOU!) They also often last for a longer period of time in our children’s development, for the very reason that they can be used in so many different ways! Building blocks can be mouthed, grasped, knocked down by large sweeping infant arms, built up by protective careful toddlers, and sorted by color or shape. Dolls can be cuddled, swatted, dressed, bathed, fed, can be tickled according to body part, and can act out almost any action or emotion. I hope you’re beginning to see a trend. Open-ended toys are really just materials that your little one can explore, without a set agenda. And when we encourage our tiny people to become more creative, that will serve them well down the road, as we encourage them to be active participants in their lives, vs. passive button pushers. 

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Ayelet Marinovich, M.A. CCC-SLP

Ayelet Marinovich, M.A. CCC-SLP, is a pediatric speech-language pathologist specializing in work with pre-verbal infants, toddlers, non-verbal children, and their families. The Strength In Words podcast and blog were created as an additional resource for families of young children with infants & toddlers of all developmental levels. It is not intended to be a substitute for speech and language therapy.