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“The more passive the toy, the more active the play.”

After spending an arm & a leg on presents, parents are often frustrated and baffled to find their child enjoying the cardboard box the toy came in more than the toy itself. But, have you ever wondered why this happens?

Our children’s minds were designed to LEARNEXPLOREDISCOVER and CREATE. To test ideas and find answers, to try and try again until they find a solution that works. Children are hard-wired for this and crave opportunities where they can let their growing minds run wild.

I once heard that giving a child a mechanical toy is like playing for them. Crazy, right?

Let’s talk about open ended toys, what it means & why they’re so beneficial.


What Kinds of Toys are Considered Open Ended?

An open ended toy is one with no definitive ending point. Doll houses, wooden building blocks, action figures, and pretend food are all examples of open ended toys. They can be used in a variety of ways and are wonderful at promoting pretend playexpanding language and encouraging social interaction with friends and family. They offer beautiful opportunities for cooperative play and creativity. These toys are a truly a child’s playground.

Benefits of Open Ended Play

1. Children have space to explore ideas, test theories, and engage in new concepts. In other words, they get all science-y! 🙂 It doesn’t usually appear this brainy on the outside. If only we could see the brilliant light show happening inside the child’s developing mind, we’d be amazed!

2. It provides a relaxed environment where there is no fear of making mistakes. Fear is one of our greatest barriers to learning and this is especially true with little ones. Children need full freedom to take risks, explore new ideas, observe cause & effect, engage their creativity. This puts them on an exciting path to figuring out what works and what doesn’t. There are no rules in open ended play so there is truly no right or wrong way to play. In this safe & nurturing environment, the child LEADS and thus LEARNS and EXPANDS.

3. It helps the child develop Social & Emotional Intelligence. When children play with open ended toys with other children, they learn to read social cues (tone of voice, facial expressions, body language) and how to respond appropriately. Their brains are in a better state to learn to read these cues because of the low-pressure nature of this kind of play. Again, no rules, just imagination. The pressure is off and each child is exploring and creating in their own way.

Through pretend play the child typically explores a wide range of emotions which are expressed and then responded to by the other child which helps develop their emotional intelligence.

4. It provides the ideal circumstance for flow. We see that when the child is in flow (a fully immersed mental state where the child is effortlessly engaged and often has no sense of time) that they seamlessly move from one idea to another to another, allowing them to learn & explore many different aspects of a particular idea. Studies have shown that people in flow tend to feel cheerful, strong, active, concentrated, creative, satisfied and have higher self-esteem. The more we can provide opportunities for our children to enter a flow state the better off they will be overall.

Having Trouble Getting Your Child to Play with Open Ended Toys?

Especially if your children are used to mechanical toys and/or lots of screen time, you may find they are uninterested when offered a big stack of building planks. Their brains have been conditioned to get quick and easy dopamine hits off of the fast paced interactions they’re used to. But there is hope! That’s the beauty of our ever changing brains!

If your child isn’t used to independent, open ended play, you may need to ease them into it. I would suggest these simple tips:

  • Play with them! Sit with them, be present, show them some ways of using these toys and enjoy some sweet time together. I would steer clear of telling them what to do with the toy. Rather, I would simply play next to them. They will watch you and copy what you’re doing. Before you know it, their own imagination will take over! This will not only help the child see the possibilities with the toy but also foster a stronger connection with you.
  • Limit their screen time! Give them more and more opportunities to engage in meaningful play by limiting shows, video games, etc. We’re often scared of doing this because we see how much they love it, but I have always been amazed to see that in no time flat my kids’ minds are turned back on and they are enjoying real life again! Oh yeah, and they’re HAPPIER! 🙂
  • Offer “loose ends” to your open ended toy cabinet. These are things like stones, shells, small wooden animals, action figures, ribbons, etc. that the child can incorporate into their play. It may feel random to us adults but you’ll be amazed to see how to child takes these objects and creates something magical with them.  (Victoria, over at Natural American Baby has a great video that is rich with ideas on this!)

What are some of your favorite open ended toys and what are some fun ways your child plays with them?

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