what is open-ended play

Benefits of Open-Ended Play

What is open-ended play? Open-ended play is unstructured playtime that allows children to play independently and use their imagination to make decisions about how the materials will be used.

Open-ended play has many benefits for young children and the best part about it is that it keeps kids busy for a long time!

“Play gives children a chance to practice what they are learning.”

-Mr. Rogers

When children are given time to play with open-ended materials they are learning to:

  • Develop problem-solving skills
  • Express creativity
  • Make independent choices
  • Build self-confidence
  • Explore the world around them and make connections
  • Work on things at their own pace

Increasing playtime in place of electronics is very beneficial for a child’s development. A recent study about the effects of electronics on early childhood development reveals that early exposure to electronics leads to structural differences in the brains of young children. These children also had delays in language and literacy skills.

Open-ended Toys & Materials to Give your Kids

  • Blocks
  • Boxes and paper tubes
  • Playdough, clay, kinetic sand
  • Nature Materials – sticks, rocks, plants
  • Scarves and pieces of cloth

Loose Parts

Offering children a tray of loose parts is a wonderful way to provide an opportunity for unstructured open-ended play.

tinker tray

Loose parts can be anything you have around the house!

  • buttons,
  • applesauce pouch caps
  • small animal figure
  • rocks
  • sticks
  • cups
  • cars
  • cotton balls
  • popsicle sticks
  • flowers
  • wikki stix
  • acorns
  • beads
  • feathers
  • colored pasta

Put the loose parts in a tray or a muffin tin and let your child get creative.

Things to Remember About Open-Ended Play

When children are engaged in self-directed, open-ended play activities they should be allowed to decide where their play will take them. This is an opportunity for them to explore, take chances, and make mistakes with very little adult intervention. This type of play should not be directed and have an established outcome.

If you do want to engage with them while they are playing, try asking open-ended questions (questions that can not be answered with yes or no) that foster critical thinking.

  • Tell me more about what you are making
  • How did you come up with that idea?
  • Why did you choose…?
  • Why do you think…?
  • I wonder…

When your child is struggling with what they are trying to accomplish and starting to get frustrated, resist the urge to swoop in and immediately solve the problem for them. Let them struggle and problem-solve for awhile. By providing your child with safe opportunities for frustration, disappointment, and failure you are teaching them resilience skills.

If they ask for help, use open-ended questions to guide them through the problem-solving process.

  • What would happen if you…?
  • Can you do it another way?
  • Why do you think that happened?
  • What part is difficult for you?
  • I wonder what would happen if…

“Children learn as they play. Most importantly, in play children learn how to learn.”

-O. Fred Donaldson

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