Updated: Aug 16
The idea of buying open-ended toys for your children can be a rather daunting one. In this blog post I want to show how I encouraged open-ended toy play with my son, who now independently plays everyday with them, as there was a process to get to this point.
When we talk about open-ended toys we mean toys that don’t have an obvious purpose. There are no instructions or rules to follow; children control how they play with and use them. To an adult they can seem rather baffling and unappealing. Open-ended toys have the capability of offering incredible play value for a whole childhood, but understandably, parents worry their children won't play with them, that their children are too young or too old and it will just be an expensive waste of money.
The first open-ended items we owned were a balance board, a 12-piece rainbow and some Tegu magnetic blocks. My son loved to stack his wooden baby blocks, so the rainbow felt a natural development of this as were the magnetic element of the Tegu blocks, whilst I bought the balance board just for fun value.
As a year passed, I was keen for him to see how he could use the open-ended items in his developing small-world play. I added a couple of block sets (one natural and one colour) and some semi-circle boards to his collection, however their use was led by me at this stage. I would add the rainbow pieces to create tunnels for his railway setup and show how a bridge could be built for his road, or would say, "do you want to add some green trees" and grab a few green blocks for his setup. In this way, I integrated them into what he was already playing with. Over time, he began to do this himself using his own imagination to decide what the pieces would be.
I would show my son ideas from the internet and see which he liked and ask if he wanted me to build it. A Paw Patrol tower, a dinosaur set up with caves and rock cliffs, and even a castle! Some children can create without this input, but for us, my son needed this. As I build he adds in pieces, copying what I'm doing. Even though I built for him, he would adapt and alter them as he played.
Now my son will make a stand-alone item to play with for the weekend, like a pirate ship or a zoo, or he continues to build something for his train set like a train station or a Steamworks using his Tegu blocks. He hates dismantling his builds, even after he has lost interest, so we photograph his creations for him and this seems to help.
Having the freedom to build, create or imagine what you want with open-ended toys is great, not only for developing problem solving skills, creativity and cognitive skills, but also it is cost effective long-term because they can work with whatever your child is interested in at any given time, without having to continually buy those items. Whilst my son is lucky enough to have the space to spread out his constructions, open-play can be ideal for small spaces too, because again, large bulky toys like castles can be built and then dismantled, the blocks can be put back in their tray or basket, the rainbow can be re-stacked.
So the question is where to start - what open-ended toys to begin with? I started with what would fit with my son's interest of stacking and then added open-play toys that would work with the rainbow. Another good place to begin is sets of loose-parts that fit with items you already have. For example we have Grapat snowdrop sets in stock which are perfect for wintery play with dolls houses and Disney Frozen fans. Open-play toys can work equally well with plastic sets you may have or will be buying - like the Lego Ice Castle or Ice Palace which extends the small-world play of these. Likewise, a dinosaur world can be created with stacking pebbles, the rainbow for caves or river bridges and loose-parts that are green or cone shaped to create forests. My son will be getting large and small wooden balls this year as he is ready for building his own marble runs with the blocks and rainbow we have.
Open-play toys really are a world of imagination.