The importance of open-ended toys

Updated: Sep 9, 2021

There has been growing awareness of the value of unstructured open-ended play yet these toys are commonly overlooked and disregarded by parents in my shop for their simplicity. It's not uncommon to hear a parent say, 'that's too baby-ish for you' or ‘that’s too young for you’ and 'that’s not for your age - these toys are for toddlers and babies, not you', dismissing the depth of play that simplicity in a toy can bring through unstructured play.

When we talk about open-ended toys we mean toys that don’t have an obvious single use, are not commercial TV characters, and that can be played with in multiple and varied ways without instructions or rules. Children control how they play with the toy, and it is the child who can make it as complex or as simple as they require for their own learning and exploration.

But this can be difficult as an adult to visualise when shopping. Common phrases I hear when parents are looking to buy a toy is, "what does it do? Does it do anything?". As adults we want to be able to visualise our children with the toys to reassure us it will offer long term play value and enjoyment to them. The challenge however, is that we often underestimate their powerful imaginations and the boundless play offered from simple loose parts and toys with no set purpose. By only seeing something how we imagine it as adults, we remove the idea of open-ended play.

A conversation about the pikler climbing frame I had in my store last week reminded me of how we as the adults, can struggle with imagining how an open-play toy might be engaged with as a child grows.

Seeing the pikler the customer explained, "I was considering buying a pikler but it's not very high? I don't think they will find it challenging enough without it being taller - they will get bored".

Here the customer is visualising the pikler as a 'closed-ended toy' with a single purpose - to climb up and down and the play value being to climb high and over the frame. This is a common response when parents see the maximum (CE compliant) height of piklers.

But to my son the pikler has always been about testing, experimenting and stretching his body's limits and self-discovering more about his physically developing body, and the height is perfect for allowing him to do just that, which if higher, would not be possible:

  • Mastering head first and the adrenaline rush of learning to do this quickly...

  • Mastering the challenge of going up and down backwards...

  • Mastering getting on and off without using the side rungs at all.

  • ... and now he is taller its almost parkour street style with swinging, vaulting and jumping across the pikler.

Open play toys grow with your child and their changing development needs and interests. Toys that offer high play value should be 90% child, 10% toy. What this means is that the toy should not be pre-determining the play unless its specifically designed to do so (like jigsaws for example). The more passive the toy, the more active and depth of play. By encouraging open-ended play, toys can help develop a child’s reasoning and problem solving skills, social interactions, improve their hand/eye coordination and fine motor skills and aid speech development and best of all, they can be enjoyed a whole childhood, something we are keen advocates of.

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