I have a love and hate relationship with toys.
I love buying them for my kid. I love researching about it, love looking up its benefits and different ways to play with it.
But I hate cleaning it up afterward. Particularly when it gets everywhere, it’s too noisy, it stains the furniture. Or when I accidentally step on it!
But there’s a special type of toy that I don’t mind littering our house. And that is an open-ended toy.
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What is an Open Ended Toy?
An open-ended toy is basically a multipurpose toy with no pre-determined use or end purpose.
It’s a kind of toy without restrictions. There’s no wrong or right way to play with it.
It encourages a child to play with it in different ways, based on their development stage, abilities, and imagination.
It inspires a child to explore their creativity. It gives them opportunities to practice their critical thinking and other skills.
In a nutshell, open-ended toys are toys that can be played in various ways.
Benefits of Open-Ended Toys
There are tons of advantages to having open-ended toys, such as:
It helps children develop their cognitive skills
When a kid is absorbed in playing with open-ended toys, you can practically see their wheel turning and neurons firing.
For eg., I look at my daughter trying to figure out how to put the blocks on top of each other without toppling.
I see her trying to work out how to connect her magnetic tiles and legos, to form a tower with a bridge.
I catch her finding a solution on how to take out all her small toys from her house made of legos and blocks, without the house falling apart.
An open-ended toy helps them continually develop their critical thinking and problem-solving skills
It provides them lots of opportunities to analyze, evaluate, compare, understand cause and effect and more.
It strengthens fine motor and gross motor skills
Holding and putting together small open-ended toys practices your child’s fine motor skills.
When they try to stack blocks, nestle toys, move smaller toys, etc., that’s practicing their hand-eye coordination.
When they’re extending their arms, moving their legs, figuring out how to reach, stand, etc., that’s practicing their gross motor skills.
It allows kids to be more creative and push their imagination
Open-ended toys allow for an endless way of playing.
It helps them create and build something new every time, through the use of their skills, imagination, and their experiences.
It can turn a piece of lego into a table, a plane, food, an insect, a hat.
It can turn a tower of magnetic tiles into a building, a castle, the Paw Patrol Lookout tower, a volcano, a tree.
It can turn a wooden rainbow stacker toy into a cave, a boat, a hideout, a bridge, a house.
It allows them to see the possibilities in toys, to come up with new ideas on how to play with them.
It develops language and math skills
Since open ended toys encourage lots of pretend play, they’ll naturally learn new words especially when parents are around playing with them.
Say for eg., a toddler is mumbling some words when putting some pretend food in their play kitchen.
Parents can describe the situation to the kid and simply say, “You’re baking and putting food inside the oven.”
Eventually, with this type of play, the child would learn new words and know their meaning.
If the kid is putting several items inside their “oven”, parents can count the toys out loud for them. Which basically teaches basic math skills.
So there are a lot of opportunities for parents to teach kids new words and learn math through open ended toys.
It encourages independent play
When there’s a lot of room to be creative with toys, when there are no rules or restrictions about it and when your child has full control over how to play with the toys, they can get lost in their world and play for hours.
You can get dinner done, do chores, even work!
It promotes social and emotional development
Open ended toys encourage lots of role-playing.
This, in turn, can help kids learn empathy, how to interact with other people, how to be flexible, and how to regulate their emotions.
Open-ended play also helps in practicing their leadership and decision-making skills.
It gives children the chance to be in charge of how they play, empowering them and making them feel confident.
It can last longer
When the child has figured out how a battery-operated toy works, it quickly loses its appeal and becomes a bore to play with.
Unlike open ended toys.
Children can always find new ways to play with open-ended toys.
And if you have wooden open-ended toys, it won’t only entertain your kids longer but it would also be durable enough to physically last longer than plastic toys.
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The Best Open Ended Toys for Kids
Legos, Tiles, Blocks, and STEM Open-Ended Toys
This is best for kids aged 3 and up.
You can basically do anything with these toys – create towers, roads, bridges, houses, playgrounds, etc.
Use it to teach shapes, colors, how to spell words, how to count and measure, and more!
Interlocking/ Construction Sets
Arts and Crafts Open Ended Toys
This is also best for kids aged 3 and up.
But for kids struggling to understand basic instructions and can’t follow rules well, I’d suggest waiting until they’re a bit older to get these kinds of toys.
As you wouldn’t want them drawing on your couch or the wall.
Brushes and Paint Set
Markers and Highlighters
Pretend Play Props and Open Ended Toys
These are best for kids who have stopped mouthing and/or eating toys
They also have to be in that stage where they can remember rules and follow instructions well.
These toys can also be used for teaching letters, phonics, spelling, counting, math skills, and more.
Dolls or doll set
Check out the best non-toxic dolls here.
Sensory and Fine Motor Open Ended Toys
These are more suitable for preschoolers or older kids.
Children at that age have better listening skills and can follow instructions and rules well.
They are also more adept at helping to clean up afterward.
Sensory toys can be played with Pretend Play toys or even Arts and Crafts and Blocks toys.
Just prepare yourself for the mess. Trust me, it’s not fun cleaning up animal toys that have been buried in kinetic sand.
Water-related sensory toys are much easier to set and clean up inside the bathroom.
So if you want your child to experience some sensory play, supervise and let them play in the bathroom with water sensory open ended toys.
Play-Doh Kits and Tools
Sandbox Toy Set
Jumbo droppers and pipettes
Gross Motor Open Ended Toys
These toys can range from babies to preschoolers, depending on the brand and model.
Depending also on the material, these toys can grow with your kid and can last for years.
They are also great for encouraging physical activities to build up their muscles and strength for crawling, running, lifting, jumping, climbing stairs, balancing, etc.
They can also be used with Blocks and Legos and Pretend Play Toys.
Climb and Crawl Activity Play Set
Balance Beam/ Obstacle Course
Buying Guide for Open-Ended Toys
Here are my personal criteria in choosing an open-ended toy. I hope you’ll find useful and enlightening:
- Must be safe
No splinters or loose tools sticking out and are not too small for younger kids to swallow. Must be toxic-free and have been tested and met safety standards
- Must be durable
Non-toxic wooden open-ended toys are best to have, as they can better withstand the usual wear and tear and won’t be easily destroyed by your kid.
- Preferably timeless
And by timeless, I mean something that will grow with your kid and will last for years, effectively saving you money and avoiding lots of toy clutter.
- In line with kid’s interests and skills
My daughter had her Magna Tiles by age 2 when I was in my toy obsession phase (I know, I’m a weirdo).
But no matter what I did, she wasn’t interested in playing with it!
Turns out, I just had to wait until she turned 3.
And at that time, she was developmentally ready. She has developed enough skills to play with the Magna Tiles and construct things on her own.
So observe your child and try to see what kind of toys or activities interest them. Get them open-ended toys based on their current skills and developmental phase.
Helpful Tips on Open-Ended Toys
- Get rid of gender bias
Letting kids play with all types of toys exposes them to a lot of learning opportunities.
For eg., boys can learn empathy from playing with dolls. Girls can develop their spatial skills when playing with legos.
So if your kid wants to play with a toy, let them. It will benefit them in the long run.
- Set it up in an enticing, creative way
Open-ended toys can be a little bit overwhelming initially, especially if your toddler can’t figure out yet how to play with them.
Give them some ideas on how to play with it by setting up the toys in a fun and creative way.
Instead of just putting the building slats in their container, set it up to look like a road with bridges.
Instead of just giving them a basket of Magna Tiles, set it up to look like a tower. Then place a few pieces beside it to encourage them to build their tower.
- Show them different ways to play with it
You can also play with your kid and show them the various ways of playing with open-ended toys.
You can show them that for eg., play silks are not only fun to wave around and run with, they can also be used to dress up dolls.
Or wrap things up and carry them, turn them into nests for their animal toys and such.
- Leave them alone
If you see your kid playing quietly and are completely absorbed and focused on their play, let them be.
I know it’s quite tempting to ask them what they’re doing or to go over to their play area and take pictures and videos of them.
But playing to kids is what work is for adults.
It’s necessary for them to play, to develop certain skills.
Besides, they’re in a state of flow.
That zone where they are totally immersed in the activity and are completely engrossed in it. Which develops their concentration skills, cognitive skills, creativity, and a whole lot more!
And we want to encourage that, so let them be when they’re playing on their own.
- Practice cleaning up
Ask your kids if they’re still going to play with their toys later on.
If not, teach them to always clean up afterward.
Show them how to clear up toys and where to put them back.
It’s a good habit to have and it teaches them to be responsible and to take care of their toys
Takeaway on Open Ended Toys
Open-ended toys don’t need to be wooden or expensive, to be considered as a great open-ended toy.
A regular box can be played with, in a multitude of ways and can arguably be considered as an open-ended toy!
So you don’t necessarily have to buy a lot of wooden, pricey open-ended toys for your kid, to give them the best playing, educational and learning experience.
A few pieces would do and that’s also essentially another benefit of open-ended toys.
It lessens the clutter in your house!
So get your kids only a few pieces of safe, durable, and timeless open-ended toys that are in line with their skills. Then witness how creative they can get with their open-ended toys.