Toys and Games: The Value of Open-Ended Play

Perhaps we’re coming into your little one’s first holiday season, or maybe his second. It’s understandable that you want to knock it out of the park with that perfect gift for him—one he’ll play with over and over again, and one that will hopefully help him learn. And you may find that when that gift is unwrapped, he looks at it—and then goes after the box, or perhaps that set of cookware that was meant to be a gift for you!

While your child may not know what’s behind your intentions, he may know a little more than you think about what’s good for him. He’s demonstrating open-ended play, and has “created” the toys to do just that.

What Are Open-Ended Toys, and What Are Their Advantages?

When we talk of something being “open-ended,” depending on what we’re talking about, we’re referring to something that has no one set use, function or answer. Letting you in on a trade secret is one way of clarifying what we mean: when medical students are learning how to interview patients, they are taught to ask “open-ended” questions—questions like “tell me about your problem” that have no one answer. This allows the interviewer to get more information than, for example, “it hurts right here—correct?”

When we’re talking about open-ended toys, we’re talking about objects that can be used in a variety of ways. Let’s take that old infant/toddler standby—a couple of blocks. A young infant might take a single block and put it in her mouth. Later on, when she’s been sitting for a while, she may try and get one that’s out of her immediate reach. Later still, she’ll take two. Maybe she’ll make a little noise by banging them together. Then a simple tower of two—and from there, perhaps more elaborate structures!

Short of building and handling, there are other possibilities with those blocks. She might sort them by color. And when the time comes, she may count them up. (Who knew that blocks would be the ultimate toddler multitasking tool?!)

Open-ended toys, then, allow our young folks to use—and develop—a variety of skills. Experts in child development have praised the benefits of such toys and of open-ended play that doesn’t necessarily involve toys or other special objects:

  • They encourage development of sensory skills—the look and feel of that block as opposed to another toy, or another block of different size or color.
  • They encourage development of motor skills. Going back to that big box—she can climb in and out of it or use it to sit with support. Even playing a little “hide and seek” will get her moving. Smaller objects help her to develop hand coordination.
  • They encourage pretend play. Perhaps that open-ended toy resembles an object that they’ve seen Mom use. Or perhaps it is that object!
  • The experts talk up the other benefits of open-ended play. They’ve found that young children more easily express their emotions through this type of activity. Also, it appears that children’s stress levels may be reduced through open-ended play.

Some Things Parents Can Do

We’ve talked a little bit about open-ended toys and the opportunities they present for developing kids’ brains. Here are some ways parents can help kids take advantage of those opportunities:

  • Look for toys that have multiple uses. The aforementioned blocks are, of course, a great choice. So are stackable containers and simple puzzles. By all means, if you feel guilty about giving something so simple, go ahead and splurge on those fancy teak ones—but also realize that you don’t have to spend a lot of money to give your little one a jump-start to his imagination.
  • If your child is a little older, look for toys that foster pretend play—kitchen items, play houses, dolls and action figures are all good choices here.
  • Although gift-wrapping yourself might not go over well, realize that the best gift you can give your child is your time. If you can carve out some time to make up stories, sing songs, actively play outdoors, and elicit creativity (“what did you just make,” for example), you’ll go a long way in helping those open-ended toys achieve their goal.

Toys that provide structured learning—many of which are electronic these days—do have their place in a child’s development and are fine in moderation. But never underestimate the real value of a gift that fosters open-ended play. And if it turns out to be that box, so much the better!

Stan Sack
Dr. Stan Sack has 29 years’ experience as a primary care pediatrician in Massachusetts and Florida. A medical writer since 2015, he enjoys blogging on topics that are on parents’ minds but are covered less often in books and on websites. He lives in the Florida Keys with his family and enjoys healthy cooking, fitness activities and singing in his spare time.

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