I suppose many assume it’s obvious that open-ended toys are a good thing for kids. But I don’t necessarily think it’s as clear as many think. This post is all about our journey with open-ended toys + how far we’ve come from being confused to not knowing what we’d do without them now.
We really did not start with open-ended toys. As first-time parents, I’d say we had a gorgeous set of blocks my sister made for my son’s 1st birthday.
Otherwise, we had “toys”. Lots, and lots, of toys. While they were nice toys, eye-catching, and developmentally appropriate, the collection of them drove us nuts. I think the hardest thing about your run-of-the-mill toys was that they were so interest-dependent. I found that I was reliant upon them, though. Without guidance from toys designed with a specific purpose, I really didn’t know how to play with my kids.
Eventually, I tired of the clutter, the batteries, the noise, + the short attention span that resulted from the toys. Whenever I did a big clean out of the playroom, I started to notice a pattern. I always got rid of the “toys” + usually held on the relatively open-ended toys. To name a few: Duplo, MegaBlocks, a marble runner, + toy cars were the ones to hold on the longest. I think the biggest draw, as the parent, was that I found my kids played the longest with these more open-ended toys + what parent doesn’t want that?
The next things we invested in were still pretty literal like a play kitchen/food, Playmobil, Lego, + train table. The more generalized ‘categorical’ set of toys helped facilitate the play I engaged in which my kids. Perhaps that’s because I didn’t have to ‘invent’ or ‘create’ what we were making or playing. It was a totally appropriate next step in what I was ready for.
It seems silly to talk about what I was ready for when the toys are really for the kids. But I firmly believe that the kids can tell when you aren’t interested in or comfortable with the toys. At a young age there is a lot of parallel play + modeling of play, so parents are naturally more involved in their kids’ playtime in the early stages.
Now that my kids are a little older, I have a couple of years under my belt of intentionally bringing in more open-ended toys into our home. At this point, 90% of what we have is open-ended + it’s so much fun. I find that I’m more comfortable with it. Time + following some key people on Instagram (a little inspiration goes a long way).
With the kids talking + coming up with their own ideas, I also find it easier to pull out some of the toys out + ask what they would like to do with them without feeling like I have to create the play. They also are playing more independently which takes some of the pressure off of me.
In trying to capture why I love open-ended toys for our home, these were the top benefits I’ve observed + that keep us coming back for more:
Because these toys are literally the building blocks to whatever your child wants to create, they are really uninhibited in what they want to make. Blocks can be walls, bridges, tunnels, and buildings. Rings can be a stacking toy or used for making dress-up jewelry. Nins (the non-descript wooden dolls) can become any character you please. This sets the stage perfectly for any scenario to be played out that your child wishes to imagine.
Please remember, creativity is a process. Whatever your child envisions creating is where the value lies. The product doesn’t matter. What they make of the toys does not matter. The benefit of open-ended toys comes from kids going through the steps of creating an idea in their mind and exploring how to make it come together. This is the foundation to all of the other benefits we’ll explore next!
In contrast to marketed toys, open-ended toys give children the freedom to take their play in any direction. When my daughter plays with princess dolls, we are narrowly playing within the Disney storylines. When she’s playing with a plain wooden doll, it is suddenly any princess she wants it to be with access to the stories + scenes she wants to create. And the next day, that very same doll could be a doctor.
As my children have grown more accustomed to playing with loose parts, I’ve been amazed to observe how flexible they’ve become. They are no longer rigid in viewing a block as only being used for building or a ring only for stacking. They have the mental flexibility to use their loose parts in ways I know I never conceived. Working on this skill is important for developing minds because the mind prefers patterns + rules which results in the rigidity you see in many children.
Learning that objects can have more than one use or purpose is incredibly important for the developing brain. It helps to balance the rule-loving side of the brain and allows your child to access the creative brain that is great at looking for multiple approaches or strategies. This flexibility will serve them well in their school years + beyond, so definitely emphasize it early and often!
Sometimes the way my kids’ plans look in their mind don’t pan out in real life. Thinking flexibly to adapt a plan or try new strategies is an important life skill that comes from open-ended toys. With that said, it may even be a little stressful at the moment, but it’s the perfect opportunity as the parent to support flexible thinking + encourage creative problem-solving skills. Perhaps most importantly, remember that your job isn’t to solve their problem for them.
Our ultimate goal as parents is to teach our kids to have the skills they need to be able to be independent. Validate their frustration, name their emotions, and ask what’s wrong. Take time to listen. Ask questions that could guide them through solving their problems. If they’re too worked up, suggest a strategy like taking deep breaths or counting slowly.
Play is serious business for our kids so when things don’t go as planned, it can be really frustrating. Supporting them through their big emotions will offer immense support in their confidence over time in dealing with disappointment and thinking of new ways to approach their problems.
This goes hand-in-hand with a lot of the other benefits, but I think it deserves to stand alone as well. I’ve seen the difference in the way my kids play with branded toys vs. open-ended ones and they hands-down play with the open-ended toys more often, for longer periods of time, and to a depth far greater than branded toys.
The beauty of nondescript toys is that they can match any interest on any given day. I feel as though my kids’ interests have varied so much on a day-to-day basis that it’s hard to justify buying bunch of themed toys because I can’t keep up with the ever-changing interests of my children. Once they became more accustomed to the imaginative + creative potential that is to be found in open-ended toys, the more that they gravitate to using them to fit their every whim.
To me, this is the ultimate. Trust me, you want your kids to be independent. Having the skills and confidence to know that you can handle whatever comes your way is what makes you most prepared for adulthood. This takes years and practice. As a parent, start as early as possible. It’s not always convenient, but it’s important.
Encouraging your kids to play independently is a good thing. It allows them their own space to be themselves, process thoughts and emotions, and work on developmental skills. If you’re always alongside them to give ideas or a helping hand, they don’t get to practice for themselves. They also can’t experience the satisfaction of being able to do something on their own. Added bonus: You gain back a little time for yourself, which isn’t selfish. I promise.
This journey is still ongoing but these are some of the challenges I faced with trying to embrace open-ended toys + the ways we’ve tried to respond to them:
This is what has kept me from having more open-ended toys around. The European, wooden toys that are so popular are also so pricey! While I did purchase a Grim’s rainbow for a Christmas gift this year, I decided to try a little DIY for the nins and rings. I already had the supplies at home so it literally cost me nothing. With that said, the investment of materials that allow you to make future projects would still be less than a few sets of Grim’s or Grapat pieces.
In terms of things I know I cannot make, I remind myself there is time for the kids to build their collection + we add to it when we can. Too much all at once can be overwhelming anyway, so add slowly. If it seems too hard to wait, remember that most open-ended toys have a place in your children’s play for many years to come. There is no rush.
I hate to say it, but our confusion with how these toys are supposed to be fun is an adult problem. We definitely shouldn’t let our lack of comfort with something be what stands in the way of our kids’ experiences. So I had to trust that the kids understood and chose to follow their lead!
With lots of time and exposure to open-ended toys, we are making new uses for these toys each + every day. I do follow Instagram for new inspiration of invitations that could involve these pieces. Or, I try to think creatively around my kids’ present interests + go from there. Otherwise, the kids are the ones who really dive in + make great use of the pieces. Trust me, all you have to do is trust their innate ability to play.
There were times when I purchased a super expensive open-ended toy + the kids hardly wanted to play with it. My initial reaction was to be frustrated. Over time, I realized that my kids needed time with open-ended toys before the endless potential was unlocked. So my advice for us grownups, in this case, is to practice patience! Don’t force the pieces on your kids, but continue to set them out.
Look at Pinterest for inspiration around your children’s interests. Figure out ways to incorporate the pieces into their play in surprising ways. With time, they learn that, unlike other toys, these don’t have one specific purpose + then they take off with it. Just be patient. Trust me.
While we have a super solid collection at this point of open-ended options, I think it’s always helpful to know which are the most-used in other people’s homes. Here are some of the most popular choices in our household:
These unit blocks are great + I cannot recommend them enough. They’re well-made, the perfect size, + the set has enough pieces that the kids are able to play together with them without running short on blocks.
We just got these for Christmas, but they’re already a hit. I am impressed with the quality of these + the kids have already spent hours creating cities, airports, etc. around these roads.
My kids have the IKEA kitchen. My parents customized it, which was super fun. And they legit spend countless hours playing kitchen, restaurant, grocery store, etc. with this great piece of equipment.
I actually DIY’d these + am glad that I did. In taking this approach, I paid a fraction of the price + was able to customize them. These have gotten endless use in our house. If DIY isn’t your thing, these are the brand everyone swears by.
I mean, we have created houses, castles, costumes, + instruments with these. I pretty much keep a stack of various-sized cardboard boxes in the playroom at all times for whenever creativity strikes.
The kids got this for their birthdays this year. Its versatility is great. You can use it as a sensory bin for endless invitations to play, but it also has lids on it that allows it to be a functional workspace at the same time.
My son wasn’t too into these at first. He found them pretty frustrating to build with, but with time he has come to really love these. My daughter has a super steady hand, so she is enjoying these at a younger age than her brother was able to. We have a few other brands of these, but MagnaTiles are the best in my opinion.
I used to try to keep the ’sets’ together + save the manuals. But I have found that my kids prefer to create on their own with blocks from sets they’ve already built. We have had great luck with various builder books that are available + give kids inspiration to create without being tied to an instruction manual.
Our journey to understanding + appreciating open-ended toys has been a long one, but so worth the while. Where is your family in their journey with open-ended toys? When you think of play in your house, what are your goals for your kids’ play experiences? What’s challenging about structuring opportunities that support those goals? Let me know! Sharing what’s hard or confusing is where great conversations can begin.
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