The Power of Open Ended Play

As a parent, we should be encouraging our child’s creativity. How do we do this? Open ended play is the answer. It also has a host of other benefits for your child’s learning and intellectual growth.

So what is open ended play?
Put simply, open ended play is an activity with no limits and no outcomes. Your child makes up the rules as they go along. Children have the opportunity to fully engage their creativity and with no right or wrong answer. Open ended materials are things that children can use in a variety of ways and fosters the process of exploration and inspires creative play.

As a child creates a product from open ended materials, each product is going to look different to reflect a child’s individual ideas and exploration.
Creative play, has been identified as a key component of building children’s resilience, ability to focus and the ability to act intentionally, even when the outcome is unknown. These skills translate into competence and capability in adults.

Cognitive benefits of open ended play:
Because there are endless possibilities for the ways that open-ended materials can be manipulated and used, children will practice critical thinking as they experiment and create. As other children and adults talk with a child who is working with open-ended materials, language development will also be supported.

Physical benefits of open ended play:
Both fine and large motor skills are supported as children manipulate open-ended materials in a variety of ways.

Social and Emotional benefits of open ended play:
Children can share ideas in a group setting and collaborate as they explore. As children try out their own ideas they will develop feelings of self-efficacy and competence.

Open ended materials
Open-ended materials are things that children can use in a variety of different ways. Open-ended materials are about the process of exploration and can inspire creativity. While children may use open-ended materials to create some type of product (such as a painting), these products would all look different and reflect their individual ideas and exploration

Some open ended play ideas include;

  • Building blocks
  • Play doh
  • Water play with utensils and other items added such as sea shells or pouring cups.
  • Cardboard boxes
  • A craft box with odds and ends such as feathers, tin foil, paddle pop sticks, paint, googly eyes, paper plates, cardboard, etc.
  • Natural materials such as mini pine cones, leaves, rocks, sand, water, sticks, bark.
  • A box of scarves and hats.
  • Nuts and bolts.
  • Wooden utensils and saucepans.
  • Magnets.
Give children time to tinker.
Children need time to try out materials and explore before they will be able to use them with intention. Giving children space and time for this type of messing about is important for their understanding of the potential that materials offer.
A child first need time to explore with blocks so they can discover that bigger blocks at the base of a tower offer more stability, or that triangular blocks don’t allow for blocks to be added on top when building a tower. They need time to knock towers down over and over, releasing that impulse, and eventually building control over that impulse. Then when presented with more complexity, such as a the addition of toy vehicles and toy people, they have a sense of how to get started and use the blocks to build their own buildings and to extend their imagination.
Open-ended materials support learning across ages:
The beauty of open-ended materials is that they usually are interesting to a wide age range of children, and the explorations can be made more complex in order to be challenging to children who have different levels of experience and skills.
Simple block play may involve just using the blocks themselves.
Complex block play may involve the blocks plus vehicles or people figures.
Super complex block play may invite the children to draw their own buildings and figures to attach to blocks, or could involve adding images of different types of buildings or even a projection of a cityscape on the wall of the block area.
How to encourage open ended play.
Being bored is a good start! It’s easy to over schedule our kids, from homework to extracurricular activities to family functions. Squeeze in downtime almost every day to accommodate free play which often translates into creative play.
  1. Offer household items and let them get busy. A giant cardboard box from a furniture delivery can become a bus, a rocket ship or a cubby house.

  2. Have a dedicated box of craft supplies and add to it occasionally. If possible also have a dedicated art space where they can be messy and creative. It could simply be a small area with a table and chair.

  3. Ask open ended questions. The real power of open ended materials comes from working alongside children, listening and watching children as they explore, and seizing opportunities to provoke their thinking by asking questions and posing problems. “What do you think might happen if you pour the sand from this large cup into this small cup?” “How tall can you build that tower before it falls?” “Tell me about this painting you have done?”
    Discover the joys of open ended play with your child, and watch the creativity happen.

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