The value of open-ended play

Shopping for children? Consider open-ended toys this holiday season.

Open-ended play experiences offer important brain development opportunities.
Open-ended play experiences offer important brain development opportunities.

Do you have a young child on your holiday shopping list? The options on store shelves are seemingly endless, full of brightly-colored plastic with movie or character themes. Stories that are familiar to children that they will act out again and again. It’s tempting to purchase the character items that they know and ask for; however, research tells us that open-ended play experiences offer important brain development opportunities.

When children are given a toy that goes along with a movie or TV show, they know the “story” of how it should be played with, what should happen and the order of events. It can be hard for young children to be flexible enough to alter that story, to bring in characters that don’t “belong,” or to change the ending. There is room for this in play; many adults have fond memories of playing out similar stories of superheroes or fairy tale characters. However, when children only have access to toys with a familiar script, their opportunities to engage creative, spontaneous play can be limited. Play, and in particular 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.

The Association for Childhood Education International includes in its 2003 position statement on creative thought that “we need to do more than prepare children to become cogs in the machinery of commerce.” As parents and educators, there is a frequent desire to have children simply do as their told, without questioning commands. However, as adults, we value different skills in our colleagues. We want co-workers who are able to think on their feet, make complex decisions taking into account differing perspectives, and to be able to think and act on their own.

It is through children’s early childhood experiences, when the brain is rapidly developing, that we have the best opportunity to support the development of these critical life skills. From birth through age 5, children’s brains are literally forming the complex web of synapses that last throughout their lives, and greatly impact their social, emotional, physical and cognitive performance as adults.

Open-ended play materials allow children to make choices, express their creativity and support their independence. Open-ended materials by definition do not have a pre-determined use. A block can be a car, phone, doll’s chair, ice-cream bar or any number of other things in play. It is through these experiences that children are able to learn best.

What sort of toys are open-ended? Anything that does not have a way it is supposed to be used! Examples include blocks of all shapes and sizes, including blocks that connect like Legos; magnetic blocks; geometric building materials; art supplies including paper, paint, markers and scissors; play silks or large pieces of fabric and blankets; sand and water play baskets; and nature items such as sea shells and pine cones.

When choosing toys for your child, ask yourself if the toy allows them to make choices about their play or tells them how to play. Be intentional about providing children with toys that let them make choices about play, and support them in strengthening their cognitive, language and social skills in the process. Who knows, as you watch your child figure out how to build the tallest block tower ever, you could be watching a future engineer begin to work out solutions to building skyscrapers, or an architect working on their first building design. The options are endless!

For more information about early childhood education and other topics, visit Michigan State University Extension website.

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