Why We Choose Open-Ended Toys

September 28, 2017

We get a lot of questions about our play materials - where they're from, who makes them, and why the heck so much natural wood? We try to be incredibly thoughtful about the type and amount of toys that Ramona has, looking at things like natural materials, quality, how it's made, and longevity. The toys that last the longest are the simpler, open-ended ones - the ones that allow her imagination and creativity to lead her play.

In an article by Colleen Multari on the benefit of simple toys, she said:
"The more ways a child can play with a toy, the more [they] will learn." 
Open-ended toys have no "fixed" role (i.e. firetruck, spaceship), and therefore have the potential to be many different things, to evolve with each play session or as she grows older. There is no expectation that the toys will "do" anything or that there is a "right" way to use it - children can direct the play and choose how the materials are used.

Open-ended play gives children freedom, allows them to express their creativity and imagination, develops social and emotional skills, and promotes independence and self-confidence. And because there is no expectations with open-ended play, they can play with the materials without any fear of making mistakes.

I wanted to share a few favourite types of open-ended toys within our home, as well as in my preschool classroom at school. All sourced products are made by sustainable and responsible brands offered on Amazon.ca*.

Building blocks.

There is a long list of what children can learn through block play - from fine motor skills to imaginative play to early math skills. One year children will use blocks for stacking, the next for building a home for animals, a road for cars, a tunnel for trains. The possibilities are endless, and therefore so is the lifespan of the toy.

  • Wood Cut Blocks. We made our own with pieces of wood that we found. There's a beautiful tutorial here if you want to make your own.
  • Rainbow Stackers.
  • Natural tunnels.
  • Nesting/Stacking Bowls like these (rainbow) or these (monochrome). We love these nesting bowls because they can be used to stack, as a puzzle for fitting together inside of each other, and for pretend play (we're often offered imaginary drinks or soup from them).

  • Activity Cube Blocks. These are a great sensory toy as well. They were the perfect size and weight for Ramona to use early on for stacking and practicing grasping.
  • Water blocks.
  • Homemade blocks. You can use anything really. Cardboard boxes, old yoghurt containers, paper towel and toilet paper rolls, popsicle sticks, etc.

Pretend Play.

Children begin to pretend by mimicking the world around them. While these toys may seem more "fixed" than other open-ended toys, they allow children to reflect their world, which helps to spark that early imagination and role-playing skills. They'll begin by imitating what they know and later start creating their own narratives and stories.

  • Baby doll. The toy that Ramona plays with the most, mimicking everything she's seen us or others do with babies (nurse, put to bed, rock, comfort, carry in sling - she even talks to it in "mom voice.")

Art and Sensory.

Art and sensory activities allow children to express themselves even at a very young age, with endless possibilities for creativity, use of imagination, and exploration of senses. Simply provide age-appropriate tools and materials and allow children to create and explore (and join in too!).
"Art has the role in education of helping children become like themselves instead of more like everyone else."
- Sydney Gurewitz Clemens
In terms of age appropriateness for materials: You know your child best, and whether they need supervision (i.e. whether they're still mouthing). Remember that it is very age appropriate for children to make messes while creating and exploring sensory materials.

Arts and Crafts. Sometimes I model how a material could be used (i.e. when leaf painting recently, she watched as a painted a leaf and pressed it down, then mimicked how I did it), but there's no expectation it needs to be used that way (no pre-cut crafts or "this is how it's supposed to look like/be done"). Ramona can help herself to most of her art materials to create when she feels inspired.

  • Homemade edible paint for fingerpainting.
  • Watercolour paint. We use and love Stockmar watercolours. The pigments are incredible (and a little goes a long, long way).
  • Non-toxic tempera paint.
  • Beeswax crayons like these (traditional sticks) or these (block crayons).
  • Coloured pencils, chalk, pastels, markers.
  • Scissors (with supervision).
  • Modeling beeswax like this or this (doesn't dry up like play dough).
  • Modeling clay.
  • Non-toxic glue.
  • Stamps and child-safe stamp pads.
  • Offer materials like paper, cardboard, string, ribbon, popsicle sticks, paper towel rolls, newspaper, used wrapping paper, tape, paperclips, the list goes on and on.
  • Also offer nature materials like leaves, flowers, sticks, pinecones, acorns, rocks, sand, the list goes on and on.

    Sensory. Sensory play provides materials that a child can mould to whatever they can imagine. Add sea creatures to dried rice, and you have an ocean or the dessert. Add dump trucks or dinosaur bones to sand, and you have a construction site or archeological dig. Add cars to soapy water you have a car wash.

    An essential part of all of Ramona's play is that we are willing to join in. Of course, it's wonderful when she is engaged and lost in her own play, but there's so much benefit for all of us to get down on her level and share ideas back and forth.


    *This post is in partnership with the Amazon Associates Program, and contains affiliate links. As part of this program, I receive compensation. However, as always, all thoughts and opinions expressed here are my own.


    1. Great blog and recommendations. Enjoy your wonderful blogs.

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