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Why open-ended play is an essential part of learning

Learn what it is and how to encourage it.

By Brianna Bell
Why open-ended play is an essential part of learning

"Look, Mommy, I made a robot!" my daughter shouts from across the house. I find a pile of markers, scraps of cardboard, and odds and ends from our craft drawer in the living room. There's also a sparkly rainbow robot made with tape and bits and pieces—it's a glorious sight to behold. "Wow, that is so creative; what made you think to make this?" I ask, and she talks about a book that inspired her while we work together to tidy up. 

This type of creative play is called open-ended play. Meghann Henderson, a registered psychotherapist and the owner of Child Therapy Halton, explains, "Open-ended play is any type of play that doesn't have limitations or rules." She says that open-ended play allows the child to choose how to play without feeling like there is a right or wrong way to approach items or toys.

Open-ended play is essential for all ages, particularly children five and under. This is a time when children are experiencing the most significant amount of brain development in their lives—in fact, studies show that 90 percent of brain development occurs before the age of five. Henderson says that encouraging open-ended play in young children improves the following:

  • learning skills
  • problem-solving
  • self-regulation
  • frustration tolerance
  • gross and fine motor skills
  • creativity
  • social-emotional development 
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Child playing outside looking at a tree

What does open-ended play look like?

Recently, my daughter found a tiny acorn and decided it was a puppy. Instead of correcting her, I embraced her little "puppy" and welcomed him to our dinner table, where he panted, lapped up spilled milk, and eventually ended up in the compost. Some examples of items that promote open-ended play are a cardboard box, craft items like crayons and paper, loose parts, and found objects (please be wary of choking hazards and age-appropriate materials, though). 

"The best way to help parents decide if a toy is open-ended is to ask questions," says Henderson, "Does this toy allow them to make choices about their play, or does it tell them how to play?" She cautions against relying too heavily on electronics, which she says are not considered open-ended devices.

Henderson also suggests wooden blocks or LEGO, play silks, sand, and water play items. These are all items that don't have a preconceived plan around play. "It's easy in today's society to walk down a toy aisle and get a toy for anything and everything," she says. "Simplify your play space and toys to allow for creativity." Henderson also says it's important not to correct your child for playing with an item in an outside-of-the-box way. For example, if your child uses a piece of play food as a phone, encourage them rather than point out that they're doing something incorrectly.

Child playing outside holding a large log
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What are the benefits of open-ended play?

Encouraging your child to engage in open-ended play has long-term and lifelong benefits. It will help them become more confident and creative and grow their problem-solving skills. When I reflect on my daughter's colorful robot, I am amazed by the creativity and effort it took to come up with the idea and the confidence she had once she had created something totally unique and individual. 

"Play is the language of children; it's how they learn, grow, and develop," says Henderson.

Remember the jokes we always make about our kids loving a cardboard box more than their actual gift? Perhaps we should just start offering them a cardboard box with some art supplies and let their imaginations run wild. 

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Author: Brianna Bell is an Ontario-based journalist, essayist, and mental health advocate. Brianna launched her career in journalism in 2015, and has so far published hundreds of articles in various print and digital publications. You can find her work in The New York Times, The Globe & Mail, The Guardian, and The Independent.

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