Open-Ended Play: Its Value and Characteristics

Open-ended play

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“Go play!” Have you ever spoken these words to your child? Turns out you’re not being selfish – indeed, by urging your child toward open-ended play, you are looking out for his best interest. According to Jean Piaget, “Play is the work of childhood.” 

Swiss scientist and developmental psychologist Jean Piaget, who died in 1980, educated the world as to the cognitive development of children. Piaget believed that children take an active role in the learning process, essentially performing experiments all day long.

Like little scientists, they interact with the world, making observations as they go about their days.

Children continually add to their knowledge of the world via these interactions, sometimes building upon existing knowledge or adapting previously held beliefs. Piaget held that, rather than being ‘little adults’, children have inherently different methods of thinking than adults.

Furthermore, there are both qualitative and quantitative differences in the thought processes of younger versus older children.

Based on Piaget’s theory of child development, and knowing that children learn EVERYTHING from their environment, what, exactly, should parents put in that environment? What should children play with?

Toys Matter

There’s certainly no shortage of toys available to purchase. Go to WalMart or Target, and you’ll be inundated with loud, colorful playthings at every price point.

How about a doll? Or a drum set? What will your child learn from that – how will a doll impact your child’s development?

Let’s talk about the best choices in toys.  This article isn’t a resource for buying specific toys, but rather it’s an explanation of open-ended toys, their purpose and value.

We’ve all been the parent cleaning up after our preschooler’s birthday party. Gathering wrapping paper and packaging, plastic silverware and half-eaten, frosting-heaped cupcakes.

Surveying the room, now filled with new playthings, we see our wondrous, already-gifted child, playing……..inside a box. THAT – that box – is an open-ended toy.

Open-Ended Toys are Ideal

How on earth, you wonder, could a cardboard box, whether open-ended or not, have more inherent play value than a scientifically-researched, state-of-the-art, $50 toy? WHY is my kid more attracted to that BOX than he is to this top-ten-parent-recommended plaything?

Great question. The answer is perhaps less complicated than that cardboard box. One word: options.

Open-ended toys have limitless options, while that $50 electronic keyboard has exactly one function – to play music. Valuable? Of course! What fun it is to play music! A keyboard will produce hours of melodic (read:noisy) fun…until it doesn’t.

Either it breaks, the batteries wear out, or the child gets just plain tired of it. Or someone (not you – of course, not you) hides it.

But the box? You will have to wrestle that box out of your kid’s hands.

As in, literally have to throw it out when your child is out of the house.

You may even resort to taking that box to your mother-in-law’s on trash day so that your kid doesn’t ‘rescue’ the box and bring it back into the house.

So we’ve established that this box has lots of value as a plaything. What, exactly, is your child learning, developmentally, while playing with a box? What does open-ended play mean, anyway?

Fine Motor Skills

Ripping off the remaining wrapping paper and tape is great exercise for small fingers and hands. Perhaps your child will decorate the box using crayons or markers – maybe even paint. All of these activities strengthen those muscles that enable a child to hold a pencil, tie shoes, grasp a crayon, move a bubble wand, and zip a zipper.

Gross Motor Skills

Crawling, jumping and running through and around the box improve your child’s gross motor skills, as does balancing and mastering an obstacle course. Every time he climbs into or out of that box, he is getting stronger and more proficient at moving his body!

Social-Emotional Development

Your child might have siblings, and they might play with that box together. What a great opportunity to build social-emotional skills like working together, sharing, compromising, negotiating, empathy, sympathy, etc. It’s a BIG job to manage your own feelings! Inevitably, conflicts will arise – how will your child get through these conflicts? Will he talk, cry, whine, hit, or something else? Each time he navigates a disagreement, he learns tools for the future!

Language/Literacy Skills

Deeply connected to social-emotional skills, language skills are necessary for all of us to get through the day. We communicate verbally as well as non-verbally. Has this box suddenly turned into a bus? Through pretend play, your child will use language to test out new words relating to buses! Drive, horn, honk, exit, money, seat, etc. – what fun he will have trying out this new vocabulary! Language and literacy also refers to the written word, which might involve making tickets for the bus, or writing the name of the bus on the side of the box. Maybe your child will need a name tag because he’s the bus driver!

Cognitive Skills

Your child will be solving problems and making decisions in his own head before you hear one word of it! Where does his bus go? What’s that one song people sing about a bus!? Oh, yeah! ‘the wheels on the bus go round and round…’

Does your child focus on creating his bus? Is he busy for thirty minutes solid before coming up for air? Or maybe he’s distracted by so many ideas at once. Open-ended play can be changed immediately by your child – with no adult help!


This is where a box beats out a keyboard every time. On Tuesday, your child is ‘driving a bus’ with that box. By Thursday, the box has turned into a castle, and your child is the king. Your dog is a knight. Imagination has no limits.

THAT is the value of a box – or, really, any open-ended toy. No amount of technology can do for the developing child’s brain what a box, a pile of clay, or a tub of wooden blocks can do.

Tell your gift-giving friends, and remember this on your next visit to the toy aisle. You don’t need expensive toys – nor do you need a lot of toys. For engaging, self-directed learning to happen in your home, you need toys to encourage open-ended play.

If you’re looking for more information about the importance of play and tips to reorganize your playroom check out my e-book: Simply Play: Everything You Need To Know About The Most Important Part of Childhood which you can buy here for only $4.99.
If you like this post and want to read more like it then check out these articles:
Outdoor Play: Why Does it Matter?
Type of Play for Development
100 Simple Things to do Outside With Your Kids
Toy for Toddlers: Encouraging Active Play
Top Toys to Encourage Outdoor Play
7 Essential Playroom Spaces (and why you need them)
The Power of Play
What I’ve Learned about Early Childhood Education