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What Is Open Ended Play, and Why Is It So Important?

Learn about open-ended play, and why it is so important for children – especially in early childhood. Five reasons learning through play is critical in early years.

Learn about open-ended play, and why it is so important for children - especially in early childhood. Five reasons learning through play is critical in early years.

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What Is Open Ended Play?

What is open ended play? It’s any type of play where the child is in charge. It’s also, typically, play done outside of existing stories and plots, although there can be improvisation around existing stories and characters. Children can experience open ended play on their own, with other children, and even with open minded adults. In open ended play, your child’s imagination is the limit. And children have limitless imaginations.

Why Is Open Ended Play So Important?

I find that giving children time and space for open-ended play is one of the most important thing parents can do to raise children who are happy, resilient, and ready and willing to learn.

As children control plots and characters they learn creative thinking, develop problem solving skills, and build emotional and social intelligence.

So, how do we encourage this important type of play? Today I’m sharing a few examples of this type of play, as well as five important benefits of open-ended play.

#1: Free Play Time is a Space for Children to Explore Ideas and Concepts

Children are natural born scientists, and they have an incredible ability to teach themselves so much! When we give our children the time and space for open-ended play, they get to test out ideas and concepts. In the photo below, Anna is exploring gravity, physics, and design while playing with this Amusement Park Engineer toy.

Learn five reasons children learn best through open ended play.

#2 Open Ended Play Provides a Low-Stress Environment Where Children Are Less Afraid of Making Mistakes

Fear of making mistakes is one of the greatest barriers to learning – in adulthood as well as childhood. Child-led play provides a low stress environment where children can take risks. Play is one space where it is safe to make mistakes. This makes play one of the greatest tools for learning. Open ended play can teach children that it is okay to make mistakes, and that making mistakes is one of the most important ways we learn.

Open ended play is vital for children's social, emotional, and academic development. Learn why.

#3 Child Led Play Helps Children Develop Social and Emotional Intelligence

As children communicate with one another in open ended play, they learn how to read social cues and respond appropriately. They are able to do this because of the low stakes environment created by open ended play. Children explore a range of emotions through pretend play. As they express and respond to the emotions expressed by their peers, they develop emotional intelligence.

#4 Creative Play Allows Children to Teach Themselves

Listen in on your child’s play, and you will see that they are teaching themselves all sorts of interesting things through their play. This week my preschooler spent hours exploring numbers and one to one correspondance with a hundreds board. Later in the week she cut out sheets of paper and stapled them together. Then she drew pictures before asking me how to spell corresponding words. She made a primer reader for herself – all through play!

#5 Open Ended Play Creates the Ideal Circumstances for Children to Enter Flow

Flow, also described as “the zone”, is a fully immersed mental state that optimizes learning. Open ended play is a wonderful way for children to enter this state. A child’s play provides structure, live feedback, and just enough challenge to keep them learning.

How Can I Encourage Open Ended Play?

#1 Get Outside

Nature is the perfect environment for inspiring open ended play. Build worlds with grass and rocks, or go on a great adventure.

#2 Invest in Quality Toys

We own quite a few toys in our home, but I am very careful in selecting them. This list of toys that are easy for kids to share is an excellent place to start. These toys that teach are also wonderful.

#3 Create an Invitation to Play

Some children play more naturally than others. While some of my children excel at finding ways to learn through play, others have needed a bit of direction to get started. This direction can be as simple as setting out a couple of toys, or it can start off as an activity.

For parents looking for playful activities that are clearly educational, this book is a great resource:

This book is an incredible resource for parents and educators looking for tools to develop literacy and math through play.

If you are looking for a home preschool curriculum, ABC & 123 is a wonderful place to start! I contributed to the book, along with some of my favorite early education bloggers. The activities provide a tiny bit of structure in a playful environment where children can explore early literacy and numeracy skills.

What open ended play activities do your children enjoy most? What benefits do you see?

MaryAnne at Mama Smiles
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MaryAnne is a craft loving educator, musician, photographer, and writer who lives in Silicon Valley with her husband Mike and their four children.

8 thoughts on “What Is Open Ended Play, and Why Is It So Important?”

  1. Natalie PlanetSmartyPants

    We always made a point to leave time for open-ended play. It’s sad that this time is usurped by electronics earlier and earlier.

  2. My daughter is turning three and is slowly showing progress in learning during her open ended play time. Each day I try to give her several educational toys and books and let her choose what she would want to play for that day. Then I slowly let her figure out how to play with it and eventually I see her become creative and innovative. For example, she chose to play with her stacking cups and she figured out how to stack them all up in just a few tries after I guided her. Next thing I saw was that she was stacking three cups at a time. Then she manages to stack these three cups on top of each other to make the assembling faster. It was truly amazing to see how my child can be so smart and inventive.

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