What are open ended toys?

Kids’ brains are like sponges, absorbing every bit of information around them and building new connections in their brain. Thirsty for information and affection, a toddler will find himself in dozens of power struggles every day. As parents, we are already too familiar with the daily tantrums these little humans have for what appears to be absolutely no reason. 

Parenting a toddler is no walk in the park, but thankfully there are ways to channel their energy and frustrations into creative play. One of our favorite methods to do that is with open-ended toys. But what are open ended toys? And how do they help?

Open ended toys are the types of toys that kids can play with in more than one specific way, leaving plenty of room for imagination to manifest itself. Unlike close-ended toys, open-ended toys do not have a determinate outcome or a right answer, which brings creativity into play.

A classic close ended toy example is the puzzle. Puzzles are made to be set up in one way only. And even though puzzles are great toys for your child’s development, open ended toys stimulate their creativity in a different way- to think outside the box.

Open ended toys can often be found in Montessori schools, but it doesn’t have to end there. These amazingly versatile toys can and should be brought into your home as well.

What makes open ended toys so special?

Simply put, if you would give the same open-ended toy to ten different children, all ten of them would come up with ten different ways to play with it. Each would base their open-ended play on their developmental stage, interests, imagination and innate ability.

This means that the same toy can be played with by a baby, toddler, preschooler, and even by older kids.

How are open ended toys beneficial for kids?

Creative play with open-ended toys promotes the development of communication skills, cognitive ability, a sense of autonomy, problem-solving, motor skills, self-regulation, and sensory exploration.

Of course, there are many options when it comes to such toys.

Some are made from natural materials such as wood, while others can be plastic blocks or imaginary objects.

It has been discovered that toddlers are more attracted to realistic play material, such as dolls and play kitchens. This type of toy encourages a more symbolic play, whereas older children can engage in more pretend play with non realistic play materials.

This doesn’t mean you should throw away your conventional toys. Most kids still love their battery powered toy and puzzles and they are still great for them. Open ended play just gives them a chance to think differently.

The idea behind open-ended play is for your kids to entertain themselves with the toy, rather than the toy entertaining them. If you give your child a “one and done” type of toy, they will play with it twice and very quickly get bored. 

Open ended toys can inspire, teach, and grow with your kids.

Environmentally-friendly toys

Nowadays, more and more parents are opting for toys made of natural materials like wood because of the potential dangers and environmental impact of plastic. Most open-ended toys are made from eco-friendly materials, making them even more attractive to parents and safer for children.

Of course, there are circumstances when certain toys can be made only from plastic, but many have alternative materials available. Still, most open-ended toys don’t need batteries and are more durable. 

Examples of open-ended toys and how they can be used

There are so many different types of toys that can be considered “open-ended”. Heck, a stick and a rock can be examples of open ended toys.

There are however some classic open ended toys that every parent should know about when looking for toy alternatives and inspiration. 

Here are some of the best open-ended toys for toddlers, and how to help your little one engage with them.

Montessori Busy board

Montessori Busy Board

One popular open-ended toy for toddlers is the Montessori board (or busy board) designed for sensory stimulation. The busy board is suitable for children ages 10 months to 3 years.

 You can hang it on the wall or leave it on the floor for your toddler to discover. This toy can be  made out of wood, fabric, and/or  metal. Each item can be interacted with individually. For example, the zipper can be opened, knobs turned, switches changed positions…

You will soon discover that toddlers can become fascinated with hinges, handles, locks, and latches. Children under 3 years will require supervision while playing with the board.

montessori knobbed cylinders
Montessori educational material. Wooden cylinders of different sizes

Knobbed Cylinder Blocks

The knobbed cylinder blocks are one of our favorite Wooden Montessori toys. When handling the different sized cylinders, toddlers develop the visual perception of dimension and fine motor skills.

This type of open-ended toy has been shown to help kids with their writing as well as mathematics skills later in life.

To help your kid play with knobbed cylinder blocks, it’s suggested that parents show them first and then step back to allow your toddler to discover and fix his errors by himself.

counting board

Montessori Counting Board

As an alternative for older toddlers and kids, we also suggest trying the Montessori counting board. The Montessori counting board is made out of wood like most Montessori toys.

This educational open-ended toy is suitable for children attending preschool, elementary, or kindergarten.

The wooden counting board is the modern version of the abacus. It is great for helping young children identify numbers and count from 1 to 100. [PdS1] 

montessori learning tower

Montessori Learning Tower

The Montessori tower is amazing for supporting your child in exploring the environment, as well as in all sorts of home activities.

The learning tower provides a safe space for kids to join the adults in cooking, cleaning, or personal hygiene. Unlike a regular stool, it is much safer so you don’t have to worry about leaving your little one unattended for a moment.

This useful accessory encourages your toddler to do things on his own and become more independent. This new autonomy promotes self-esteem and self-confidence from a young age. It also allows little ones to join the parents and have some fun, quality time together.

magnetic building tiles

Magnetic Building Tiles

Magnetic building tiles are colorful pieces with a magnet inside that allows them to stick together so kids can build houses or other non-conventional structures.

This open-ended toy is suitable for 1+ years, but you should keep an eye out if your child still puts things in his mouth. The tiles come in different shapes and colors, and they can be made out of wood or plastic.

Toy blocks stimulate spatial reasoning, motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and a capacity for creative, divergent thinking.

grimms rainbow

Grimms Rainbow Stacker

The Grimms rainbow is one of the most popular open-ended toys for toddlers. The rainbow is very versatile, it can be stacked in various ways, used to make towers, fences, animals, cover mom, dad or the dog with.

There are no rough edges to this toy, so it is super safe and fun to play with. Kids also love the vibrant colors and can use them to learn color names. The Grimms rainbow is also a great way to explore shapes and symmetry.

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