What the Heck is Open-Ended Play?
Could it be a resistance to screen-based living? A sign of fatigue for the overly scheduled modern family? Perhaps a yearning for freedom and rebellion? It’s hard to pinpoint exactly why open-ended play is on the rise. But online searches and social media make it clear: open-ended play is hot, hot, hot.
I’ve watched the trend catch fire in Insta-land. If, like me, you follow accounts that feature nursery decor, toys, and playful activities, you’ve likely spotted the holy trinity of open play: the Grimms Rainbow, the Wobble Board and the Bilibo. These Montessori-style toys are beautifully crafted and blur the line between toy and stylish interior. They’re also quite expensive. (Let’s come back to that.)
The increased interest in open-ended play, coupled with rising demand for environments that promote creative learning, suggests more parents want to raise children in a world where open-play is the norm. But what exactly is it?!
Open-ended play refers to play patterns with no predefined structure. The toy or object is a blank canvas, and the onus is on the child to bring it to life. Thus, the child becomes the master of their own play destiny. They must use their imagination to transform objects and play their way.
The empty cardboard box is a quintessential example of this. It’s an undefined object with limitless possibilities. It can be anything the child wants it to be (unlike the toy that might have come in it!) Other examples of open-ended toys include: Play-Doh, sand, paint, wooden blocks and shapes, art materials, non-character-specific figures and vehicles.
Let’s take a look at two similar toys – one open-play and one that’s not:
Open-ended play toys
Here the child uses shapes to make a tower, house (or whatever she is imagining). She is adding wooden figures inside that have no assigned gender or personality. In this play, she creates the story with very few prompts. Because what is in front of her doesn’t look exactly like the story she is playing out in her mind, her imagination must work hard to fill in the gaps. The play can move in many directions as she re-imagines and transforms objects in new ways.
By contrast, in story-led play, the child interacts with known structures and characters. Many have assigned names, gender and personalities from an existing universe, like a movie, TV or digital. In this scenario, the house structure has set features designed for use in predefined ways. The child decodes the colour, shape and design to reflect what culture has taught them. Here, the toy says ‘princess’, ‘girl’ or ‘palace’. With less room for manipulation, the story is more likely to unfold within the context it started from.
It’s interesting to consider how children experience such similar play-patterns in such different ways, isn’t it? The truth is, it all depends on the stimulus provided.
Questions to ask
I can’t help but wonder how many opportunities today’s kids have with open-ended experience. Most families we visit for research own far more toys with predefined stories. It begs questions: Does a bias toward story-led toys limit the boundaries of kids’ imaginations? Do story-led, licensed toys continually place kids in play patterns where there are less gaps to fill in? Or, on the contrary, do story-led toys take kids’ imaginations to new places they wouldn’t have imagined on their own, allowing them to mash-up worlds and characters in dynamic ways?
Likely a bit of both goes on. That said, I suspect that a lot of kids (and adults) would struggle to know what to do with open-ended toys. In comparison to glossy, packaged toys that present ‘fun’ in an overt way, open-ended toys can appear boring or like they’re meant for young children only. They also require a bit of patience to figure out what to do with them.
It’s worth noting that licensed toys can become open-ended. Most toys transform into something other than their purpose. Barbie is a good example. Packaged and purchased as one character, she often becomes something entirely different as play unfolds. This repurposing relies on an active and well-oiled imagination, however. We’re all born with one. But depending on our stimulus and experiences, our imagination expands, stays alive, or becomes suppressed.
Today’s kids grow up on slick franchise marketing and polished 360-experiences led by movies, TV and gaming. Entertainment brands come to life across multiple touch points. If a child shows interest in a show or character, it often leads to getting the app, going to the live show, wearing the PJs, and yes, playing with it from their toy box too. Kids don’t just ‘like’ characters anymore, they develop alongside them. While it’s great to dive into a story, I worry that if play is ONLY sparked from existing worlds, the ‘from scratch’ experience will occur less and less. And consequently, the imagination muscle might get weaker.
So what to do?
As per usual, it’s best to experience a bit of everything. Parents who continue to think about the toys they want their kids to play with are likely to come to a similar conclusion: Serve a balanced play diet.
Open-ended toys are currently at a premium price point. But I think they’re worth it. In comparison to franchised toys, which kids grow out of or trends change, open-ended toys have a much longer shelf-life. They span ages and interests, and fit into ANY play scenario.
So will open-ended toys attract the biggest reaction on Christmas morning? Probably not. But will they take a child’s imagination to new places? Absolutely.
As parents wake up to this understanding, conversations around play become more informed and educated. And this poses a great opportunity for mainstream brands. They can champion the open-play trend and design more accessible, mass market products that make kids the master of their own play destiny.
And with that, happy playing!