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Super Fun, Open-Ended Toys that Build Creativity & Imagination

Photo by Jakob / Stocksy / 773526
Photo by Jakob / Stocksy

Come the holiday season, or any season for that matter (we’re gonna guess there’s a birthday invite in your inbox right now), the hunt to find “just the right toy” from the miles of aisles or the hundreds of pages on online superstores can be, well, kind of a big chore.

“I can spend hours reading through toy reviews on Amazon,” says Pat Williamson, a grandmother to an eight-year-old. “I want to buy something my grandkids will like—but I want toys that encourage learning, too.”

While you may not have Williamson’s time to read through every Amazon review, you probably share her sentiment.

We’re here to help. “As an education company, we look for toys and materials that encourage creative thinking and open-ended play,” says Meg Davis, a member of KinderCare’s Education team who often evaluates toys we’re considering for KinderCare Learning Centers. “With open-ended toys that children can control, the imaginative play possibilities and experiences for children really are endless.”

What Are Open-Ended Toys?

Open-ended toys let children (and their imaginations) be in charge of the fun. Think clay, blocks, or doll houses: Each time a child plays with toys like these, they may create an entirely new sculpture, solve a new problem, or imagine their own scenario.

Contrast open-ended toys with ones that, say, play a few notes of a song after a child pushes a button—and does nothing else. Not only do these single-function toys become boring very quickly, they don’t encourage creativity, imagination, or problem-solving abilities.

Why Is Open-Ended Play Important?

Do you want your child to feel empowered? Do you want them to feel free to take chances and make mistakes? Do you want them to feel like there is success even in failure?

If you answered yes to any or all of these questions, you have a sense of why open-ended play is so important for kids. “With open-ended play, there is no right way or wrong way to play,” quips Sue-Ann Lively, a Curriculum Developer at KinderCare. “Open-ended toys and imaginative play allow children to take chances, make mistakes, and come to their own conclusions.”

And for children, that’s powerful!

Children spend large portions of their days learning “the right way” to do things: There’s only one right way to brush their teeth, to eat at the dinner table, and so forth. That’s another reason why open-ended play is so important. Kids need some time to be in charge—to feel empowered and try out new ideas and solutions for themselves without us grown-ups chiming in about the way it’s gotta go.

Parents also have a strong role to play in open-ended play.

“Ask open-ended questions while you play together,” suggests Lively. “For example, sit together and paint your own pictures side by side. When your child is finished with theirs, ask a question like, ‘Tell me about your picture.’”

That allows your child to formulate their own story about their art in their own way (and it’s a real language booster, too!)

Toys for Creative Thinking and Pretend Play

“Everyday household objects make terrific open-ended toys,” says Lively. So instead of throwing out those Amazon boxes immediately, throw them on the living room floor and see what your child can make with them—a submarine, a house, a secret book nook, or possibly an entire fantasy world!

With that in mind, here’s our list of recommendations for open-ended toys that let your child’s creativity run free!

1. Open-ended toys to inspire their inner artist

Whether you’ve got a stash of paper, pens, non-toxic paints, and playdough at the ready, or you need to restock: “Art supplies of every ilk are one of the best ways to encourage creativity and creative thinking,” comments Lively.

2. Open-ended toys to help kids understand the wide, wide world

Photo by David Hume Kennerly
Photo by David Hume Kennerly

Doctor or veterinarian kits, pretend kitchens with utensils and food, and dress-up clothes all help children process the world around them. One great gift idea? Create a dress-up box for your child full of clothes and crowns and capes for play. Toy cash registers are great to have around to play grocery store.

3. Open-ended toys that build a love for nature

When children interact with nature, anything is possible.

Find around your house: Never underestimate the simple power of a stick! Small trowels, shovels, spoons, and plastic pair perfectly with a mud puddle, sand box, or a patch of dirt.  

Buy from a store: Many hardware stores sell child-size gardening tools and gloves. And depending on the age of your child, microscopes, bug catchers, and magnifying glasses made for tiny learners all encourage children to explore and ask questions.

4. Open-ended toys to get their wiggles out

Find around the house: Cardboard boxes and household objects that are safe for making a kid-size obstacle course will get them making—and moving.

Buy from a store: Balls, hula-hoops, a set of cones for zig-zagging bikes or scooters around, yoga mats, and jump ropes are all fantastic props for encouraging movement and making up games as they go along.

5. Open-ended toys to help them tune into music

Find around the house: Pots and pans, wooden spatulas, or CDs for dancing all bring the gift of song to kids’ hearts, minds, and bodies.

Buy from a store: Musical instruments like drums, tambourines, maracas, or shaker eggs.  Ukuleles make great first-time, just-the-right-size guitars. Invest in CDS or iTunes gift cards to download good dance tunes.  

6. Get your game on

Board games are a family classic, but they’ve actually come a long way. There are many board games available today, like those from Peaceable Kingdom, that require cooperation among players rather than competition, and that’s a good thing: Children learn to work together to find solutions to challenges. This helps encourage collaborative problem solving.

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