What is open ended play?
Open ended play is such a wonderful thing to watch unfold. To see uninterrupted play through the eyes of a child, and their creativity and thoughts naturally progress along a theme of their choosing, can teach you a lot about their interests and the way they like to play.
Open ended play, can be classed as play without boundaries or limits in place. There is no set way for play to happen, and no specific outcome trying to be achieved. In comparison, closed ended play would be an activity with an ending that can only be carried out in a certain way to achieve it, such as a puzzle or a game of snakes and ladders.
With busy schedules, and an increasing pressure in today’s society to make sure your child is reaching specific milestones, it can be easy to control the way in which your child plays. You may want to teach them their colours, or shapes or perhaps begin early numeracy recognition and skills. Whilst these are great things to teach your child, and of course crucial to their learning, what if you knew just sitting back, watching and enjoying your child play, or taking their lead could be just as beneficial to them, but also to you?!
There are many benefits to open ended play; it can strengthen your child’s creativity, nurture their imaginative skills, and increase their self confidence in knowing their likes and dislikes. It helps with problem solving skills, creates independent thinkers and allows a child to truly learn at their own pace whilst using a curiosity approach. When children are engaged in their play and enjoying themselves, they will be relaxed and no doubt, they learn quicker.
If you feel hesitant to try open ended play, or are not sure where to begin, why not simply try presenting your child with a few items and see in what direction they take their fun. I have watched children take toilet and kitchen rolls and turn them into tunnels for cars, watching them tumble through at speed and then take them and hold them as binoculars to view the cars, where they have then become explorers in a zoo. Children’s imaginations are so free and pure, they don’t always think about what things should go together, or whether it makes sense for racing cars to be near a zoo, in the way an adult might, they just enjoy that moment of imagination and fun.
You may wish to use household items or natural items from the garden such as leaves and cones for this open-ended play, or maybe a box of Duplo. I have seen my two sons, get involved in some great role play scenarios using the TickiT Rainbow Architect Set. These beautifully coloured shapes, have been turned into a car park, made into balancing beams for their Lego people as well as built into a little town of their own design. If I really could have my time with them again when they were younger, I would invest in one of the loose part sets, such as the Wooden Treasures Taster Set, the possibilities with these are endless and I like that they are incredibly durable, long lasting, and natural.
One of the more interesting aspects of watching your child when engaging in open ended play, is that you can learn ‘’How’’ they like to play. This is known as a schema. Schemas are certain type of play or behaviour repeating itself in different scenarios. They allow a child to explore and express their desires and ideas through their play, in a way that pleases them. It allows the child to give meaning to their play. I noticed my youngest child would throw toys a lot, drop food from the high chair and generally enjoy watching things thump from a great height or smash down the stairs! I could not understand why he was not learning the concept of gentle hands and taking care with his toys. It wasn’t until one day when I watched him carefully, utterly exhausted from the sofa, that I realised the throwing wasn’t being done in anger or in the midst of a tantrum, but there was a genuine moment of pause, throw and investigate. In sitting back and observing, I could see that he was wanting to see what happened to the toy, trying to recreate the clanging sound when it hit the floor and investigating the damage. After this, I was able to engage him in other types of ‘’Trajectory’’ play, which he was thrilled with and now at the age of 5, still thoroughly enjoys.
Other types of play or schemas you might notice are Connecting, Enveloping, Enclosing, Orientation, Positioning, Rotation and Transporting and Transforming. PACEY have a great page on their website, which gives more information about this, should you wish to discover more about schemas. https://www.pacey.org.uk/working-in-childcare/spotlight-on/schemas/
It is important to recognise the benefits of both open and closed ended play, and to know that they both serve a purpose and a healthy balance of both should exist in a child’s play time. Often, open ended play can lead to better structured closed ended play activities. In watching your child play in a curious open-ended way, you can ask questions such as, ‘’ What are you doing?’’ or ‘’What are you enjoying the most and why?’’. Your child is likely to give answers from the heart, and these can help you design or choose better suited adult-initiated activities, that they will likely enjoy. An example may be a child paying with some loose parts, pretending a cone is a fire engine, a leaf a fire, and a stick is a hose putting the fire out. Before, you may never have known your child was interested in fire engines, but now you know on a rainy day you can pull out the pens and papers and draw some together, perhaps talking about the red engine and its rectangular shape. It is a great way to refer to their natural interest, but in an adult guided way.
Apart from knowing that you are encouraging your child’s imagination and giving them free reign on the play front, it’s reassuring to know that with open ended play, you can step back, hand over all decisions to your child and possibly get a moment to breathe and relax yourself. Time to gather some curiosity items and put the kettle on!
Written by Carly Moore, mother and Early Years Practitioner.