Open-ended Play

Open-ended play

Open-ended play allows children to express themselves in play freely and creatively, not bound by preset limitations.1 Playing with open-ended materials with multiple uses and limitless possibilities, such as molding clay, wet sand, paint, blocks and other loose parts, allow for imaginative play. There are no rules to follow, no expectations, no specific problems to solve, and no pressure to produce a finished product when engaging freely in open-ended play.2 In contrast, closed-ended activities have a determined outcome, a right answer, and a restriction on individual differences. Examples of closed-ended materials would be single-use toys like puzzles.3

Nondescript materials, like cardboard boxes and fabrics, encourage dramatic play. With children’s boundless imagination, they can design make-believe forts, tents, cars, and costumes from everyday nonrealistic items found within their reach. A stick can become a knight’s sword, a rock star’s guitar, a cowboy’s horse, a boat on a stream, or a slingshot with a rubber band.4

A balance of play materials enhances the quality of children’s play. It has been discovered that the attraction between nonrealistic and realistic play materials is related to the age of the child. Realistic props, such as dolls and play kitchens, are more desired by two- and three-year-olds, which encourage more symbolic play. Four-year-olds enjoy a blend of realistic and nonrealistic props. Five- and six-year-olds engage in more pretend play with nonrealistic materials. All children love age-appropriate art supplies, such as paper, crayons, markers, paints, and scissors, which allow for hours of creative open-ended play.5

There are many benefits to open-ended play. Imagination is enhanced, and the ability to think symbolically and abstractly builds creativity and intelligence. Social and emotional abilities are developed as children role-play with “what-if” possibilities that strengthen their understanding of the world around them and consequences to actions. They also learn empathy, cooperation, problem solving, and leadership skills through make-believe play. The creative nature of open-ended play also enhances cognitive skills, such as working memory, cognitive flexibility, and self-regulation. Self-regulation is the ability to control emotions and behavior, resist impulses, and exert self-control and discipline.6 Open-ended play activities have been found to be related to ideational fluency which allows children to be able to have more divergent reasoning and a greater variety of ideas when interacting with materials and others.7

Playground equipment offers both open-ended and closed-ended elements in their design. Rock walls and cargo nets might be incorporated into a chase game or an imaginary role play in open-ended play.8 A cubby in an abstract-designed playground might be a house one day and a fort the next. However, a playground designed to look like a castle would not inspire uses other than as a castle, which is more closed-ended.9

  • 1. Frost, Joe L., Pei-San Brown, John A. Sutterby, Candra D. Thornton. The Developmental Benefits of Playgrounds. Olney, MD: Association for Childhood Education International, 2004. p.149.
  • 2. Drew, Walter F. “Endless Possibilities. Free play helps your child build knowledge, skills, and creativity at his own pace.” Scholastic. Apr. 2007. < > 26 Aug. 2010.
  • 3. Op. cit., Frost.
  • 4. Bowman, Kara. “The Joys of Open-Ended Play.” Kaskey Kids. 16 Oct. 2009. < > 26 Aug 2010.
  • 5. Frost, Joe L., Sue Wortham, and Stuart Reifel. Play and Child Development. Upper Saddle Valley, NJ: Prentice-Hall, 2001. p. 300.
  • 6. Op. cit., Bowman.
  • 7. Brown, Pei-San, John Sutterby, and Candra Thornton. “Dramatic Play in Outdoor Play Environments.” PTO Today. < > 23 Aug 2010.
  • 8. Op. cit., Frost, Brown, Sutterby, Thornton. p. 149.
  • 9. Op. cit., Brown, Sutterby, Thornton.