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Boxes, Tubes, and Bottles: The Joys of Open-Ended Materials

On Easter my 15 month old daughter toddled into the kitchen to find an Easter basket waiting for her. Nestled inside the small wicker basket were the usual suspects: a few plastic eggs filled with small toys, a board book, and a cuddly brown bunny. I had chosen each item especially for her and knew she’d be thrilled to see each new trinket. And she was… for the first five minutes. My daughter spent the majority of Easter morning methodically exploring the paper grass that lined the basket. She began by taking it out of the basket by the fistful and making a pile next to her feet. Then, she picked up each strand individually, examined it, and placed it back in the basket. She proceeded to rip, clump, scatter, and sprinkle these paper grass blades all over the room, blissfully entertaining herself with her new discoveries.

In retrospect, I shouldn’t have been surprised. I’d seen preschoolers thrilled by the novelty of an egg carton, kindergarteners using a paper towel roll as a telescope, and kids of all ages enthralled with natural treasures like leaves and rocks that they found on the playground. In all of these situations, the children were free to explore the material on their own and slowly discovered its capabilities through trial and error. This is the beauty of open ended materials for children.

By definition, open ended materials are items that do not have one designated purpose and thus, they are incredible tools for learning in early childhood (and beyond!). Plain wooden blocks are a perfect example. One child may build a city, another may use them to “feed” their baby doll, and yet another may use them as an instrument by tapping them together and singing. The blocks are a blank canvas because of their deliberately plain design. They are an open invitation for imagination.

Open-ended materials and toys are not just engaging and fun. They also support children’s cognitive, social, and language development. Children practice flexible problem solving and critical thinking as they experiment with open-ended materials. They talk, reason, and cooperate with other children as they each find novel uses for objects and are able to play together. Open-ended materials also encourage creative play which has been linked to increased focus and planning skills. Although there are plenty of excellent open-ended toys on the market, the very best types of these materials are free! Think about how much kids love empty boxes, toilet paper rolls, strings, and empty bottles. A gold mine of engaging toys is currently sitting in my recycling bin!

Hundreds of toys on the market for toddlers and young children are marketed as “learning toys”. Many boast that they teach children colors and numbers, as well as reading, math, and spelling. They do this with screens and buttons that talk, move, light up, and sometimes even respond to verbal commands! The only thing children have left to do with these toys is sit back and passively watch them perform. Although these toys are certainly eye-catching and appealing, they rarely hold children’s attention for long periods of time because there are few things that children can do to play with them. These toys are limited to their one or two designated functions and leave little room for imagination or thinking outside the box.

As parents and teachers, we’re always asking ourselves, “How can we help?” Interestingly, the most important way to facilitate this type of play is to provide a variety of open-ended materials and let the child explore them on his or her own. This may be the hardest thing for me to do as a parent! I’m always ready to jump into my daughter’s play, chatting with her about what she’s doing and showing her new ways to play with her toys. In this case, I have to tell myself to take a step back and let her discover what she can do on her own. When children have explored the materials for some time, parents and teachers can begin asking questions and making verbal observations about what the child is doing with the materials. We can enrich the play with new vocabulary or added challenges. But most importantly, we can continue to provide new materials and give them space to explore them.

Kristen Cronheim is a contributing writer for the Little Bee Learning Studio blog. She holds a BS from Cornell University in Human Development and a Masters in Early Childhood Education from Hofstra University. Kristen taught both PreK and Kindergarten for 5 years and created curricula devoted to play-based learning. She lives in Hoboken with her husband and daughter.

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