Ten open-ended play ideas

What does open-ended play mean?

When we think about open-ended play we might think: Play items that can be used in various ways, for extended lengths of time, with no structured layout needed (although help could be offered, as needed, of course).

Here's a list of ten open-ended play ideas. Each idea will vary based on your child's age and what you think she/he is ready for:


Rocks can be sorted, counted, stacked, painted, colored on, turned into 'rock pets' (old school craft, yes), collected in buckets or re-used containers, used as music shakers (put rocks inside a safe container and secure the lid), used to create rock beds and more.

Dress-up clothing

Dress-up clothing can be mixed and matched, used indoors and outdoors, and so on. It stimulates imagination and allows your child(ren) to explore, wonder, create and pretend.


Can be used as an open-ended manipulative to explore colors, shapes, outlines, patterns, 3D images, imagination, etc. Click here to read the National Play-Doh post with more ideas and lots of recipes.


Some of you might think, "Sticks are not safe!" Under supervision, they can be (if you want your child to explore the use of sticks but you're concerned about eye safety, make use of a pair of goggles or consider purchasing Rec Specs - my own son has a pair of these). Once upon a time, kids used sticks to create fishing poles, slings, etc. Depending on your own parenting style (and realizing that even a fork at the dinner table could pose a safety problem, when you think about it), this can still happen: whittling (older children, of course), fishing poles, slings, using sticks to write in the dirt, building forts, creating designs on the ground, gluing bird houses or unique creations, etc. (lopsided, sure).

Dirt (or sand)

Oh...dirt! Again, some parents will shy away from this one but according to research, children who are allowed to play in the dirt are shown to be healthier and less likely to get sick (stronger immune systems). Read a post about the Love of Dirt! Consider: sifting, sorting, mud pies, planting flowers, planting a garden, building piles, examining ant hills and more!


Right? Have you ever met a kid who didn't want to use the hose? There are so many options when it comes to water (supervised, yes): pools, baths, wading pools, outdoor water slides (create your own with a swing set slide - place a soft mat on the ground, at the end, for landing), slip 'n slides, water balloons (clean up the rubber pieces when done as they are not biodegradable), sensory tubs and so on.


Turn a box into a carpet car, a mini house, a costume, a painting project, a "my favorite things container" or a hat.


Stack, sort, count, paint (if you get the all-wood ones, non painted - be sure to purchase non toxic paint), create shapes or 3D images or build a stack and knock it down!

Crayons, pencils, stencils and paper

Depending on your child's age and interests, many children will self direct with this activity. Put out a large piece of paper. Tape down the corners so the paper stays in place. Now...let it roll! Your kiddo can color, choose between crayons and pencils, draw shapes with the stencils, create patterns/designs/animal images/symmetry, etc.


Why not use a combination of the above ideas? Combine water with dirt, dress-up with blocks (as my daughter demonstrates in the above photo), Play-Doh with rocks, etc.

*Read more ideas, shared at Scholastic.com : "Free play helps your child build knowledge, skills, and creativity at his own pace."

Side Note: I know that a recent 2010 study stated that children who are directed in play are more successful later in life. How about we all agree that kids need both? A little free play time to self explore AND directed play time when they need assistance understanding how something works? I'd be thrilled if early childhood educators could agree that BOTH philosophies are beneficial. (smile)

More reading: Structured play vs Free play

ABOUT the Author:

Shara has a background in early childhood, education, freelance, small business ownership and nanny work. She is especially interested in social emotional development, literacy, play, nature, fostering community and cultivating creativity.


#4 PersonalTrainerDa 2011-03-28 06:28
These are awesome! These open-ended play ideas will surely develop your child's motor and mental skills. Who knows, this is the time where you will discover how talented your daughter or son would be.
#3 Guest 2011-01-05 16:23
Excellent. and I especially agree we should stop the either/or argument about directed or undirected.
In playing with legos with my 2.5 grandson, I noticed how hard it was for this experienced father, grandfather and professional educator to let him discover, I kept wanting to show him stuff and 80% of the time he ignored or brushed me off. We have to remember that kids are on a mission driven from within. They'll let us know when they need us, and even then we have to exercise discretion in HOW to help.
Thanks for this excellent article
#2 Guest 2010-10-05 09:31
I totally agree with your closing statement - both directed and directed play are essential to success. Can you imagine if kids only ever got directed play? They'd learn to only see a box as a box!

BEST toy I ever bought for my son was a bundle of straws - bright red, somewhere between 2 and 3 feet in length. Those straws provided hours of fun, open, undirected play for him.
#1 Guest 2010-09-18 04:05
Well, I totally agree with all the open ended play items - we use them all - they boys love sticks, rocks, water, sand, playdoh etc. But we also play board games, legos etc. I do think both are important for later in life teaching skills about rules and creativity.

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