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A boy creates an imaginative kingdom in the dirt on a sunny afternoon. Enabling Open-Ended Play for Your Preschooler

Preschool is a time of swift and significant development for children, from learning to toss a ball to using descriptive language to tell detailed stories, and reaching each milestone is a moment of joy and wonder for you as a parent. As your child grows into a preschooler and their curiosity grows with them, you’ll feel that same sense of awe each time they discover something new. 

Play at this stage of your little one’s development seems simple enough, but it’s as essential as every other area of learning. Parents quickly discover that the cardboard box from the new dryer can entertain a kiddo for a day or longer, but what other ways are there to spark your child’s imagination and problem-solving while developing their fine motor skills? That’s where open-ended play steps in!

What Is Open-Ended Play?

Open-ended play, also called free play or unstructured play, happens when your child participates in activities that don’t have a specific goal or end result. This includes the open-ended activities with the cardboard box, yes, but also creative play with toys, household items, art supplies, or even just their imagination!

The play activities in an open-ended play session can vary quite a bit, but the one thing they all have in common is that your child chooses for themselves how to spend their playtime. Without instructions or rules to follow and no predetermined way to end their activity, children use their curiosity and individuality to make their own decisions on what path to take.

Benefits of Open-Ended Play

Play time for young children can often be highly structured, especially in settings where the little ones greatly outnumber the caregivers! Activities with clear instructions that guide children to a specific conclusion or objective, like a school lesson or a science experiment, will play a large role in developing their ability to focus, follow instructions, and think ahead. Even games can take on a rigid structure with strict rules and a concrete end goal. While these close-ended activities are clearly important, unstructured learning activities are equally valuable.

Creative, open-ended play with parents or other peers helps children learn social-emotional skills like bonding, respecting others, communicating, and balancing personal emotions with the emotions of others. Imaginative play can also improve academic skills, decrease destructive behavior, improve concentration and focus, and even have a calming effect on children. This type of play time is particularly important during early childhood, with children around 2-5 years old gaining the most benefit.

Examples of Open-Ended Play for Preschoolers

Below are some examples of unstructured activities and play ideas to help you encourage open-ended play for your preschooler. The suggestions here range in complexity and can be modified for children of any age. As you read through, think about your own unique child and what might inspire or encourage them the most.

Imaginative Play

Imaginative play occurs when a child role-plays experiences that are of interest to them. There are a number of benefits imaginative play contributes to a child’s development, including growth in their creativity and thinking skills.

Support imaginative play by asking open-ended questions or offering prompts such as, “Tell me about the toy you’re using.” Open-ended prompts like this are an excellent tool for guiding a child to use their language in a situation where there is no right or wrong answer. Your child can be successful just by telling you what’s on their mind!

Beyond that, you can use pretend play toys as prompts. These toys show the simplicity of imaginative play. Only a few props are needed, like a doll buggy or field tent, to light that creative spark. Whether they like to cook and clean with a kitchen set, put on a show with a magic kit, or play dress up, there’s something for everyone. When you provide that spark, your child's imagination will burn all the brighter.

Open-Ended Toys

Most children’s toys you see are specifically designed plastic pieces with all the bells and whistles included. While these toys certainly play a role in your child’s creative play, more often, you spend a lot of money without receiving much educational value, as the concrete design inhibits children from expanding their play. Wooden toys, however, offer more benefits than the latest trendy toys.

While they aren’t always as flashy as plastic, battery-operated toys, one of the primary advantages of wooden toys is that they require your child to use their own imagination to play. Open-ended toys like wood building blocks, play silks, or magnetic tiles help them develop those essential fine motor skills. The possibilities contained within even a simple set of building toys are nearly limitless and allow your little one to stretch their imagination, conjuring entire worlds of their own.

Another thing to consider is that thoughtfully designed toys like those made from wood can withstand loads of use and still look brand new. Because natural toys are so durable, they can be used by multiple children in your family and still be handed down for generations after.

Art Projects and Music

Children are creative, unhindered little beings and often need little more than basic art and music supplies to design endless masterpieces. Finger paints and pint-sized musical instruments might be the first things that come to mind, but there is a much wider range of open-ended materials that can inspire artistic thought in children. Playdough, crayons, printables to color in, pom-poms, stickers, and paint brushes are a great start.

Wooden art and musical toys are amazing for a preschooler's development. Research shows that playing and learning environments featuring natural elements like wood can help a child concentrate, focus, and even calm down more effectively than ones with electronic toys. Musical toys have been shown to support everything from creativity and language development to memory and emotional intelligence.

Having an art or music area with lots of options gives your child the chance to make their own DIY art without the structure that often comes with learning a craft. It’s important that they know, you can’t mess up in art!

Sensory Play

The sense of touch is a meaningful way your preschooler learns. While babies experience the world by putting as much of it as they can in their mouths, preschoolers use their hands to explore. Ensuring they have a safe environment to interact with is one of the challenges that every parent faces. You want your child to have the freedom to investigate while also preventing them from putting little fingers where they could get hurt.

Sensory play activities are an excellent way to achieve this. You can set up a sensory bin: a large container full of sand, uncooked rice, dried beans, or even water, to which you add household items like scoops, cups, funnels, kitchen utensils, or open-ended toys. Your kiddo can touch, pour, pinch, move and sort to their heart’s delight.

Water tables and sandboxes are also options if you have the space. This type of open-ended play gives your child the chance to learn through hands-on, tactile play, engaging their senses. Sensory bins can even have themes for different seasons and holidays!

Explorative Activities

As your child grows, they will naturally want to explore their surroundings. For preschoolers, it’s an adventure!

One option to encourage their sense of exploration and discovery is a push and ride toy. Ride-on toys have numerous benefits parents will love, from developing gross and fine motor skills to supporting critical thinking. Options with fully-functional components, like dashboards, give kiddos the chance to manipulate the materials and practice fine motor skills. And as they push themselves around, young children also get to build gross motor skills and critical thinking skills, experimenting with different surfaces while staying atop their toy. They’re the perfect explorative toys for naturally-curious preschoolers and 2-3 year-olds.

You can further feed their love of adventure with a nature walk and scavenger hunt. Take a walk with your child through a park or even your own backyard and encourage them to look for objects or creatures by using open-ended questions and prompts. You may be surprised by what they find!

Designing Spaces for Open-Ended Play with Fawn&Forest

As you design your child’s play area, focus on using the space to give them visual cues of what type of play is where. A table set-up suggests they should sit and play with small blocks, puzzles, and drawing tools. A cozy tent with soft throw pillows in one corner might suggest a place to read or play with a truck. Another corner may hold a workshop outfitted with pretend play tools or a pretend kitchen complete with the accessories needed for creative play. By setting up these separate play areas, you give boundaries while supporting their use of imagination and creativity. 

Teaching your child that everything has its place will help you both maintain a safe and organized home. A good storage system in the form of shelves, cubbies, or toy boxes is essential in a child’s play area design. Find dual-purpose furniture in our collection like multi-size cubbies, perfect to let kids view play options and learn where to put their toys away, even in small spaces.

At fawn&forest, we’ve gathered our favorite modern toys for infants and kids to keep your child entertained and kick off their development through open play. You’ll also find all the furniture you need to design a safe, comfortable play space for everyone. Our focus on healthy growth and development is an essential part of what drives us, and our collection of playroom products was chosen with that same care.


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Summer Robertson

I am a mother of 4 beautiful children living countryside in a tiny home with my sweet family. We founded fawn&forest in 2007 with an intention of creating a shop that reflects our love for living simply with children.