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Open-Ended Toys for Imaginative and Meaningful Play

November 19, 2018

Open-Ended Toys for Imaginative and Meaningful Play

I’m a design lover and minimalist through and through – right down to my children’s toys. I want to buy well-designed, open-ended toys that encourage play-based learning. If they serve a dual purpose, such as doubling as decor, then count me in. But, I didn’t always know that I needed these toys specifically. Several years ago, before I became a mother of two, I never really gave deep thought to playtime. I soon learned that there were different and distinct kinds of play and toys; what really blew my mind was learning that unstructured, open-ended playtime – or free play – is critical to young children’s brain development.

Children use play experiences to develop physical, cognitive, emotional and social skills, and they test these skills, day in and day out. When it comes to play, kids know what to do – it’s like how we are born with certain instincts – playing is engrained in us from the start. And open-ended play – or, free play – is a child’s natural language.

One way to nurture this type of play is with open-ended toys. These toys foster creative and imaginative play, and support healthy development. Children will often seek toys that suit the stage of development they are in. If children use play to make sense of the world around them, we want to provide them with a diverse environment in which to do so. Choosing to buy open-ended toys supports just that.

Here are some of my favorite open-ended toys for various developmental ages and stages that will stand the test of time and be played with for years to come.

TANE Organics Howie the Hedgehog

What’s not to love about this little hedgehog? Hand made from 100% organic cotton and natural dye, you can feel good letting your baby explore this little guy in whatever manner he or she chooses. The nubby texture provides great sensory stimulation. Later in life, plushes support other developmental stages like pretend play, self-awareness, and attachment during transitional periods, such as starting school.


Papoose Rainbow Nesting Bowl Set

If you aren’t afraid of color, you’ll love this Papoose nesting bowl set – stack them, use them for color sorting, put things in and dump them out, use them as bowls for a play kitchen – they can even be used for a memory game for more than one child. This set is sure to be used in many imaginative ways throughout the first few years of a child’s life. For a more pared down set, try this one.

Goose Grease Shop Wooden Peg Dolls

I love supporting small businesses and shopping small, especially for sustainably produced, ethical goods. These wooden peg dolls are hand crafted in Bogota, Colombia, using sustainably forested wood and hand painted with non-toxic, water based materials. It gets better - for each tree used to make these dolls, two trees are planted. Like plushes, these dolls support emotional development and can assist with developing and growing language skills. My kids love their peg dolls for imaginary play and it’s fun to see them create elaborate settings and stories.


Wild Creek Co. Baby Rattle

Sure, there are probably hundreds and hundreds of baby rattles on the market, but if we’re focusing on nurturing free play and growing with your child beyond infancy, certainly not all are created equal. This rattle’s larger size, non-toxic materials, and neutral, minimalist design, are what make it a stand out. Not to mention, it can serve as a teether for babies and toddlers alike.

Sarah’s Silks

You’ve probably heard of play silks and these are some of the most durable (and softest) I’ve found. This particular ”Rainbow Enchanted Play Silk” is oversized and can be used in a variety of ways from infancy through toddlerhood – a peek-a-boo game, a cape, a streamer, a bandana - your only limit is your imagination.


T-Lab Wooden Animal Figurines

Isn’t it awesome when toys are so beautiful and simple, they can double as decor? These gorgeous, sustainably made wooden animals are handcrafted in Indonesia and finished in Japan. With their smooth, light-as-air construction, children will love to collect them, hold them and make them the center of their imaginative games and stories. These figurines make great travel toys too, perfectly sized for little hands and pockets.


Wooden Story Peace & Love Blocks Set

 This 29-piece set is truly one of those block sets that will grow with your child.  These blocks are made of wood that comes from FSC certified suppliers and made in the mountains of Poland. Blocks are a great way from a very young age to encourage hand-eye coordination for stacking and building. However, these blocks take it a step further because of the language component. Pair these blocks with the Goose Grease peg dolls (will link) for a limitless play-based learning experience.


Wild Creek Co. Lacing Bead Set

Another Wild Creek Co. favorite is this fine motor friendly lacing bead set in natural wood. Some smooth, some textured, some large, some small, these beads aren’t only for lacing. They can be sorted, stacked and counted, and worked into a pattern. The magic of lacing beads is that simply by engaging with them in different ways, parents can gain insight into their child’s developmental stage.  

  Candylab Toys Woodie Car

Both of my kids play with this durable wooden push car. My 4.5 year old likes to pair it with the camper carand pretend he’s headed to the race track or coast, and my 2 year old likes to remove the magnetic surf board and use it as an accessory for her Maileg dolls(another dear favorite). The wheels are made of rubber, ensuring a smooth glide – important when you’re using furniture as ramps or sliding on the hardwood floor finishing first in the final leg of the race. Candylab toy cars help foster and build storytelling and communication skills, while working on gross motor development.


And, of course, some of the best toys and play experiences can be found right outside your door – drawing with chalk on the driveway or sidewalk; sticks, pebbles and leaves make for a great nature table addition or impromptu fairy garden; perhaps you’re even lucky enough to live near a nature preserve or deep forest. Cheers to play!

 Written by Carolina Greenholtz from @themamafiles – a design loving mama seeking simplicity and beauty in the everyday