Inside: Inspire your child’s imagination and creativity with these open-ended toys that last for years! Open-ended toys result in open-ended play, encouraging problem-solving, self-regulation, creativity and more. This post may contain affiliate links which won’t change your price but will share some commission.
Updated Nov 30, 2020
A few years ago, my son and daughter received a barrage of Christmas gifts. After being far from family and living in Okinawa, Japan for three years, our extended family was ready to spoil the kids with toys.
And if I’m being honest, I was ready to spoil them too! We were away for a long time, and Christmas felt heartfelt and magical. Feelings of togetherness and excitement were palpable in the air. If you can imagine wrapping paper blanketing the carpet, this was our Christmas.
There’s just one problem.
Many of the toys we bought that Christmas were “one and done” type of toys. These are the kind of toys that don’t teach, inspire or grow with kids.
A quick example is for my daughter we gifted her some Zhu Zhu Pets, and within a few days, I regretted it. This toy has only one purpose – to play pretend hamsters. Once both the kids were done exploring that purpose, there wasn’t much exciting, interesting or new to do with the toy.
You’ll know you have a “one and done” toy on your hands if it talks to kids, asks questions, sing songs, lights up or is full of brightly-colored plastic with movie or character themes.
The “one and done” toy is meant to entertain your kids vs. your kids entertaining themselves through creative play with an open ended toy.
When kids only have access to toys with a familiar script – like character-themed toys or light up toys – their opportunities to engage in creative, spontaneous play is limited.
Play, and in particular creative play, is a key component of building children’s resilience, ability to focus and the ability to act intentionally, even when the outcome is unknown.
These skills translate into competence and capability in adults.
The Best Open Ended Toys for Kids
Children learn best through open ended toys, which offer more play opportunities to children than complex toys. Simple, basic playthings such as blocks, dollhouses, and art supplies have multiple purposes. With simple toys, play is up to the child’s mood and creative interpretation.
When kids play with open ended toys, they are developing social skills, problem-solving skills, language skills, communication skills, cognitive ability, fine motor skills, gross motor skills, self regulation, creativity and more.
There’s a reason why the Museum of Play in Rochester honored “the stick” as toy of the year in the past. It can be used as a wand, a sword, a ruler, and a flagpole. You can even find a great list of open ended toys in their National Toy Hall of Fame.
Here are some basic ideas to help you get started. Plus, I’ll share my top picks for this holiday season!
Blocks and Stem Open Ended Toy Ideas
- Wood blocks
- Magnet blocks
- Log blocks
- Tinker Toys
- Train tracks
- Marble works
- Letter blocks
Art and Craft Open Ended Toys
Puzzles and Games
- Wooden puzzles
- Floor puzzles
- Foam puzzles
- Alphabet puzzles
- Typical puzzles
- Board games
- Card games
Science and STEM Open Ended Toys
Pretend Play Props and Toys
- Pretend food
- Play kitchen
- Vet kit
- Doctor kit
- Dress up clothing
- Pretend construction kit
- Child’s favorite author
- Favorite character
- Favorite topic
Sensory and Fine Motor Open Ended Play
Gross Motor Open Ended Play
- Trampoline (outdoor or indoor)
- Tent (indoor or outdoor)
- Stepping stones
- Balance beam
- Hula hoops
Here are my favorite open ended toys that we’ve tried and loved.
The open ended toys that we have from when the kids were early toddlers – wooden blocks, wooden toys sets and a plain doll house – are still toys they play with today.
We try to gift as many open-ended toys as possible and skip the rest. They are the gift that keeps on giving for years to come!
I love that this toy develops critical skills! Your child plays their way through the challenges, which builds spatial reasoning and planning skills. This also doubles as an engineering and building toy that provides a great stealth learning experience for young players.
Open ended toys should be gender neutral with boys and girls equally enjoying them. I look specifically at colors and toy design when choosing something now. My son started kindergarten, he’s particularly focused on not playing with “girl colors.” With both kids desperately wanting a pet and loving to play doctor, we grabbed this vet kit. This one from Melissa and Doug is another great option.
This is one I ended up putting on toy rotation. The kids enjoy this for a few days at a time, and then they need a break. I’ll set it up on the closet shelf for a few weeks and when they get “bored,” I will bring this toy down. It continues to be a favorite.
We live in a warmer climate, and the sky is normally clear so this felt like a good fit for the kids (and secretly this is probably more for my husband and I to enjoy!). We’ve used this endlessly to study the moon throughout the year, and it’s a big hit among adults too! This is a bigger priced item so if your location isn’t conducive to looking at the night stars, you may want to look at other science options like a microscope or rock kit.
Walkie talkies that actually work! These support up to 3 km in open conditions, up to 2 km in neighborhood conditions. Makes for super fun pretend play around the house and outside, especially when other kids are around to play! My kids have made up all sorts of silly games with these.
Stamp sets are an easy way to encourage narrative thinking and creative expression. Through a collection of 20 stamps and 5 colored pencils kids can create their own unique story on paper. Easy enough for little hands, but still fun for early school-aged kids.
This is another one I like to put on rotation and when the kids are doing art projects, I will bring this out as a surprise to keep ’em busy for an hour!
Games are a great way to help kids practice executive functioning – “The mental processes that enable us to plan, focus attention, remember instructions, and juggle multiple tasks successfully. Just as an air traffic control system at a busy airport safely manages the arrivals and departures of many aircraft on multiple runways, the brain needs this skill set to filter distractions, prioritize tasks, set and achieve goals, and control impulses.” (source)
You could be 90 years old and still enjoy building with LEGO®. This classic builder set comes with ideas of things to create and build, but you can use your imagination to build anything. From houses to trucks to a horse stable, there is something for every age and development level.
This BY FAR would be my top open-ended toy of the year!
I’ve had kids ages 2-9 at my house and they all beg to play with this. It’s kept groups of kids busy for HOURS. I would easily gift this to any toddler, preschooler or school-aged child and know it would be a huge hit.
Unlike Play-Doh it does not dry out, it’s minimal mess to clean since it’s not like regular sand. Kinetic sand sticks together. The kids have done all sorts of creative things with this box. Get low on sand? Just buy a replacement pack of kinetic sand and the supply is brand new.
Every playroom should have a few costume pieces in a chest or hanging on a wall. Costumes encourage kids to submerse themselves in their fantasies and pretend to be someone or something else. With these items, kids can turn themselves into any superhero they wish.
This is super affordable for how many capes you get. Anytime kids come to the house, they love to all grab a cape and play superheros.