• Nicola Hanson

Open-ended play promotes choice, wonder and delight

As we contemplate further lockdown restrictions, the nature of play within early year settings has had to move to more adult-led activities, with limited opportunities for child-led, open-ended play. But is this a problem? Studies tell us that this could be a really big issue for the future of our children as the benefits of open-ended play are so huge. ‘Open-ended play’ is any play that is not specifically guided by the resources. Some toys can only really be used for one purpose, for example, a toy till can be a brilliant representative of a real till in a shop and can enrich role-play, but an open-ended version could be created easily. For example, transforming a cardboard box into a till with beads or buttons promotes play with more imagination, creativity and problem solving and allows more opportunity for interpretation.










Whilst there is nothing at all wrong with real-world play or small-world play (both have fantastic benefits), evidence suggests that our children have less opportunity for open-ended play than generations before them. Toys have become more realistic and children have more guided activities based on specific outcomes; think of craft kits where a wonderful item is almost guaranteed at the end of the task but the opportunity for creating it differently is limited. In general, children have more screen time and fewer opportunities to explore the natural world and experience the boredom that can lead to open-play opportunities.

Rule-based games and structured activities can generate a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ way to play. This limits the opportunities for our children to solve problems and be curious, imaginative or inventive. There are times that all of us find it a struggle to entertain our children; we are sometimes unsure about what constitutes as meaningful play or simply messy or destructive behaviour, and cries of boredom can have us rushing to bring out the more structured, easier option.

Harvard Education’s Leah Shafer gives us some top tips for open-ended play at home. She says that ‘adults should look for three indicators of playful learning: choice, wonder, and delight’. Choice looks like children setting goals, developing and sharing ideas, making rules, negotiating challenges, and choosing how long to play.



Wonder looks like kids exploring, creating, pretending, imagining, and learning from trial and error. Delight looks like happiness: kids smiling, laughing, being silly, or generally feeling cosy and at ease’.




  • Make time for play and create the space for it.

  • Find fun in the materials you have. So many of the things you have in your home can be engaging, from empty boxes or blankets for forts, to simple plastic bottles for modelling. Gather leaves and sticks and stones, string and kitchen utensils, packaging, biscuit tins and dried foods. The ability to choose materials and decide how they will be used spurs creativity. You can offer a range of suggestions to get ideas going but the main thing is to give space and permission to see the possibilities.

  • Be open to risk. ‘If you let children know that you trust them to take small risks, they’ll likely enjoy creating and exploring’, explains Shafer. You are building their confidence and allowing them to explore their capabilities.

  • Model play with your child. You are your child’s first and most important educator - be playful, show that you enjoy the outdoors, rediscover your own curiosity, use your imagination and don’t be afraid to be silly. Your child will follow your lead, become more engaged in play and find enjoyment in everything they do.

  • Play together. Your child wants your attention and playing directly with your child will strengthen your relationship and bond which will make them feel safer and more confident.

  • Be patient when your child says they are ‘bored’. Shafer points out that children ‘often have to pass through that initial discomfort and recover the space and presence to be self-directed and curious. But with time, they’ll emerge on the other side and settle into an activity.’ This is especially true if they see, by your own engagement with play, that you place value in it. Some children may initially struggle to see how they can use resources, particularly when they are more familiar with structured play. With siblings at home, it can be tricky to entertain a range of ages, but the beauty of open-ended play is that it will always match the ability and imagination of the child and is not limited at all.

Reference: Leah Shafer, Harvard Education

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