One of the highly remarkable skill sets of a 21st century child is his/her imagination and creativity, which cannot be replaced by technology. As parents, it is vital we find ways to develop our little big dreamers' creativity and imagination. This is exactly where open ended play has this amazing role to play; it provides the perfect opportunity to exercise their imagination, as well as social and emotional intelligence. Open ended play allows for the processes of Explore•Dream•Create. Besides promoting their learning and cognitive growth, open ended play keeps them busy for hours, giving caregivers a window period to rest.
What is Open Ended Play?
Open ended play is one type of play that allows our little big dreamers to express their creativity and imaginations freely, without any boundaries or restrictions of any sorts. There are no instructions, no rules, no guidelines, no rights, no wrongs and no end goals. Instead, it is filled with endless possibilities, decision making purely by the child and flowing creativity. You may hear the verbalizations of their thought processes as they engage fully in open ended play and this is a good chance to observe them to understand more about their development.
Benefits of Open Ended Play During Early Childhood Development
During early childhood, foundations are set for the development of future growth. Since open ended play fosters essential intellectual capabilities, it is vital to start early when our little big dreamers are growing rapidly. There are many benefits to open ended play besides sparking their creativity and imagination.
1. Take charge and make decisions
Without instructions, rules and guidelines, our little big dreamer decides for themselves and depends largely on their flourishing imagination to build their creations or drawings. They become their own leader of play time. There is no one telling them "No, this is not a brush" when they pretend to use a block as brush to paint. It gives plenty of opportunities to make decisions throughout their play time without any interferences and understand the consequences of every decision that they make, for e.g. "I will stack many long blocks atop the short blocks" -so what happens after that?
Being able to take charge and learn to make decisions in the early years help to build their self esteem in the long run.
2. Explore and experiment with new ideas and understand new concepts
Open ended play gives room for our little big dreamers to unleash their creativity fully, without having to worry if they are doing anything "wrongly". They are given the space to explore safely; they can colour or draw as they wish or build whatever they want. Without the worry of making mistakes boggling them down, they are more open to exploring and trying new things. This helps to foster a curious mindset towards learning and a positive attitude towards exploring and experiencing new ideas and concepts. When a child is given the freedom to grow, they lead, they thrive and they expand! And this is what fosters a 21st century child.
3. Support cognitive development-problem solving skills
During this process of open ended play that is not dictated by adult interferences, they have room to work out solutions to problems they may encounter. They do some brainstorming, instead of being told what to do. When the blocks that they stack keep toppling, they have to process and think through where does the problem lie in and try to rectify it. They may also do many rounds of trial-and-errors, which is also a method of solving problems. They also learn to understand that problems are part and parcel of life; it is important to learn to come up with solutions.
4. Develop social and emotional intelligence
When our little big dreamers interact with other children during open ended pay, they learn to understand social cues (facial expressions, tonality, body language) and how to respond appropriately. Due to the lack of pressure from any following of rules or making of mistakes, their brains are in a more relaxed state to understand these social cues better. As they play and experience a range of emotions, they also learn how to handle them better. This is all possible only because of the freedom of play, without any adult interferences (unless required due to safety being compromised).
We have had many parent friends who always ask us "So what do your children do with the pompoms?" or "How do they engage in their play for such a long time?" etc. This is attributed to our little big dreamers' play spaces since young and the cultivation of "how we play". Since young, we display their resources in open shelves and they are free to choose their play and how they wish to play (as long as no danger is involved). This may take some effort to cultivate but the benefits certainly outweigh the effort put in. Our little big dreamers are able to play independently now and can come up with new "activities" every now and then with the same set of resources.
How To Encourage Open Ended Play
Your little big dreamer may not be naturally drawn to open ended materials/toys especially if they are used to "close-ended toys" since young. However, it is simple to engage our little big dreamers in open ended play and useful to give them opportunities to get acquainted with open ended play, which also translates to independent play. It may take some time and effort to ease our little big dreamers into open ended play and these are some tips below.
Display Open ended materials
As simple as it may sound but in order to encourage open ended play, there must first be open ended resources/toys available for play. Accumulate a range of open ended materials at home, so that they add variations to our little big dreamers’ open ended play. Some of our favourite open ended toys are:
Wooden Blocks (of different shapes and sizes)
Drawing materials & papers
Sensory bases (rice, water, beans, ice cubes etc)
These are resources that can play out according to our little big dreamers’ imaginations. As you can see from the list, they do not necessarily need to be toys; they can be craft materials as well.
Set up simple invitations (that shouldn’t even take more than 5 minutes) #invitationtoplay
Some children may feel at a lost when they see open ended resources. After all, experiences builds on layer by layer after every exposure to new experiences. Pre-build some structures to spark the imagination of our little big dreamers, so that they gain confidence in handling open ended resources. For example, stack some blocks together in a formation that your little one has not seen before and see where it takes off from there.
Follow your children's interests
Is your little big dreamer into Elsa, Anna, Paw Patrol or Peppa Pig? Add these figurines into their collection of open ended resources as they may take to their favourite characters better. You can start off by including some of their favourite figurines in your simple #invitationtoplay. The play tends to evolve better when it is related to something that our little big dreamers like. You can choose to switch things up easily by omitting them in some invitations, so they also learn to play with a range of toys that are not only their "favourites".
Ask open ended questions
During play, prompts like open ended questions also serve to guide our little big dreamers to delve deeper into their play. They can be very simplistic questions like “I wonder where I should place these red and blue blocks” or “How do these little peg dolls wish to play?”
Play prompts serve to spark their imagination and creativity, so that they can develop their open ended play.
Play alongside with them
If open ended resources are unfamiliar to your little big dreamers and the above tips do not work, try playing alongside your little ones. But take note that they should still be the ones leading the play and not us. Being physically present many a times boost the confidence of our little ones, so that they feel more at ease to delve into their play. When they are more comfortable with their play, we can excuse (to do our work/chores) ourselves while they continue engaging with open ended play. Repeat this process and reduce the time spent playing alongside until they are comfortable to engage in the play by themselves (this is of course not applicable to parent-children bonding time).
Let them be bored
If you are constantly leading play with your little big dreamers, chances are you may have heard phrases like "What do I play with now?" or "I am so bored" when you are occupied and unable to play with your them. It is never too late to start something different now with some consistent effort and time. When faced with such questions, instead of switching on electronic devises or stepping in to lead their play, engage them with questions to lead their own play "What do you feel like playing with right now?" or "I remember that you wanted to build a farm for your farm animals, what do you think of that now?". And if they do need you for a moment, try playing alongside them for awhile before stepping away.
Engagement in Open Ended Play
As our little big dreamers are deep in thoughts and lost in their open ended play, we know that there is so much intellectual processing and development happening right there. Let them lead, let them explore, let them thrive, let them dream and let them create away! Onwards to a 21st century child ready for global shifts!