Opening the Box: Opportunities with Open Ended Toys

Jess Wardell
"Logic will take you from A to Z. Imagination will take you everywhere." - Einstein

Toys. My house is full of them. If you are like me, you probably stepped on a rogue Daniel Tiger figurine in the last 10 minutes. In my Amazon order history, you can find remnants of bubbles, dolls, puzzles. You name it, it’s there. Because apparently, my kids need All. The. Things.

It is my natural desire to cultivate an environment within our home that is “fun.” Often times, the quest for “fun” results in me pressing “add to cart” rather than looking more closely at what is right in front of me. 

I have this tendency to believe that I need to buy my littles all the toys that will teach them all the things. You know, set them up for success. Give them the upper hand. Where? In preschool? Why! What is the “upper hand” in preschool?! And why do I think my kids need it!

What I really need to do, is step back and allow them to construct, create, play, and imagine with what is already right in front of them. 

We, as adults, can be the worst. Because we are big, we know the right way to play with toys. We read the directions. We have been there and done that. And sometimes, because of our “all knowing” powers,  we end up restricting the limitless bounds of our kids’ imaginations with our own expectations and views of the world.

But what would happen, if we threw the directions out the window? If instead of trying to push our experiences, we entered in to theirs? 

Toys are great. Kids need them. We need them. (Mostly, to occupy our kids so we can keep our sanity.) Strategically choosing toys that allow our kids to model real life and use their imaginations to travel to worlds of their own, are the types of toys that we should find in our toy boxes, or in reality, strewn about our homes. 

As a working mom, sometimes I feel the guilt of making sure that I am intentionally playing with my littles anytime we are home. If I need to load the dishwasher, fold some laundry, or start dinner, I get this twinge of guilt. My best friends, amazing work-at-home moms (because let’s face it, “stay” at home is the least honest portrayal of what is happening) feel the same way. #MomCurse. However, giving our kids the opportunities to see, engage, and rewrite the realities of home life are incredible opportunities for open ended play.

Currently, my biggest little loves to play in her kitchen. She is constantly cooking, concocting, burning things (…clearly imaginative…). These are her current daily musings and although they appear similar on the surface, every time she plays, it looks different. She travels deeper into her world and her imagination based on what she is seeing everyday. Based on her world view.

Open ended toys are toys that don’t have a specific end game. They can be played with a trillion times and each time have a different purpose. Blocks, figurines, dolls, plastic dinosaurs, cardboard boxes. These toys, without instruction or influence, give our kids the chance to forge their own path.  Even toys that have a specific purpose can and should be used in ways that we least expect. It is our “well-intended” nature to correct and show, but allowing our kids to use their toys for a purpose other than what we see is not only OK, it is awesome. Sometimes, we need to make like Elsa, and just let it go.

It can be tempting to buy the toy section at Target or make the fine motor activity we pinned on Pinterest 6 months ago, because sometimes that’s just fun. But also letting our kids explore and invent with what they already have provides freedom for independent play and gives them the opportunity to welcome us in to the beautiful and magnificent worlds that their limitless minds create. Here’s to buying some of the things, rather than all of things and watching our littles freely relish in the open ended depths of their minds.

Jess Wardell
Jess Wardell is a 8 year veteran teacher in Cobb County. With a Masters Degree in Early Childhood Education and experience in both preschool and the elementary grades, Jess has a passion for helping children discover and cultivate their own innate love of learning. Her favorite job is being mom to her two girls, Norah and Emma. Drawing on her experiences within the classroom and her own home, Jess desires to help other families discover the joy of engaging in meaningful experiences that encourage both learning and creativity in simple and effortless ways.

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