The Benefits of Open-Ended Toys for Kids

This holiday season when shopping for toys and gifts, consider open-ended toys like blocks that foster play and spark imagination versus toys that only offer direct play in order to help benefit children’s development.

When selecting holiday gifts for children, parents and caregivers tend to focus on price, safety, and the recipient’s age. But another important and often overlooked consideration relates to the kind of play that can result from the toy. The quality of the play is what truly matters and this is most directly correlated to how simple or complex the toy happens to be.

Surprisingly, simple toys 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.A complex toy results in play that requires a specific task to make it work. For example, pushing a button on a toy will make it play a song for you. The play is more straightforward and simple with play directed by the toy. While the toy will be fun and enjoyable for a period of time, it will limit play as well as the child’s creativity. The learning that results from the toy relates only to cause and effect. Closed-ended, toy-directed play does not allow for creative exploration or imaginative play, and it also limits a child’s ability to problem-solve. 

For example, give a child wooden blocks, and they can use them as musical instruments or they can build a tower or a road. Simple toys with multiple uses allow children to be in charge of the resulting play. Children can create a purpose for the toy and use it as they wish. There’s a reason why the Museum of Play in Rochester honored “the stick” as toy of the year; it can be used as a wand, a sword, a ruler, and a flagpole.

“The more ways a child can play with a toy, the more he will learn.”

Open-ended toys result in open-ended play. This type of play can evolve over time while also encouraging children to create and problem-solve as they explore the world around them. Open-ended play with peers encourages social development and social interaction while also developing cognitive skills. Children have to discuss and negotiate how to use the multipurpose toy. The social and developmental gains made by open-ended play far exceed those made by directed play.

Another advantage to open-ended toys is they are more cost-effective in the long run. Although this may benefit the giver rather than the receiver, it’s an important consideration. Open-ended toys, such as a set of blocks, a doll, or a toy truck will accompany your child over the years as they learn, grow, and play. When children dictate play, it can constantly be reinvented and play can become more creative and complex. In turn, the learning also becomes more complex, offering more learning opportunities.

A Gift for All Seasons

What If There Was No Color Green?One of the best open-ended gifts that you can give a child is a book. Books give children context to the world around them while also opening up new worlds for them to explore. Books can excite and motivate children to try new things and investigate the world around them. Characters and storylines also help to foster creativity in young children.

If you’re looking for a book to give as a gift this holiday season, try “What If There Was No Color Green” by Harriety Carotenuto and Angela de Caprariss-Salerno. It’s colorful, exciting, and full of rich vocabulary. In addition, it will also motivate children to spend time outdoors. It can be purchased by visiting All proceeds go to the Long Island Nature Collaborative for Kids, a project of The Early Years Institute that focuses on connecting children and nature.

Building and knocking down a small block tower at age 2 can teach a child shapes while helping her develop fine motor skills, hand-eye coordination, and dexterity. Building and knocking down a large block tower at age 4 teaches a child math, physics and science skills, persistence, and hand-eye coordination. It also encourages him to work cooperatively while problem-solving.

Investing in a sturdy, high quality, open-ended toy may cost a bit more initially, but it will last longer and grow as your child grows. The fun of open-ended toys does not diminish over the years; the play is simply reinvented by children.

It is important to note that some of the best open-ended toys are recycled items from your home, such as paper towel rolls, toilet paper tubes, cardboard boxes, beans, fabric scraps, and other day-to-day household items. Give your child a treasure chest of items and pair it with the best gift of all: time spent together. Build a castle; make instruments and start a family band; make binoculars out of paper tubes and take them on a nature walk. Your children will use their imaginations, work cooperatively with you, and most of all, relish the time.

When searching for the perfect holiday gift in your price range, of course you should ensure that the toy is safe and age-appropriate. Once that is established, evaluate the potential play and remember that the more ways a child can play with a toy, the more he will learn. Open-ended toys truly are the gifts that keep on giving.

Colleen D. Multari, LMSW, is director of early learning at The Early Years Institute in Plainview, NY. The Early Years Institute educates parents, professionals, and the public about the importance of children’s early years on their development, bringing together community leaders to make bold investments in young children to give them the best start in life. For more information, visit