When selecting toys for your child, some of the best options for both for your child’s development and your budget are open-ended toys.
Open-ended play is essential for developing creativity and critical thinking skills in children. It involves playing with toys and activities that are unstructured and don’t have a predetermined outcome.
In this article, we’ve compiled a list of the best open-ended toys for kids, from babies on up! These toys are ones that will help develop your child’s creativity and will grow and evolve with your child as they age.
What is an open-ended toy?
An open-ended toy is one that does not have a specific end result but instead can be played with in multiple ways. For example, blocks can be used to stack, build a house, make a road for cars, create a fence for toy animals, etc.
A close-ended toy is one with a definite endpoint, such as a puzzle or maze. Once all the pieces are in place or you’ve reached the end of the maze, the activity is complete.
Are open-ended toys better?
Open-ended toys and close-ended toys serve different purposes in early learning. It’s hard to say that one is better than the other as both have a place in a child’s growth and development.
Close-ended toys help children learn skills such as following instructions, problem-solving, and pursuing a task to completion.
However, the benefit of open-ended toys is that they open up avenues for exploration and self-discovery that are extremely important to growing children.
These toys are essential to early learning as they help children cultivate their creativity and imagination. Often they will also provide opportunities to learn social and communication skills, engage in fine and gross motor skills, and develop cognitive skills.
This kind of play fosters confidence and independence as children learn to come up with their own ideas and direct their own play.
The other benefit of open-ended toys is that they can grow and evolve with your child as they age. Because there are so many different ways to play with these toys, your child will find new ways to interact with them as their skills and abilities change over the years.
And not only are they great for your child’s development, but they’re also great for your wallet! Instead of buying many single-purpose toys that your child will quickly get bored with, invest in a few open-ended toys that can be played with for years in a variety of different ways!
Fun and engaging open-ended toys
We’ve organized this list roughly by age. Towards the top of the list you will find some of the best open-ended toys for babies and toddlers, and as you go down you will find open-ended toys for for preschoolers and older children. It was difficult to draw a hard line because there is a lot of overlap between these categories.
Older toddlers might love some of the activities lower down on the list, while some of the toddler activities can actually be great for older children as well.
That’s really one of the benefits of open-ended toys- they span the years!
Wooden blocks are a classic example of an ideal open-ended toy. As simple as they are, there are so many different options for play and creative learning with blocks.
Stacking cups are a perfect open-ended toy for babies and toddlers. They can be used for building towers, nesting, learning colors, filling with other objects, bath play, and whatever else your child can come up with!
For younger children, Duplos are an ideal Lego alternative for open-ended play. With larger pieces, these blocks are easier for young children to manipulate and don’t pose a choking hazard.
The Lego Duplo Classic set has all the elements a young child needs to create buildings, vehicles, and all sorts of other imaginative creations.
Not only are these rainbow blocks a beautiful decoration for a child’s room, but they’re also a lovely open-ended toy for toddlers. They can be stacked, balanced, arranged into patterns, or used for counting or color recognition.
As they play with these blocks, children will also be developing motor skills, patience, and hand-eye coordination.
Provide your child with musical instruments so that they can experiment with sound, volume, rhythm, and creating their own music.
Of course, this activity can get loud, so feel free to set limits in time or location to help preserve your sanity and eardrums.
If you’re looking for a way to keep a young child occupied for long periods of time, consider a sensory bin! These bins provide opportunities for independent exploration, development of fine motor skills, and tactile learning.
And you can keep a sensory bin feeling fresh and interesting just by changing up what you place inside. A few ideas: trucks, dinosaurs, buttons, pretend insects, toy animals, holiday-themed items. And of course add scoops, containers, funnels, tweezers, etc., for fun interactive play!
You can buy sensory bins pre-made, but they’re super easy to make yourself. Just take a large shallow bin and fill it partway with something like rice, beans, or Kinetic Sand. Add whatever objects you want to the bin for your child to discover, and voila! Sensory bin. Super easy but sure to keep your child entertained!
Be sure to supervise young children and watch out for choking hazards if your child is still sticking things in their mouth.
A ball pit is a sure way to capture the attention of a baby or toddler and keep them entertained! This is a sensory experience that provides young children opportunities to experiment with movement and cause and effect as they see how the balls react to stimuli. The balls can be used for scooping, dumping, sorting, searching for buried objects, and so much more!
It seems like young kids always want to help mom and dad with the cleaning around the house! Instead of stifling that urge, get them their own kids’ cleaning set so that they can have their own play and learning around cleaning. Not only will it foster their creativity, but hopefully it will set them up to be good helpers around the house!
Kinetic Sand is an amazing tactile activity that can keep a child engaged for hours at a time. This is probably one of the most well-loved activities in our house, so trust me, I know.
There are many different sets you can get that come with toys, molds, and figures to add to the play experience. But you can also use any toys or containers you might have on hand too. My boys’ favorite way to play with Kinetic Sand is turning it into a construction site and using their trucks to move the sand around.
I tend to prefer Kinetic Sand over playdough because it’s less messy and you don’t have to worry about it drying out (but we still do love playdough, you’ll find it further down on the list!).
Dolls and dollhouses are fun, engaging toys that allow children to practice fine motor skills while also building creativity and imagination.
This is a great way for children to engage in role-play and learn valuable social skills such as empathy and communication.
When playing with a dollhouse, children can make up their own scenarios, rearrange rooms and furniture, and process social dynamics and relationships.
Toy animals have so many different uses in creative play. Make a zoo, go on safari, pretend they’re a pet, use them to practice counting or as an addition to Kinetic Sand or a sensory bin… The possibilities go on and on!
There are so many different ways to play with playdough. Give your child some tools or toys to use with their playdough and set them free to explore!
There are some fun playdough sets you can get to supplement your child’s play, like this cookie-making set, a construction site, or a pasta set. But you can also definitely get by with fun toys and accessories you have at home too!
Having three young boys, one of the most played with toys in our house is our trucks. It’s always amazing to me to see how many different ways my boys find to use their trucks!
We have a small truck set that is constantly in use in our sensory bin, with our Kinetic sand, or just to move pom poms around. We also have a larger set that’s well-loved for bigger construction projects.
It’s also a great way to get our kids to help clean up because they use their trucks to carry small toys to put away, making clean-up part of the play!
Dance scarves are bright, lightweight scarves that flow beautifully and can be used for a variety of different purposes.
These scarves can be used for dancing, music play, juggling, magic tricks, hiding or wrapping objects, dress-up, pulling from a tissue box, and all sorts of other imaginative, open-ended play.
If I was to give a new parent one toy suggestion to last the years, it would be magnetic tiles.
We’ve had our magnetic tiles for years and they are by far our kids’ most played with toy. As our boys’ creations get more and more elaborate we’ve had to buy more sets to keep up with their magnetic tile needs.
Magnetic tiles have so many uses and you will be amazed at the ideas your child will come up with for their creations.
And this is a great example of a toy that grows with your child. At the beginning perhaps they will just make 2-D patterns on the ground. Then maybe next they will learn to make squares or small structures. And eventually, they’ll be making castles and boats and whatever else their minds can think up.
Costumes and dress-up clothes are a great way for children to use their imagination to create stories, role play, and practice social skills.
These could be of different professions, fantasy characters (fairies, dragons, unicorns, etc), animals, characters from books or movies, or just a random assortment of clothes they can use to create their own skits or stories.
A play kitchen and pretend food allow for so many options for open-ended play. My boys love to pretend that our play kitchen is a restaurant and will spend hours taking orders, “making” food, and delivering it to their “customers”.
These small interlocking disks are so fun to play with and can be used to make so many different creations! There are a few instructions online for builds you can create, but once your child gets the hang of it they’ll have plenty of ideas of things they want to make.
Our son received these as a birthday gift last year and our family has gotten so much use out of them since then! Even now, months later, my kids still play with Brain Flakes every day.
They’re kind of addictive and trust me, adults love them too! The one downside is that they do tend to scatter around your house, but seeing how much my kids love them makes it worth it.
Next up is a favorite at our house: Legos.
Now, are Legos really an open-ended toy? Yes, actually Legos are a great open-ended toy! While there are specific sets you can create by following the instructions, there are so many ways that you can build creatively with legos as well.
We find both uses to be fun and educational in our house. Often my boys will first create the set build and then go on to make their own creations.
The Lego Classic Building Box is a great starter set that contains bricks of various sizes, baseplates, wheels, windows, and doors so that your child can come up with their own structures and builds.
Kids who like to tinker will get hours of entertainment out of their very own tool set. There are so many ways kids can play with tools, making them a great open-ended toy for kids.
Our boys love pretending to build and fix things with their tools all over our house!
The Brickyard Building Blocks set comes with blocks, screws, bolts, wheels, and wrenches to be used for creative play. Children can take inspiration from the designs in the manual or make up their own designs as they build.
And since it always seems to be the case that as soon as one child starts playing with a toy the other immediately wants to do that same activity, we love that there are enough pieces to be used by multiple children at the same time.
With their own doctor kit, kids will be able to play make-believe with all sorts of medical situations. They will have a blast diagnosing and treating family members, stuffed animals, and toys as they learn all about what it means to be a doctor!
This is also a nice way to get kids more comfortable with the idea of going to the doctor.
If you have a fort-loving child, they will love playing with Crazy Forts! All they have to do is connect the sticks with the balls to make all sorts of fun shapes and structures. With the addition of a sheet or blanket, it turns into a fort or tunnel!
Although there are set designs you can follow, kids can also be creative in coming up with their own designs for different structures.
One of my favorite creative sensory activities with my kids is playing with modeling clay.
It has a soft, almost foam-like texture that is so satisfying to work with, and best of all, it doesn’t make a huge mess!! Unlike playdough, it doesn’t fall apart into little pieces or squish into your carpet.
And when you’re done, you can either put it in an airtight container to use again or let it air dry. If you leave it out, it will harden into a lightweight sculpture that your child can keep! This set has an array of different colors that your child can use to make all sorts of fun creations.
Water beads are a sensory toy that is sure to fascinate children (and adults!). Just add water and watch the tiny beads grow and expand into squishy little balls that are so fun to play with and handle.
This is a great activity for a sensory bin. And the beads can be reused over and over! The beads can actually last for years hydrated, just store an air-tight container and add more water if they start to dry up. Or if you let them dry out they will shrink back down again and you can add water again at a different time for another fun play experience!
A wooden balance board is a perfect toy for some open-ended kinesthetic play for kids.
The board can be used as a rocker, tunnel, teeter-totter, bridge, racetrack, or in play with other toys. It’s great for developing balance, coordination, and creativity.
It’s also a perfect way for kids to get some energy out. And it’s actually strong enough to be used by adults as well, so this is a toy everyone in the family can enjoy!
This set of suction cup builders comes with three different shapes that you can use to build shapes and little structures.
The suction cups stick to pretty much anything that’s solid- each other, windows, bathtubs, countertops, tables and chairs, a person’s face, etc.- so they can be used all over the place! And they make a fun pop! sound when you pull them apart.
Kids (and adults!) will find so many creative uses for these fun little suction toys!
Art is an amazing creative outlet for kids and also a great way to develop fine motor and writing skills. If you have a variety of art supplies on hand, you can always have an open-ended activity available to allow children to express their creativity through art.
Some basic art supplies to start with include crayons, markers, paint, colored paper, stickers, pom poms, pipe cleaners, and googley eyes.
Open-ended play is so important for fostering creativity and imagination in children. Not only is it fun and exciting, but engaging in this kind of play also allows kids to develop new skills and abilities that are essential to their growth and learning.
Do you have any other open-ended toys that you would add to our list?
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