Open ended toys foster play, creativity, and imagination. Here is a list of the best open-ended toys for kids, focusing on construction and pretend play.
When I look at which toys have received the most use and love in our house over the years, both by my two kids and by the stream of friends and art group members who have played with them, the clear winners are the open ended toys.
Open-ended toys are those that can be used in a variety of ways depending on the children, the day, their imagination, and desire. They foster play, creativity, and imagination.
Think building blocks, dress-up accessories, and animal figurines.
In a NY Metro article on why simple toys prove to more beneficial for kids, Colleen Multari says, “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.”
So today, as many of us are starting to think about holiday gift shopping, I thought I’d share a few of our favorite open-ended toys.
Note: Most of these open-ended toys can be purchased from Amazon (I know we all like the Prime shipping), Imagine Childhood (amazing quality and mission), and Discount School Supply. I’ll even include some of the best open-ended toys you can make yourself (you’d be surprised!).
The Best Open-Ended Toys for Kids
We’ll start with building and construction, move on to pretend play and role play, then cover homemade toys.
The Best Open Ended Toys for Construction
(besides cardboard boxes, sticks, stones, etc…)
These construction toys teach our children how certain pieces can fit together. They also encourage the comprehension of different directions and shapes and teach them spatial concepts. Critical thinking allows them to discover on their own if the piece is going to fit or if what they are building is going to fall down or stay upright.
As they grow older, these open-ended construction toys can grow with them as they learn math concepts, including counting and basic geometry.
- Magnetic tiles building set
- Wooden blocks
- The Fort Magic kit (here’s just some of what can be built with this kit)
- Marble run
- Brilliant builders
The Best Open Ended Toys for Pretend Play
Pretend play is good for kids because it allows them to experiment with different social and emotional roles in life. It is cooperative play that also teaches children how to take turns, share, and problem-solve. These pretend play toys can be played with independently or in groups with their friends.
- Melissa & Doug’s cutting food set
- The cutting fruit set
- Their wooden sandwich making set
- Pots and pans
- A small dish set (you can feel good about eating on)
We especially like the quality of the Schleich animals.
- Farm animals set
- African animals set
- We usually buy our animals as individuals in the toy store bins, such as this awesome rhinoceros or this horse figure.
We love the realism and quality of these plush animals. Stuffed animals encourage the child to nurture, and they always give the best hugs! Children also see stuffed animals as being dependable. They don’t break or dent, and there are no batteries to keep up with.
Dollhouse and doll play
- We had this folding wooden castle and it got SO much use over the years (there’s also a non pink version)
- This fold and go wood barn has a handy carry handle and comes with animal figures
- This wooden dollhouse comes with furniture and everything, plus the sections are all separate and can be assembled in any configuration (including 2-3 smaller dollhouses for siblings or friends)
- The Melissa & Doug Doorbell House isn’t a traditional dollhouse. It comes with four ringing doorbells, locks, and four play people. It is easy for them to carry around.
Car and truck play
Car and truck play can help children develop a ton of fundamental skills and can help them better understand different STEM concepts. They are learning to move things around. They are moving their cars and trucks from one place to another. They are learning how to roll them, and how much force it takes to get them to roll across the floor. Car and truck play also teaches children about directions and speed: left, right, back and forth, up and down, fast and slow.
Dress Up and Role Play
(Our dress-up bin is filled with scarves of all kinds as well as thrifted dress-up clothes. Crowns and wings have gotten a lot of playtime in our home as well.) Dress up and role playtime lets kids use their imagination and reflect their own personality, which is fun to see as parents. It also lets them continue to explore any current interests they have while promoting independent play.
(Our dress-up bin is filled with scarves of all kinds as well as thrifted dress up clothes. Crowns and wings have gotten a lot of play time in our home as well.)
- Silk scarves (and the much cheaper non-silk play scarves)
- Reversible silk cape
- Butterfly wings
- Melissa & Doug Chef Role Play Costume Set
- A doctor kit
- A play cash register
- Play Kitchen
The Best Open-Ended Sensory Play Ideas
Many of these can be combined effectively with other toys, such as animal figurines, matchbox cars, kitchen play items, etc. Sensory activities are fun for kids of all ages and encourage them to explore. Sensory play also helps build nerve connections in the brain and encourages the development of fine motor skills.
- Sarah’s Silks
- Water beads
- Colored kinetic sand
- Playdough is great for sensory play and pretend play
- Sensory play boxes (with rice, wheat, cloud dough, water, etc)
The Best Open-Ended Toys You Can Make Yourself
- Magnet sticks for the fridge
- Playdough snowmen kits
- Play silks
- Cardboard doll houses
- Plus more! (21 craft ideas for kids to make and then play with)
Your Guide to Shopping for the Best Open-Ended Play Toys for Kids
When it comes to toys, less is more. We want to get some high-quality toys we know the kids will love instead of distracting them with mediocre toys that will be lost and forgotten about in just a few days.
Requires NO Guidance
Open-ended toys are great because the kids can play with them independently without any instruction or guidance from the parents. Their imagination is what drives playtime.
Grows with the Child
Another great thing about open-ended toys is that they can be used in so many different ways. So much so that the toys can grow with them. Most are gender-neutral and encourage critical thinking. It gets our children to ask questions, and then find that they play around until they find the answers.
Batteries NOT Included
One of the biggest advantages of open-ended play toys? Most don’t require batteries! Yes, you read that right. Not only do we not have to worry about running low on our battery supply, but we also get to watch as our kids make up sounds themselves instead of losing focus and becoming distracted with the sounds many electronic toys make for them.
You get to watch as your little one plays with their favorite stuffed horse toy and listen as they learn how to make the neighing sounds. The American Academy of Pediatrics has even said, “electronic and digital add-ons increasingly found even in physical toys may actually hinder caregiver-child interactions. The harmful effects of screen time are also an important consideration, especially for young children.”
Another bonus to ditching the loud and distracting electronic toys? No more bothering the parents when the toy is left on.
Encourage Imaginative Play
All of the toys we have included on this list were selected because they encourage imaginative play. From their favorite stuffed animal to more creative play with costumes, the possibilities are endless when it comes to imaginary play and your child’s imagination.
Which of these toys on our list are crowd favorites in your home? Let us know!
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