Open ended toys foster play, creativity, and imagination. Here is a list of the best creative toys for kids to promote pretend play.
Updated March 2022
When it comes to toys, less is more.
Open ended toys are ones that foster creative play in a myriad of way. These encourage imaginative play as your child grows and finds NEW ways to use the SAME toy. (Now that’s a win, win in my mind!)
All of the toys we have included on this list were selected because they encourage imaginative play. From building sets, to fun costumes and loose parts, the possibilities are endless when it comes to imaginary play and your child’s imagination.
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! 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 their own sounds and explore imaginary play.
Encourage Imaginative 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.
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 encourage the comprehension of different directions and shapes and teach them spatial concepts. Critical thinking allows kids 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 kids grow older, these open-ended construction toys can grow with them as they learn math concepts, including counting, basic geometry and basic concepts of architecture.
- Magnetic tiles building set (the more you add, the more you can build!)
- Wooden blocks
- The Fort Magic kit (here’s just some of what can be built with this kit)
- Marble run
The Best Open-Ended Toys for Pretend Play
Pretend play is important for kids as 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.
Many of these items can be used for sensory play. If this is something you envision doing, consider metal options for the tea kettle, utensils, etc.
- Fruit cutting set
- Pots and pans or IKEA’s version if you have a store nearby
- A small dish set and cooking utensils
- Baking utensils
- Tea kettle and tea sets make fun additions and can be incorporated into sensory play as well. Reuse items from your kitchen or check out your local thrift store.
- Play kitchen or IKEA play kitchen
- Cleaning tools to keep the kitchen clean!
Schleich animals are great quality, but any animal is wonderful for incorporating into all types of play.
- We had this folding wooden castle and it got SO much use over the years
- This fold and go wood barn has a handy carry handle and comes with animal figures
- Decorate this wooden dollhouse or leave the wood unfinished. The version can mount to the wall or sit on the floor/tabletop.
Cars trucks, trains and the like help children develop fundamental skills and can help them better understand different STEM concepts.
Kids are learning to move things around moving from one place to another. They are learning how to roll vehicles, and how much force it takes to get them to roll across the floor. And in building new combinations of train tracks, or a city nearby, they explore architecture and structure as well.
This type of play also teaches children about directions and speed: left, right, back and forth, up and down, fast and slow.
- Matchbox cars
- Trains and train tracks
- Set of traffic signs and lights
- Road tape or make your own play mat
Dress Up and Role Play
Dress up and role playtime lets kids use their imagination and often reflects their own personality, which is fun to see as parents. It also allows kids to explore 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. And hold on to your old Halloween costumes – they make great dress up items!
- Silk scarves (and the much cheaper non-silk play scarves)
- Silk cape and Crown
- Butterfly wings
- Chef Set
- A doctor kit
- A play cash register or this IKEA version
These ideas are nice extras if your family has all the basics but you’re looking for birthday or holiday gifts for your kids that will last and be played with in many ways. These wooden toys are high quality, but pricier and by no means essential.
Build a sculpture, create a tunnel or just add a rainbow addition to your play area. Grimms produces the highest quality version in a mini & large size, but there are many other budget versions out there.
Create patterns, explore math concepts, feed toy animals on the farm, or add these to the play kitchen. With many options for use, these loose parts are a great addition for your child’s imaginative play.
The Best Open-Ended Sensory Play Ideas
Many of these can be combined effectively with other toys, such as animal figurines, matchbox cars, diggers, and kitchen play items. Add sensory materials to a big bin for multiple kids or a plastic shoebox sized bin for a personalized sensory play for one child. Sensory activities are fun for kids of all ages and encourage them to explore with all their senses.
And did you know? Sensory play also helps build nerve connections in the brain and encourages the development of fine motor skills.
Which of these toys on our list are crowd favorites in your home? Let us know!
Creative Play Ideas for Kids
- Creative Gift Ideas for Toddlers & Preschoolers
- Craft Ideas for Kids that are Perfect for Pretend Play
- Small World Playdough Play for Kids
- Make Your Own Play Mat for Kids Pretend Play
- Creative Small World Play Ideas for Kids
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