We have read the books, purged the toys, organized the perfect playroom full of open-ended possibilities, and now wait as the magic happens and the imaginations of our children take off on a creative exploration of creating, problem-solving, and playing as never before.
Five minutes later...barely enough time to make our coffee let alone drink it or snap a picture of the work of art that is our invitation to play, our kids have demolished the small world we created, pulled out every single “small part” we so neatly arranged, and have turned the playroom into a scene from Jumanji that we will spend our evening cleaning up.
We can have all the things, know all the things, and end up discouraged at the lack of success in facilitating open-ended play if a few key components are missing or mixed up. Here are five key principles that make open-ended play work.
1. Embracing our child's idea of play and letting go of our own
The fastest way to get frustrated with how open-ended play is going with our children is to come into the journey with very specific (and if we’re honest very controlling) ideas about what open-ended play should look like. For our kids to really internalize the immense benefits from this kind of play at a deep level, we need to first release our own romanticized version of imaginative play for the very flawed, very messy, and oftentimes very “out of our control” nature of what real open-ended play looks like in making. We need to ask ourselves very honestly what ideas we need to let go of in order to make space for the ideas of our children to take flight.
2. The focus is on a developmental concept not an image
In order for real open-ended play to thrive, we must first really understand and believe in the power of play itself, and make play our priority and not what it looks like. Of course, there are lots of wonderful open-ended toys to slowly and thoughtfully add to your home over the years that really do add dimension to play, but rushing out to spend your life savings to buy them all in a month will not magically change your children. Knowing WHY your family is committed to open-ended play and believing in the impact it will have WILL change your children in the long run because it will help you say no to screens more, help you put up with the whining when they are bored, and help you give them time and space to figure it out. Your house may not look like the social media pictures you envisioned, but then again, real life rarely does. If you are just beginning this journey and are looking for a great book that introduces many of the concepts surrounding open-ended play, Simplicity Parenting is a great start.
3. We are looking for long-term impact not quick results
When kids are transitioning from the type of play that entertains them, switching to open-ended play where a lot is required of their brain can sometimes be a jarring transition. Like any habit, it takes time, patience, and dedication to change. Slowly phasing out excess screen time, purging certain types of toys, and moving into a slower, more thoughtful mode of play will result in lasting change. In place of the things being removed, make sure to fill those times with rewarding slower activities to build awareness and focus like going on walks in nature, meaningful play together, and reading books together to name a few. Slowly as the simple things come alive again, a different kind of play will begin to take shape.
4. We put our energy into facilitating clean-up in addition to play
Helping children understand the importance of and practice the habit of cleaning up after play may be one of the most over-looked components to making open-ended play work long term without totally burning out from the mess in the process. This is also where having every single open-ended toy you own all out at the same time may be more of a hindrance than a help. In our house, we started with our very basic and most used open-ended toys including basic wooden blocks, magna-tiles, our waytoplay roads and cars, our curvy board, and some wooden peg dolls and Schleich animals. Once the kids could put those away without putting up a fuss (I did it with them for a long time and made it fun with an upbeat playlist), I would add something else. How much you have out at once will vary widely based on ages and personalities, but the key is to start with what is an easy amount for your child to clean up independently and work up from there to your desired amount of toys. But remember, less really is more when it comes to open-ended toys.
If you are having trouble getting your child to play with their toys in general, you can find more tips about how to address playroom and toy issues here.
5. We don't ask more of our children than we do of ourselves
Looking in the mirror may be the hardest (and most revealing) thing of all to help us troubleshoot why open-ended play isn’t working in our home. Do we take away all electronics and boast about our house full of open-ended toys only to scroll on our phones the entire time our children are playing? Do our children actually ever see us enjoying the same kinds of things we are asking them to do such as slowing down to notice the world around us, engage deeply with each other, and sit long enough to work out a hard problem instead of giving up and moving on to something easier? Our kids will do as we do, not as we say, and if we are willing to really see, we might find the best clues about the key to unlock new potential if we are willing to take inventory of our own habits and the example we are setting by what we ourselves do.
Enjoy the Journey,