Section: Exploratory Objects

What is Open-Ended Play?

Open-ended play is when children are able to make their own choices about how to play with an object without the pressure to produce an end product. Whilst there are times when ‘closed’ toys (e.g. puzzles, telephones, electronic toys) have their purpose, simple materials can encourage imagination and allow children to play without expectations of what is right or wrong. Open-ended play supports children’s natural curiosity to explore and allows them to develop at their own pace, based on their individual interests. During open-ended play, an object can be anything the child decides at that time, giving it infinite possibilities.

Open ended play materials

Open ended play materials are often inexpensive and very simple items. Here are some examples of objects which can promote this kind of play - although the list is endless!

Natural Materials

Nature provides a large array of open ended materials which can provide scenes for small world scenes, props for counting and sorting, items for role-play - they can be used in so many ways!

  • shells
  • stones and pebbles
  • sticks
  • leaves
  • fir cones
  • conkers
  • acorns
  • sand
  • water
  • mud

Play dough

Play dough is fantastic for open ended play as it is malleable. Adding different colours, scents and textures can encourage different imaginative ideas. With some added extras, play dough can become a huge variety of different things dependant on your child’s thoughts and ideas at that time!

A few (by no means extensive) of things you could add to play dough sessions:

  • pipe cleaners
  • straws
  • coloured match sticks
  • buttons
  • googly eyes
  • shells
  • beads
  • feathers
  • pom poms
  • lollipop sticks

Block and Stacking toys

Building blocks can be used in so many ways as children can explore stacking, counting and of course knocking down towers. They can build a house / castle / tunnels / bridges anything influenced by their current interests.

  • wooden blocks
  • tree blocks
  • lego / duplo / mega blocks / stickle bricks
  • wooden stacking toys
  • nesting bowls

Creative Materials

Providing children with a range of different art materials gives them opportunities to become creative as they explore what happens when different media are combined, mix colours and develop their own masterpieces!

  • paints
  • pens, pencils, crayons, chalks
  • collage- tissue paper, foil, mesh, foam pieces, cellophane
  • old magazines and catalogues
  • scissors
  • material
  • buttons, coloured sticks
  • junk modelling - boxes, glue, cartons, straws etc..
  • glitter, sequins

Everyday objects from around the home

There are so many simple items which can be found around the home which are brilliant for children to explore and usually the more basic the item,the more scope there is for the child’s endless imagination.

  • corks
  • lids
  • straws
  • boxes (large, shoe box, egg boxes)
  • cardboard tubes
  • coloured wool
  • pegs


Material is very versatile in the hands of children; in our house it’s become dens, princess dresses, beds for small world characters, and wedding bouquets!

  • Small scraps of material
  • Play silks
  • Large sheets and blankets

… or how about combining lots of the above items and see what your child will choose to do with them today!

10 ways open-ended play opportunities support children's development:

  1. Imagination, as children are given endless possibilities to make choices about how objects are played with.
  2. Gain confidence in themselves and their abilities, as they have been trusted to explore for themselves. Giving children freedom of choice also helps them develop autonomy.
  3. Problem solving can occur through discovery and experimentation of first hand experiences.
  4. Open ended play allows children to think symbolically as objects represent other things.
  5. Children learn through their senses as they discover and explore textures, sights, smells and sounds through investigating a range of items.
  6. Early mathematical concepts can be explored through sorting, ordering and categorising materials.
  7. Children learn to express themselves emotionally as they explore feelings in a safe and controlled way through imaginative play.
  8. Children can learn to design, make plans and change things using a trial and error process.
  9. Descriptive language may emerge and mark making explored.
  10. Children develop physically as they use both their gross motor and fine manipulative skills to handle and control different objects.

Take a look at some of our other activities which support open-ended play:

Feather Play

Outdoor Playdough

Quick and Simple Play ideas for 12-18 months

Sensory Station

Shiny Box/Basket

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