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“Children learn as they play. More importantly,
in play children learn how to learn.”
– O. Fred Donaldson
You’ve probably already heard by now that imaginative play is important for children. There’s no shortage of studies or research that talk about the social and emotional benefits of pretend play, as well as how it helps a child’s language development and thinking skills. And it’s so fun! We all have memories of our own childhood pretending; playing dress up in old clothes, playing post office, once, my sister and I even had a pretend war where we used rolled up socks as grenades!
Open-ended toys are a great way to encourage your child to use his or her imagination. These are toys that can be used in a variety of ways, not just the way they were intended. A video game, for example, can only be used one way. But give a child a large cardboard box, and you have a fort or castle or car or rocket ship. Open-ended toys have multiple uses, depending on the child, their mood, what day of the week it is, whatever!
Here are some of my favorite open-ended toys that spark the imagination!
I feel like playing dress up is the epitome of childhood play. Dress up items are pretty much the only kind of “toy” where I don’t feel like there can ever be too much. Emma has a super extensive dress-up wardrobe (think double the picture above plus multiple bins of accessories). She has dresses and capes. Wings and tiaras. Wands and lightsabers. And she uses them All. The. Time. She’s been a princess, a knight, a vet, a doctor, a witch, even a fairy/ballerina/Owelette! And sometimes she’s all these things within the span of a single day. I’ve never seen my daughter so imaginative as when she’s running around in one of her costumes.
Pretty much all of us can remember playing with Play-doh as a child. For a child, it’s messy and fun and bursting with possibilities. Play-doh itself is nothing until you mold it and form it into something else. We’ve created “cookies” and stars, Mickey’s, and people. The possibilities are endless!
Just like Play-doh, Legos by themselves are nothing, but put them together and you can create just about anything! When Emma still had her Duplos (larger Legos, made for smaller children) she was obsessed with making “barns” for her animals and was constantly begging be to make her giraffes. No prompting. No instruction on what she should build. She imagined these things and with Legos, we made them happen.
Plain wooden blocks can seem like such a simple, lackluster toy, but there’s a reason they’ve been around for generations and will continue to be around for generations more. Just like Legos, kids can create fantastic buildings but now they have to do a bit of critical thinking. “How can I balance this?” “Will these pieces fit together this way?” Fun and educational! (Imaginations Unbound has a great selection of building blocks including balancing blocks, made from reclaimed wood and gorgeous blocks painted so that they look like a high-rise when stacked together).
Great for teaching your child the names and sounds for each animal, these toys can transport your child to the grassy plains of Africa, where they’re running from a wild tiger. Or maybe they’re hiking through the rain forest, making friends with the monkeys. Oh, the possibilities!
Just like their animal counterparts, kids can be and imagine anything, when armed with a doll. Just Emma’s Barbies have been princesses, mermaids, sisters, and witches. If you really want to leave the doll play open-ended, try investing in a set of wooden peg dolls. Without faces or genders, these dolls can be anything and anyone your child imagines. A superhero. A doctor. Even Mom and Dad!
I have so many fond memories of my sister and I spending hours playing in my Mom’s drawer of scarves. We made skirts and dresses. They were veils, tents, and picnic blankets. Add a couple belts, and we had our own mermaid fins! I had wanted a few play silks for Emma for a while and now that I have them, I’m thrilled that she loves playing with them as much as I remembered I had. (Imaginations Unbound recieves their silks plain, and then their oldest daughter hand dyes them for the shop! How cool!)
There’s no activity more creative than art. It’s even in how we talk about it. We don’t do art. We create art. I just read a story where a child referred to blank paper as “empty pictures.” To her, paper was just a picture waiting to be created. We have half a dozen coloring books, but Emma’s favorite thing to do is just grab a crayon or colored pencil and draw her own picture. That’s imagination.
Like Legos and blocks, these can be used to create a multitude of structures, only thanks to the magnets, kids are free to create with less worry about balance or things fitting together properly.
I have yet to meet a child who doesn’t love to play outside. To them, nature is full of wonder and magic. Giving my girls their own gardening tools allows them to explore and interact with their outdoor environment. They could spend forever digging in the dirt, filling their buckets with sand and flowers, and watering all the plants. I love watching their curiosity as they examine and discover all the wonderful things around them.