Give the Gift of Open-Ended Toys

Look at the adorable Minion. There are so many cute movie-themed toys. Or toys with given names and personalities. Or toys that do something when you push a button. Toys that flash and move and give temporary delight. They all scream, “Buy Me” and children cry, “I want them.”

Irresistible? Seemingly so.

The message to the parent is, “Don’t deprive your child. If you want to be a good parent, buy these toys now.”

The deal is, most of these toys are “fixed.” They have set functions or predetermined ideas of what they should be. They inspire memories of someone else’s story (movie themes) instead of the child’s own. If the toy comes with its own “character,” your child will be less encouraged to create one of their own.

Why should you resist?

  1. Short-term appeal.  The oohs and aahs as your child unwraps this cute item might be worth it. But what if your money could provide a richer experience? Immediate gratification of these toys often gives way to lack of fulfillment and they end up at the bottom of the toy box come New Year’s.
  2. “Fixed” play versus fantasy. Fixed toys don’t encourage fantasy play. They encourage re-enactment. Not a bad thing in and of itself. Certainly something, though, to be aware of when looking at the majority of toys in the play room. Children need healthy doses of fantasy play from their own imaginations for development.
  3. Open-ended toys allow for unstructured play. This helps with brain development. According to the New York Times, the self-regulation skills developed in unstructured play are high indicators of academic achievement. More so than IQ tests.

Changeable Toys



We want our kids to eat healthy foods. Open-ended toys are healthy food for a child’s brain and development. Their value might not be as immediately apparent. Just as healthy foods take a bit longer to prepare than fast food drive-thrus, these toys often take more time to play with and explore. Building one’s own car is time consuming but the process will be more rewarding than pulling out a Lightning McQueen and immediately re-doing a movie scene.

Here are some other ideas:

Dramatic Play


Felt dolls may seem featureless to adults compared to the craftsmanship of an American Girl doll. But children are quick to fill in their own details when given the chance.


Dress-up Clothes are a staple for building children’s imaginations. Once children reach the age of 4, they are primed for stepping into the shoes of heroes around them and creating their own dramas.

Move the Body


Anything that gets your child’s body moving: trikes, trampolines, balls, obstacle course items (cones, ropes, mats, etc.), pogo sticks, wagons, etc. The more your child can push and pull, the better for brain development and sensory integration.

My friend bought her kids a dog agility course – a tube, a ramp, a balance beam. They love it.

body sock


Lycra stretchy body socks are a blast. Make one yourself out of a lycra sheet or find them pre-made on the web. They encourage fantasy play. They also provide deep pressure input while increasing spatial awareness and gross motor control – skills that are important for early childhood development.scarves

Colorful scarves are especially good because waving them around encourages the child to cross their mid-line – important for hooking up the two sides of the brain. Scarves also double as doll blankets, tents, play food, dresses…or balled up into a mound of tricky terrain for a toy car. The possibilities are endless.

Building Your Open-Ended Toybox

Great open-ended standards are musical instruments, kitchen sets, gardening tools, play dough, modeling sets,  building blocks, and any and all art supplies.


And some of the best open-ended toys are free (cardboard boxes), available (wooden spoons from the kitchen), and easily created. Check out these wooden play pieces made from a cut-up branch.


It may take courage to resist the advertising, child pressure, and norms of society that are placed on toys with ad campaigns and temporary cute factors. This holiday, I encourage you to invest in your child’s imagination with open-ended toys instead.


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