The Joys of Open-Ended Play

President: Marilynne Eichinger – Written by Kara Bowman, Educator
Printed in Museum Tour Newsletter for the Curious 10/16/09

Consider this: The Children’s Discovery Center in San Jose, California had a problem. They had a 1,200 square foot open space for changing exhibits, which was empty for a month this fall between the departure of one show and the arrival of the next. A museum staffer had an idea: she taped up some discarded boxes and threw them in the exhibit area. After adding a few dozen more boxes, some crayons, masking tape and safety scissors, the museum found they had one of their most popular exhibits of all time: Box City. Given that the museum has had exhibits costing up to a million dollars in the same space, what makes Box City one of the most popular attractions in the museum?

Before we get to that question, consider this: The National Toy Hall of Fame inducts toys each year based on specific criteria including the toy’s icon status, the longevity of its popularity, how the toy encourages learning or creativity, and innovation. Past winners have included Legos, the Barbie doll, crayons, Tonka trucks, the jigsaw puzzle, and other usual suspects. Based on their criteria, in 2008 the Hall of Fame’s judges inducted … The Stick. “It’s very open-ended, all-natural, the perfect price — there aren’t any rules or instructions for its use,” said Christopher Bensch, the museum’s curator of collections. “It can be a Wild West horse, a medieval knight’s sword, a boat on a stream or a slingshot with a rubber band. … No snowman is complete without a couple of stick arms, and every campfire needs a stick for toasting marshmallows. This toy is so fantastic that it’s not just for humans anymore. You can find otters, chimps and dogs playing with it.”

The box? The stick? What is it with open-ended play that makes it so appealing that kids will put down the several hundred dollar video game system to play with a ball of silly putty? It could be that our children’s brains know what they need to develop optimally, just as their bodies know when they’re hungry. Research has shown there are several advantages to a child’s development if they engage in play that has no defined expectations or outcomes.

Open-ended play develops the imagination. Imagination is the ability to form a mental image of something that is not there. Starting around age two, children can understand the symbolic nature of one thing standing for another, such as a box for a boat and a towel for a sail. The abilities to think symbolically and abstractly are the basic building blocks of creativity and intelligence. Albert Einstein even said, “Imagination is more important than knowledge,” and he’s no slouch in either department!

Creative play also helps children develop their social and emotional abilities. Kids will try on adult roles and test out ways of acting and being. In this way, they can develop their ‘what-if’ abilities, which is one way to strengthen their understanding of consequences. Children solidify their learning by not just taking things in passively, such as with screen time, but by mimicking and recreating what they have seen. They can also express themselves emotionally under the guise of being a character and children who playact are known to develop their ability to empathize. Creative play has also been linked to increased cooperation, problem-solving skills, leadership skills and behavioral control, such as using words to express oneself and waiting one’s turn. Hmm… Maybe we should have time-outs to play house in Congress. It couldn’t hurt.

Spending a lot of time in creative play also helps build cognitive skills. According to a National Public Radio report, “While… play might look a lot like time spent doing nothing much at all, it actually helps build a critical cognitive skill called executive function. Executive function has a number of elements, such as working memory and cognitive flexibility, but perhaps the most important is self-regulation – the ability for kids to control their emotions and behavior, resist impulses, and exert self-control and discipline. Executive function – and its self-regulation element – is important. Poor executive function is associated with high dropout rates, drug use and crime. In fact, good executive function is a better predictor of success in school than a child’s IQ.” (Creative Play Makes for Kids in Control, February 28, 2008)

So how can we give our children this elixir of all good things? Unlike most parts of parenting, it’s very simple: 1) provide a safe space, either in the house or outdoors, 2) provide open-ended materials that will help spark creativity, and 3) provide the gift of time. (Why Creative Play Matters, Zrinka Peters, Children who have ample opportunity for creative play will be comfortable with it and find occasion for it everywhere. For example, when my daughter was in kindergarten, I received a note from her teacher one day that said, “Would you please talk to your daughter about pretending to be a dog at lunch and eating her meal with her hands behind her back? It was okay for the first week, but now everyone is doing it and they’re not all as neat as she is.”

You can provide materials that will spark the creative drive in your child. Toddlers love to mimic so you can provide them with toy household goods or dress-up clothes. Other items that can stimulate creativity are stuffed animals or other figures, and large building blocks. Preschoolers also enjoy creating whole small worlds, such as dollhouses, airports, or towns. They also enjoy dolls, dinosaurs and other representative playthings. Elementary aged children add to the repertoire with puppets, play-dough, adult-style dolls, and more sophisticated building blocks and construction materials. All children love age-appropriate art supplies such as specialty papers, pens, paints and scissors. To encourage creativity, just make sure there are lots of uses, rather than one correct outcome such as with a coloring book or painted figurine. (Structured play is fine at times, too, and can teach skills such as following rules and sequencing.) One caveat regarding encouraging creativity is to stay away from TV show and movie character costumes or props since playacting things seen on the screen is often an act of re-creation rather than creation. What you want is to inspire their own imaginations, like the kids who were given a bunch of rubber gloves in their preschool class. One said, “I’m a doctor.” Another pronounced, “I’m a scientist.” And a third one exclaimed, “I’m a mommy changing her hair color!”