Top Ten Toys for Open Ended Play

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Top Ten Toys for Open Ended Play

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One of the benchmarks of a lasting toy is manufactured quality, but perhaps the most important is playability.

Does the toy have lasting play power?

I’ve picked ten categories of opened ended play items to share with you today which include choices for preschoolers, tweens, and teens.

When I originally wrote this post in 2013, our kids were 8-15 years old. Today they range in age from 11 to 18. Do these toys still hold up?

Blocks for Open Ended Play

Top Ten Toys for Open Ended Play

These include blocks of all shapes and sizes. My middle and high schoolers will still pull out the blocks if the mood hits them.

Our favorites are:

  • Kapla blocks– which are basic plank blocks. I think the US equivalent is Keva blocks.
  • Wedgits– who doesn’t love those geometric shapes for building?
  • Lincoln Logs– building blocks of a different shape provide lots of pretend frontier play
  • large maple blocks– a smooth finish on a beautiful block, a staple of the preschool world. We like adding architectural blocks to our stash
  • milk carton blocks– made from cardboard half gallon containers two to a block. You alternate the seam as you insert one inside the other to make it strong (you cut the spout end off)

Notes on purchasing blocks: easy places to buy at great prices are Constructive Playthings & Discount School Supply. If you have more than two kids, consider buying large quantities so there’s plenty of building materials for lots of creativity!

Wooden Trains for Open Ended Play

Top Ten Toys for Open Ended Play

My children have had countless hours playing with the wooden trains both Brio and Thomas sets and accessories. They will still set up a big train with all kinds of block buildings around it. They make a zoo or other fanciful worlds, but it is always fantastic and engaging for long sessions. We added a lot at once with a large set from Constructive Playthings and we used great coupons for local stores for the Thomas accessories.

Notes on Trains: Resist the urge to purchase the beloved train table! I had one made more cheaply than the store versions, but the table puts a pinch on the open ended value of building the train. You have to have uncanny spacial skills to get a track made that will fit in the confined space. It only took one visit to a friend who had their train sprawled out for miles on their floor to completely end the fascination (and subsequent frustration) of the train table.

Marble Runs for Open Ended Play

Top Ten Toys for Open Ended Play
Update Summer 2016- our 11yo and 16yo enjoy some time with the marble run while dressing up- unprompted!

A marble run is such a great activity for younger and older kids and we’ve done a lot of physics with our sets.

Dress Up for Open Ended Play

Top Ten Toys for Open Ended Play
At 16, she is still dressing up and makes her own garments like this cloak.

What house full of preschoolers doesn’t love dress up? As your kids grow, they will still find reasons to get into costume. We often have great Halloween costumes from our dress up kits and my kids like to put on dramas and have fun being someone different for a while.

Centers- I like to store our dress up themes with their props. This makes it fun to pull a box and play out that scenario.

Example centers for creative play:

  • restaurant– apron, chef hat, oven mitts along with order pads and menus (from take out or they can make their own
  • grocery store- empty food boxes, cash register, sale signs, grocery lists, shopping cart (not exactly stored with the center_
  • Hairdresser– styling coat with hair doodads and scissors, hair dryers, barber shop set, etc
  • Adventure– hats, satchels, compasses, binoculars, maps, etc
  • Pioneer– guns, aprons, bonnets and some adventure items noted above
  • Knights– knight dress up, foam weapons

That’s not the end of the list, but you get the idea. I love having all the items together so they are easily stored and found when the mood strikes. We also have a free dress up bin with all sorts of costumes and fun in them.

Cash Register for Open Ended Play

Blog She Wrote: Top Ten Open Ended Toys
This item had to make my list. There are so many play time activities that require a till- whether you are selling ice cream or running a zoo, the exchange of money will take place. A nice cash register will be the perfect prop. My favorite is the Learning Resources Deluxe Teaching cash register. The money is a nice size and there’s plenty of it. You can also order refills. It’s an investment, but it has lasted many years and far beat out its predecessor. This one has games in it for when math time begins.

Buttons for Open Ended Play

Blog She Wrote: Top Ten Toys for Open Ended Play
Buttons are such a great plaything! I order them from Discount School Supply and they are available in one or three pound quantities. Whenever I made an order I added a bag of buttons. You can also find large sizes there for smaller hands.

What do you do with buttons?

  • scoop and pour– this is perfect even for supervised younger kids to scoop up and pour in a large bin in lieu of rice and sand!
  • sorting and counting
  • crafting– loads of things you can do with buttons from stringing to gluing
  • sewing

Art Supplies for Open Ended Play

Top Ten Toys for Open Ended Play

Taking liberty here with the definition of a toy, but art supplies sure provide hours of open ended activity for kids.

What should you have on hand for creative time?

  • drawing paper– have nice paper for more involved, supervised projects and scrap paper for everyday, unsupervised play
  • watercolor paints– Prang trays or tube watercolors are so vibrant
  • watercolor pencils– give you the fun of watercolor with the precision of a pencil
  • construction paper– sulphite doesn’t crack and  fade
  • gluestick glue and liquid glue are great for varying projects
  • double sided tape– for sticking paper to paper easily
  • markers– they make a pleasing marking for younger kids and older ones alike
  • crayons– for your youngest crafters
  • colored pencils– As your kids get older, get the better pencils!
  • butcher paper– sold in 50 lb weight for wet and dry media. This is a must have at my house. Countless games and murals have been made over the years. It’s also saved dinner time to have the giant sheet on the floor and three preschoolers laying there coloring together!

You’ll also need to allow your children ample access to the supplies as their age and ability allow. Teaching expectations at a young age goes a long way to being able to get more out for your kids. Open ended play doesn’t happen when kids don’t have access to the right playthings!

Science Building Kits for Open Ended Play

Top Ten Toys for Open Ended Play

While some might consider these fairly prescribed given the directions and how things go together, for a kid like our youngest, who will invent and explore on his own, this is a huge sandbox of fun!

Suggestions to Start:

Some of the Thames & Kosmos sets listed above are compatible with each other so you can build things other than what you see.

LEGOS & LEGO® Mindstorms:

Learning with LEGO Mindstorms

What toy list would be complete without LEGOS? I would argue that some sets are better than others when it comes to promoting open ended play. Themed sets lend themselves toward theme play, but it also depends on the personality of the kid. Some builders love to create on their own, while others prefer to build the sets as is. Some builders only build once and enshrine, while still others wreck the creation and start again. And some builders are meticulous about keeping sets together, while others like to mix things up!

LEGO Mindstorms – The EV3 is the computer brick that is compatible with Technic pieces to build robots which use a variety of sensors to do work and all sorts of things.

FIRST LEGO League– We are heavily involved with FLL and we teach LEGO robotic classes at co-op. There is a lot of open ended engineering for kids to complete a season successfully.

Mindstorms NXT Manuals– there are many books in this series to help kids in making robots and programming them.

Crazy Action Contraptions– fun machines to build with Technic pieces

There is always something going on with our Mindstorms kits.

How to Make a Speed Trap with LEGO Mindstorms

Animation/Movie Making/Computer Programming:

Most of this list is of the screen free variety, but I had to include the open ended play my kids have with a variety of software.

The video was made using SAM Animation with an idea from a Klutz book. It’s a video of a head of cabbage reciting the Gettysburg Address in its entirety. Listen in and you’ll hear my 18 year old, high school senior. He was about 12 when he put that together.

Klutz Book of Animation– fun ideas and an introduction to stop motion

SAM Animation– fun software to help kids make stop motion films. We use the free version.

Klutz Tricky Video– ideas for video making

Alice– 3D environment for programming, free

Scratch– building blocks of programming for kids, free put out by MIT

Mindstorms– the software that goes with the LEGO Mindstorms Kits

Remember that open ended play begins with open ended toys/items and open ended schedules!

May you and your family have many hours of creative and engaging playtime!

Other bloggers of iHN are participating in the 10 Weeks of Top 10 Lists 2013.

Need more gift ideas? Visit Christmas Gift Guides at iHN.









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  1. I’m a big proponent of open-ended play. I love all of your ideas – especially the ones for the older years. It has been fun to watch my oldest expand into other avenues besides dress-up, blocks and basic legos…

    I’ve always wanted to sort our costumes by theme, but my boys use the same basic pieces for so many different styles of pretend play, I ended up giving up on sorting them…

    1. Heather, I can relate! We seemed to have enough pieces to still spread some out into themes and the rest are in the common bin. In our old house, we had a set of hooks on which we hung bags with the themes. So, everything was nearby.

      Hard to believe some days we’ve moved beyond the primary years, but I try to blog on what older kids can do because that’s where we are now!

      Thanks for reading!

  2. Heather,
    Great list! Now that my boys are 14 and 16, I can look back and say that the things that they played with most were many of the things you listed: blocks, Legos, trains, dress-up stuff. The trains have been put away, but the blocks and Legos still get used. They still build with them and use them in their stop-action movies.
    I couldn’t agree more with your comment on the train table. A waste of money because it was too constraining. One other thing my kids used a lot was one of those big rug/playmats with a town drawn on it and their Matchbox cars. They sometimes used it in conjunction with their wooden trains.
    I’m going to check out some of the other stuff you mentioned for older kids. Thanks for the resources.

    1. Oh yes! The car mat is a good one too! We have one and it was just out the other day. Stop motion is huge at our house as well. It’s fun to see what things have been enjoyed the most. Thanks for sharing!

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  4. Many thanks for so many great ideas, Heather. Yours was my go-to list for Christmas this year! I’m ordering the cash register right now – my kids will be THRILLED. Thanks for your help!

  5. Great list. At our house plastic animals and dinosaurs were/are favorite for years along with many of the things you listed.

  6. Hey Heather, Creative games with simple stuff. Great ideas to make children involved in activities that has colors, shapes, sorting, sequencing and much more. I absolutely love this blog post of yours. I want to share this on Logic Roots facebook and twitter page as this topic is related to the work we do. We are in to Math Board games for kids of grade 1 to 5 that they can play at home with family and friends. Its highly addictive and children learn 12 times more. I hope you don’t mind me sharing this blog post. Glad I came across this. Great read 🙂

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