Open-ended play inspires creativity and imagination in young children.

Many modern toys are designed to do the work for its users – you push a button and a light comes on or a song plays; it’s simple cause and effect in its most basic form. Although there’s not anything necessarily wrong with these easy interactions, play is an essential part of growth and development in a young child’s life and it’s important to encourage activities that require imagination and inspire creativity, as well.

Despite having an entire world full of new concepts to explore, young children often become bored or restless when stuck inside due to weather or scheduling issues. Don’t give in to screen time when you and your toddler are spending the day indoors; offer some easy and affordable creative indoor activities to explore instead.

Open play date

It seems like young children need step-by-step directions, but they’re surprisingly capable of creating their own fun with a few suggestions. Allowing your child to use their imagination without restriction is called open-ended play and encourages independence, imagination, and problem-solving skills.

Use the following items as a catalyst for creativity:

  • Cardboard boxes: There’s nothing quite like the unlimited potential of a cardboard box to get creative juices flowing. Ask what your child to use their imagination to turn the box into something else and give them space and supplies to make it happen. Help them expand upon their ideas; for instance, if they want to turn their cardboard creation into a car, set up a drive-in movie once the activity ends. If they’ve built a castle, suggest that they add a flag.
  • Bedsheets: Building a fort out of bedclothes is timeless fun. Your child may need help with the actual construction, but once their fort is in place, let them be in charge of décor. Some toys, pillows and a flashlight can create a fun rainy-day den. Ask what kind of building it will be so that they know they’re not just limited to houses. A vet’s office or medical practice can keep the pretend play going.
  • A roll of tape: Masking tape or painter’s tape can offer endless possibilities. Help your child brainstorm ideas: a series of city streets for toy cars, a removable target for tossing wadded up paper or pom-poms at, or an indoor balance beam of varying configurations are all options to inspire creative playtime.
  • Art supplies: Let your mini Monet play to their heart’s content with a random box of art supplies. Colored pom-poms can be sorted into different cupcake holders using chopsticks, beads can be strung onto yarn to create jewelry, pipe cleaners can become stick figure superheroes, or paint can be squeezed into a sealable bag for mess-free color mixing. Don’t approach this activity with a project in mind – just present the materials and let the magic happen.
  • Laundry basket: Even an empty laundry basket can represent potential fun for little ones. Whether it becomes a basketball hoop, a train car, or a cage for wild stuffed animals, simply suggesting that a common item can be used for play helps inspire creative ideas.

Encouraging open-ended play doesn’t require fancy technology, extensive supplies, or an artist’s sense of creativity in a parent. Children have a natural inclination to find the fun in the world around them; your job is to provide a safe space and have a positive and supportive attitude about their imaginative endeavors.

The Virginia Infant & Toddler Specialist Network helps improve the quality of care for infants and toddlers through extensive resources, services, and education for caregivers. Learn more about how we can help you improve the standard of care.