Open-Ended Play: When Did It Get So Complicated?

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Children learn about their world through various ways but most experts will agree that play time is the most important one. Through play children are able to make sense of the world around them, hone in motor skills and work out their emotions. The two most common forms of play time are structured play and open-ended play – also referred to as free play.

One would think that the two would be fairly self-explanatory, however, in today’s face-paced world the two are beginning to look quite similar.

Structured play is exactly what it sounds like. Play time that is structured around something in particular – like a sport with rules or dress-up that only involves one type of costume. Open-ended play, on the other hand, is meant to be unstructured to let the child explore their own imagination without feeling pressured to follow rules or have an expected outcome – wooden blocks, play-dough, dirt, and water are a few things that encourage this type of play.

Too many parents today feel that they are doing something wrong if they don’t have their child constantly engaged in some type of semi-structured or scheduled activity. So many, in fact, that open-ended play sessions have become a scheduled activity in their daily routines. If you do a quick Google search for the term open-ended play (or even better – search Pinterest), there are an array of play materials available to purchase online or make at home specially designed for this, and just as many articles promising easy ways to integrate open-ended play into your child’s life.

When did play time become so complicated? What happened to simply letting our kids run in the yard playing with sticks, dirt and each other while using their imaginations? In our house, structured play time is a rarity. While I understand that “need” for organized activities, I regularly encourage my daughter to use her imagination and play with random objects around our house – empty paper towel tubes, toilet paper rolls, and cardboard boxes are never garbage around here – instead of planning activities with set outcomes.

I encourage this type of play more than structure activities for two reasons. The main reason is that I feel it offers more self-learning experiences for a child than a structured activity could. The second reason is simply because I have too many things to do around my house to constantly keep my daughter engaged at all times with a series of preplanned activities. Not the best of reasons, I admit, but it is true. And, you know what? My little girl is pretty darn good at entertaining herself, in fairly creative ways, and all I have to say is “alright, go play!”. My neighbor’s child also visits often and they are pretty good at working out disputes that arise during playtime by themselves and rarely complain that they are bored.

Does this mean that we never have structured play activities around here? Absolutely not. It simply means that they happen less frequently than creative open-ended play. With all of the other strict routines in our lives, I just feel that play time shouldn’t be one of them.