10 Must Have Open-Ended Toys for the Play Space

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Sian Thomas

I'm a trained teacher and mama to three awesome children. We are a family of expats, travelling the world every couple of years for new adventures. Right now, we live in Vienna, Austria. I'm passionate about helping mums worldwide navigate the early years of parenthood.

must have open-ended toys

If you currently struggle to get your child to play independently, then you might need to take a look at the toys you have on offer in the play space because the more open-ended toys  you have in the play space, the better. Here’s why:

Open-Ended Toys v’s Battery Operated Toys

I’m going to start by saying this: I am not a toy snob and at home we do have a combination of open-ended toys and battery operated toys along with our fair share of Disney favourites. I believe in balance and this is a judgement free zone.

With that being said, open-ended toys do have a distinct advantage over their battery operated counterparts:

  • Open-ended toys are genderless
  • They can be played with in a multitude of ways
  • They grow with your child
  • They can represent anything your child’s imagination can come up with

Open-ended toys

Open-ended toys are ‘passive’ in nature which means your child has to take an active role in order for something to happen to the toy. If your child does nothing, the toy also does nothing. Your child is fully in command of the play which boosts problem solving and creativity.

Battery-operated toys

In comparison, battery operated toys are ‘active’ in nature which means your child is taking a passive role in play. The flashing lights and noise result in play happening to your child instead. This results in a loss of interest pretty quickly because there are set rules and limited options.

 

Top 5 Open-Ended toys in our play space

All of the toys featured in this list are ones which my children play with on a daily basis – they are always on rotation because there are just so many ways for them to play with. Everything featured here is something that I have bought. I don’t do any sponsored deals and I don’t accept gifts from companies so rest assured that all opinions here are genuine.

 

1. Wooden Blocks

wooden blocks

Wooden blocks are the absolute play heroes of our play space – they can be absolutely anything my daughter puts her mind to. From a more traditional ‘wall’ to a person, the beauty of blocks is that they don’t just have to be a block.

One of the major benefits of buying a set of good quality blocks is the fact that they can also grow with your child. We bought our set from Grimm’s Wooden Toys for my daughter’s first birthday and as she has grown, so has the play potential.

Starting out with a simple ‘knock the tower down’ game to more elaborate houses and towns now, wooden blocks are really a toy that lasts for years AND can be passed down.

Recommended age: 1 year + (also check manufacturers recommendations)

2. Magnetic Tiles

magnetic tiles

We love magnetic tiles so much that we have three sets – we also have three children so that is necessary! Similar to wooden blocks, magnetic tiles also grow with your child and the play potential explodes the older your child gets.

My recommendation is to buy the best you can afford. The super cheap sets have in the past been linked to breakages and magnets can be extremely harmful is swallowed.

We have both the Connetix tiles and Children’s Hub brands.

Recommended age: 2.5 years + (also check manufacturers recommendations)

3. Animal Figurines

animal figurines

The animal figurines at our house get played with on a daily basis. For my 5 year-old daughter, they are a way to re-enact a day of ‘school’ whereas my 2 year-old son loves to match animals and make the sounds.

Our favourite brands are CollectA and Schleich. Whilst they are a little more pricey than other brands, the animals also look much more realistic and they last ages too – ours are years old and haven’t shown any wear and tear despite being roughed around by an exuberant toddler!

Recommended age: 2.5 years + (also check manufacturers recommendations)

4. Gluckskafer Building Slats

gluckskafer building slats

These Gluckskafer building slats are our most recent play room purchase which I bought for the children at Christmas time. They have been a massive hit with Miss 5 who uses them to create towns, slides and balancing structures.

They also work well for colour matching activities and early math activities too.

Recommended age: 2.5 years + (also check manufacturers recommendations)

5. Play Silks

play silks

Play silks are a brilliant additional to the play space – we have them in several colours. For Christmas and birthdays, we even use them to wrap the presents in an effort to be just a little bit more sustainable!

My children mainly use them as a small world landscape, a baby doll blanket or as a cape/dress for dramatic play, but the larger silks also make great dens too.

Our play silks are by Sarah’s Silks but you can also buy alternative brands on Amazon.

6. Grimm’s Wooden Rainbow

grimm's wooden rainbow

There’s so much hype around the Grimm’s wooden rainbow – yes it does look pretty displayed on a shelf but it is also a really awesome open-ended toy. From tunnels to bridges, ‘cakes’ to animal pens, the rainbow is a great functional toy.

My children love to use ours with the Grimm’s semicircles which does add extra play possibilities.

7. Miniland Dolls

Miniland Dolls

Spanish brand, Miniland is our go-to for dolls. Not only are they anatomically correct but they also help to promote diversity awareness too.

Miss 5 loves using her dolls for dramatic play scenarios – they go on shopping trips, drink tea and cake, take visits to the doctors and often sleep in her bed too.

We have the dolls in both ‘toddler’ and ‘baby’ sizes. I’d recommend the baby size for very young children (12 months plus) and the toddler dolls from around 3. The toddler dolls are quite large so can be a little trickier for small hands.

8. Grapat Carla Set

Grapat Carla Set

 

If you want to get started with loose parts play, I really recommend the Grapat Carla brand. Grapat is another Spanish brand and it specialises in loose parts play.

The Grapat Carla set includes rings, coins and ‘nins’ (peg people) that can be used for a whole range of early learning activities from posting activities for toddlers aged 12 months plus to colour sorting and counting for pre-schoolers.

We have combined our with the Grimm’s trees – another great option for loose parts play.

9. Wobbel Board

wobbel board

During the last three lockdowns, the Wobbel board has been an absolute godsend! With parks closed and limited garden space here (we live in a Viennese apartment), the Wobbel board has really come into its own.

The wobbel is a great open-ended toy for gross motor skills – mine use it to rock, jump, slide and even do yoga but it’s also great as part of play too. Mr 2 loves to use it as a car ramp and my eldest tends to use it as bridge in small world play.

We have combined ours with the IKEA gym mat  to prevent fingers getting trapped underneath.

10. Cars and Trains

cars and trains

We’ve been collecting cars and trains since my eldest (now 11) was a toddler. I’ll be forever thankful that we kept the huge collection because we still use them every single day in play.

Whilst my daughter (5) prefers to use them as part of a small world town, my youngest son loves to drive along roads and push them down the wobbel board or tubes.

Now we’ve reached the tenth and final must-have open-ended toy, I’m sure  you can see how well they all fit together for play. That is the real beauty of open-ended toys – you can use them in multiple ways and with a range of different age groups. The play just expands and develops as your children get older.

But what about the expense?

There is no denying that open-ended toys tend to be more expensive BUT the play potential means that they last so much longer than their battery operated counterparts. You’ll likely find that you spend less on toys overall because your children won’t get bored.

We have built up our collection over a number of years – my eldest son is 11 now so please don’t be tempted to go out and spend heaps of money in one go! I tend to buy one open-ended toy for Christmas/birthday.

What if my child won’t play with the open-ended toys?

It’s true that if your child is used to a completely different style of toy, then it might take them a little while to get used to open-ended toys. Check out the following blog posts to help you get started:

Invitations to Play 

Play Space Q& A

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