Toys That Encourage Open-ended Play

Painting as Open Play for a Child

In open play, a child’s imagination guides use. Simple, open-ended toys can be much more than one thing to any kid. A child’s early education involves play, imitating adults’ actions around them and exploring their surroundings—including their toy box.

Single-purpose toys with pre-determined limitations and outcomes keep a child busy, but they do not engage the child in creating their own worlds.

Open-ended play means a child has freedom to create their own rules within the environment and transform all objects as their become part of experience. Toys in an open-ended environment are simple enough to have many uses—any use the child can imagine. Yes, blocks can be used to build or they can be food. Yes, play silks can be wings or they can be baby doll blankets. Yes, a doll can be a baby or a doll can be an audience.

Open play encourages abstract thinking and active creativity and problem solving. The characteristics a child brings to this world are given free reign. Children also learn as social and emotional skills are needed, meeting each challenge as it arises. They develop fluency in the ideas and materials of their world.

As parents, we—Nature Mom and I both—have made the way clear for our children to create their own play spaces by giving them simple, natural toys that can be transformed in play. To help you do the same as a parent, in the store, we make every effort to support open play with the children’s products we carry.

Dress up Toys

Silk reversible cape for a child

Silk cape

An overflowing dress-up box enables a child’s self transformation. Simple pieces can be worn many ways.

Building sets

Maple wood blocks toy

Colored maple wooden blocks

With blocks and building sets, you can choose cubes or shapes; stackers, magnetic blocks, or no connection at all; beautiful colors, story blocks, or just simple, beautiful wood without embellishment.


Waldorf doll big friend

Waldorf Doll

The dolls a child needs as a baby, a squeezing bonding doll, differ from the dolls a child needs as they begin to imitate life. Choose dolls as well as the doll baby carriers and diapers that encourage your older child to take care of their baby doll.

Musical Instruments

Wooden musical instruments

Wooden musical instruments rhythm set

Music and rhythm instruments give a child the power to create a variety of sounds. Children are delighted when they discover this power.

Art Supplies

Glob natural paints for kids

Natural paints

Natural ingredients, particularly the colors, in the art supplies distinguish the collection.

More on Open-ended Play

Unplugging Kids

Children playing around a television

Whether you’ve noticed your kids have too much screen time or you are just trying to avoid that in the future, how do you go about unplugging your children?

Why Worry about Screen Time?

We’re surrounded by symptoms that cause us to worry about kids who are plugged in all of the time to electronics. Childhood obesity is alarming. I don’t know that we can blame screens for obesity, but surely there is some impact when 2- to 5-year old children spend an average of 32 hours a week with the television on. Think about that. If my kids and your kids aren’t watching at all at that age, does that mean there are kids watching 64 hours a week?

I personally find passive consumption of ideas alarming. I want critical thinkers. I’m the mother who pauses documentaries to give long explanations. Even when we do watch television now that my children are older, it’s an active pursuit of ideas. We all have to have our say, and sometimes the conversation overtakes the television, and we ride the waves of ideas. TV can be a starting point rather than the end.

But, my children didn’t watch television much as young children because I wanted to shape their understanding of the world. Frankly, I wanted to avoid the chop-chop-chop editing that interrupts one’s thoughts. It turns out, there is a positive correlation between concentration, which leads to better learning, and taking walks, for example. You don’t get that from passive consumption of television—even the kind on public television that is supposedly good for you. (Sesame Street still has fewer cuts per minute than commercial television, though.)

As parents, we want our kids physically and mentally active. So, we look for a better way to keep them engaged than plugging them in.

What Can You Do About Electronics?

First, a DON’T. Don’t use the television or computer as a babysitter. Turning on cartoons or a video is easy with babies and toddlers, but it creates habits for you and expectations for your children.

So, what is the DO instead?

  • Plan ahead quiet, engaging activities, like play dough or drawing, and save those for a routine quiet time.
  • Watch the world out the window or from the porch. My son had a once-a-week routine of sitting and waiting for the garbage truck. It was the highlight of his week when he was about 3-years old. Put up a bird feeder, and you have something interesting to watch without it being passive.
  • Read or tell stories. Save a long story for the time of day when you most need everything to be a bit more calm. We started reading The Hobbit to my children when they were 2- and 5-years old. They don’t need to understand it all. They just want to be engaged.
  • Play board games or card games, if you have enough people around to make it fun.
  • Play with puzzles, if you just have the two of you. We carry a big variety of board games that start at around age 4 and puzzles that are appropriate for toddlers.
  • Listen to music, either the kind you can sing along to or the kind you can dance along to—or maybe the kind you can drift off to.

There is plenty to do. If you know you need helping thinking up activities, buy a book that gives you a list. We have a lot of books that might help, including Playful Parenting, Imagine Childhood (25 projects), and many more on our parenting bookshelf.

Set the Pattern Right

Start when they are very young with interesting outdoor activities. Don’t make those outdoor activities optional. You are creating your family, and you get to decide “this is just something our family does.” If your family creates patterns of outdoor activities and hands-on activities, it will remain just what you do as your children get older and are more exposed to screen time at friends’ houses.

Does It Have to Be Negative?

I am reluctant to use the negative. Why call them UNplugged kids or screen-free kids, as if everything has to be in reference to a plug or a screen? Do that, and the plug is there in mind even when you do manage to get the children into nature or exploring with their hands. Why not hands-on kids, on-their-feet kids, or outdoor kids? At we raise Nature Kids!

That’s just a caution that too much focus on the negative holds on to the negative rather than the activities you want to replace the negative.

How to Encourage Your Kids to Sneak a Peak at the Screen

I do know that forbidding my kids to do something that their friends do freely is a way to encourage them to keep secrets. We don’t do that. So, I found that exposure with my voice in their head was a better approach than exposure with their peers’ voices.

In the end, it just takes making life beyond the screen more interesting, more compelling than the screen. I’m not trying to make that sound easy, either.

I have a fairly new teenager who has gradually put more and more of his alone time into Minecraft, which I don’t mind in moderation, but I worry that he has fewer hand-on activities (“Hey, how about doing a project out of Make Magazine.”) and outdoor activities (“Have you reserved a golf time for this week?”). So, he and I talk about this. He points out to me that he spends hours a day playing piano, saxophone, and drums. He is reading several novels. He uses his computer for online classes and writing. I still think it’s too much time, but I make it a conversation we have, an awareness we share. He told me that he would be happy to do other things if he could find something that interests him.

There is the rub. I can’t force his interest. At his age, parental force is more likely to result in anti-interest. So, I continue to scatter beautiful baubles along his path, hoping he picks them up here and there. I trust that his low-screen diet of the first twelve or so years will have created stronger patterns than the pull of a not-as-bad-as-it-could-have-been video game.

You do what works for your family. Just remember to set the patterns early as an active, engaged family, and trust that your children will find their way toward their own interests in an overwhelmingly plugged-in world.


Image © Samrat35 | - Child’s Play Photo

Rainy Day Toddler Play

Toddler play in a rain puddle

On a grey, rainy day, it can be difficult for your toddler to transition from the warm summer of exploring outdoors every day to being indoors more. So, make the indoors an adventure.

Developmentally, toddlers are focused on themselves. They know their own needs—and their own stuff. They might not be ready to imagine something happening far away, but they will probably be ready to imagine what the rainy day could mean for them.

What If It Keeps Raining?

Build a Boat. Ask your child what might happen if it keeps raining. We’d better build a boat.

Building a boat was my husband’s first suggestion. Where I often stayed in my head and told the children stories, he would empty every cushion from every couch and start building with them.

If you have someone around who doesn’t mind pulling, build a boat with a pull rope. It’s easy to thread a rope through holes in the end of a cardboard box. Make sure your sailor has everything needed for a trip, then sail around the house.

If yours is more of a static boat bobbing up and down at sea, you can use blue and green play cloths to create waves. In this case, you’d better build a boat big enough for two—or just build two boats—so you can go on the trip as well.

If you are going sailing by either method, this is a perfect time to learn very loud sea shanties. Sing!

Build a Shelter. Ask your child what kind of a shelter they will need to keep out the rain. We’d better build a house.

Building houses from cushions was an almost daily activity when my children were small. Now that they are older, they still pull out the cushions to create their own spaces.

Arrange cushions for walls and drape them with play cloths for a roof. Be sure to stock this safe house with rainy day supplies.

Watch the Rain. Stare out the windows. Drift into daydreams, or encourage your budding scientist to observe what water does.

My daughter was particularly drawn to watching the gush of water through the drain as a very young child. We all gather at the windows during a storm to watch the water falling off the roof and pooling up in the garden.

Just the act of observing water is transporting. Give your toddler space to go with the flow.

Paint the Rain. Toddlers are just beginning to see themselves in a home context, and their drawings reflect that. Once you have a basic home and family drawing, add the rain. Experiment with flicking and dripping color to create the rain. Realize that this probably means the flicking techniques will become a permanent part of painting play, so use paint that is easy to clean up.

Let’s Go Outside

Puddles! Just because it’s raining doesn’t mean you need to stay inside, as long as there isn’t lightning. Dress in clothes that you don’t mind being completely wet and muddy, add a rain coat, and go splashing. Just to be prepared, leave a stack of towels at the door.

My daughter still talks about how much fun it is to splash in puddles. She remembers rain storms fondly. Both of my children rush out into every storm.

Mud! Once you’re completely soaked, take off shoes and go looking for mud. Let your child experience that lovely feeling of mud squishing through toes. Make mud pies and watch the rain melt them away. Have fun in the mud and the rain.

Transition Time

Bath Time. After a tiring day of messy play, it’s a good time to have a bath or a shower.

My daughter, when I consulted her today about playing in the rain, wanted me to point out that she loved to shower with her toys on a rainy day. She created her own warm storm for all of her wet-friendly people.

A warm bath can be a good way to wind down as well as washing the mud away.

Story Time. When your toddler is relaxed after a bath, take advantage of the quiet time with stories. Keep up the rain theme or not. My husband and I both loved making up stories starring our children. Now they do the same for one another. Tell the story of the adventures of the day. Embellish the stories and add promises for future adventures.

For a toddler who naps, this can be a gentle transition after an exciting day.

More ideas for indoor play with toddlers.

Image © Gunold Brunbauer |

What Is Nature Deficit Disorder?

Child outside

“Technology is not, in itself, the enemy; but our lack of balance is lethal. The pandemic of inactivity is one result. Sitting is the new smoking.” Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder

Richard Louv, in his 2005 book Last Child in the Woods, used the phrase “nature deficit disorder” to decribe what has happened as children spend more time in front of screens and less time outside. The idea refers to the costs of the alienation of humans, primarily children, from nature.

Is it a real disorder?

That the majority of children spend little time outside is real. The change from how children spent time only decades ago is real. There is research, Louv points out, that finds a correlation between concentration and taking walks, between greener neighborhoods and lower body mass. The change in body and mind is real.

The word “disorder” might imply a diagnosis, though, and there is none. The author chose that word to make his point simply understandable.

Do I need to worry about nature deficit disorder?

Maybe. If your child is young, your awareness that our culture pushes children indoors can help you make decisions that will give your children more access to nature. If your child is young, you can probably avoid the problem.

Encouraging your child to go outside will get more and more difficult as they get older. Create the expectation of open, outdoor play now, and the habit will be easier to continue. Model outdoor activities yourself, so it doesn’t appear to your child that outdoors is just for young children.

The truth is, you probably do need to worry about it because the pressure will increase to stay inside—peer pressure, homework pressure, and plain laziness. Remain conscious of outdoor time and prioritize nature in your family life, and you will reduce the negative effects of spending too little time in nature.

Image © Christophe.rolland1 |

Summer in Nature for Your Children

Father and son exploring river

Growing up, summer was a time when my friends and I would run wild and free. We went off most of the day exploring, digging in the fields, and running screaming from imagined monsters in the woods. We shaped our own very long days. One of the best summers I remember, though, included a once-a-week activity through my school. Other students and I would take a bus trip with the science teacher to a local place of some scientific interest. We went hiking on a island to learn about rock formations, hiking in the mountains to learn about plants, visiting a fish hatchery to talk about a local reservoir, and testing water in a river to talk about runoff. I don’t remember every trip, but I remember those quite vividly. What I learned on those day trips influenced my play. I became an explorer and discoverer. I collected samples. I kept notebooks.

The most important lesson I learned from my summer of science exploration is the far-reaching effect of a little bit of structure for children. With my own children, I have explored the effects of no structure, a lot of structure, and just a little structure. I think they both respond well to a little structure.

For some young children, a question might be enough to start a flow of many more questions. “Why do you think this plant grows such big leaves?” With others, an exciting new possibility might open their eyes to a big adventure. “Let’s go on a walk to find flowers that we can eat.” I tend to focus on plants and rocks because that is what I know, but I use books to help me stretch my own experience and give me the prompts I need.

How much structure your child needs to spark excitement and independent exploration depends very much on your child. Experiment. Make an educated guess and test it. That is what science is all about, after all.

As summer stretches out in front of you, how will you help your children explore nature and explore themselves? If you are looking for some simple, science-based prompts that could give them a little structure through occasional activities, I have found the following resources very helpful.

  • Earth Child 2000
    This is a teaching guide that always keeps in mind a child’s sense of wonder and awareness. Ideal for very young and elementary age children.
  • David Suzuki Foundation’s Connecting with Nature education guide
    This is also a teaching guide with clearly outlined lesson plans that can be adapted to home use. Intended for upper elementary grades.
  • The Children & Nature Network
    C&NN is a nonprofit that creates resources and supports local activities to connection children with nature. Their resources are varied. Most families or organizations concerned about environmental teaching for kids will find useful tools here.

Image © Goh Siok hian |