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What are open-ended materials for preschoolers?

Open-ended materials can be easily found in every childcare centre, but what do the words “open-ended” mean exactly and why are they important for our young preschoolers?

What are these materials?

A good way to learn about what open-ended materials are is perhaps learning about what closed-ended materials are. Close-ended materials usually have a specific purpose and a specific way to use them to complete its purpose. Some examples would be tracing and matching activities where there is one specific purpose of the activity and the end goal is stated by the activity and not by the child. Open-ended materials will conversely be materials that can have more than one purpose and can go on for as long as the child wants to play with it. There are many examples of open-ended materials, such as dolls, building blocks and car or action figurines. There may be a certain said way one could play with these materials but there are also other ways one could do so and it is up to everyone’s interpretation and imagination.

Children love to play with both open-ended and close-ended materials alike. Close-ended materials are good when we want to teach children about the need to follow rules and directions. When they play with the same material again and again, they will be able to complete them without your help and attain mastery on the specific skill that is used for the activity. As there is an end goal, it will require children to concentrate and put their attention on the activity until they complete it. Therefore, it is also a good tool to train their concentration and build up their attention span. We will mention the benefits of open-ended materials in the next part. It is also good to note that there could also be some close-ended materials that may be expanded to become open-ended materials based on the preschooler’s (or our) imagination. Therefore, having a good range of both types of materials is beneficial for our toddlers and preschoolers.

Why do we want to use them? Benefits of open-ended materials

  1. Critical thinking

As open-ended materials do not have a specific end goal or purpose, this means children can be the ones to determine how they would want to play with this material. This is part of a process of critical thinking. Using the given materials, they have to think about how they would use them effectively to achieve the goal that they would want to achieve. In the middle of it, they may hit a wall and have to think about how to solve the problem. Close-ended materials may require them at the start when they are using the materials for the first time. The difference is that in open-ended materials, they may run into a different problem each time they interact with these materials and therefore have to use more critical thinking skills to solve the different problems.

  1. Building Self-Esteem

On the same point of being able to determine how to play with the material, this aspect of the use of open-ended materials also gives them a sense of ownership and choice in the activity, an important part in building children’s self-esteem. Through playing with these open-ended materials, they learn about making decisions, forming ideas on how they would want things to be done. Since there is no right or wrong in how these materials are used, they only learn about whether it can be done or not based on the materials but are not judged on whether their decisions are good or bad. Seeing how their ideas take form gives them a great sense of satisfaction.

  1. Fostering creativity

As we grow up, we start to have specific ideas on how certain tools should be used or how certain things should be done, but we also often talk about ‘thinking out of the box’. This means to be unconventional. We can actually see that in children easily. They are not constrained by the fixed ideas as they may not not know what they are. Therefore, using open-ended materials gives them the platform to put this creativity to good use.

Open-ended materials can be played individually or in groups. Especially in older preschoolers, these materials are often played in groups, and when they do so, children will learn to work together in achieving a common goal, created and shared by everyone in the group. This is an important life skill that we continually need and learn about as we grow older. Therefore, it is good to expose our children to it as early as possible and they can start to learn about the different social skills related to it.

Role of teachers and parents

With open-ended materials, children can play independently. This does not mean the children are playing without any guidance or supervision. Teachers and parents can still play a part in it. Adults are there as a form of support for them. We are able to provide them with affirmation when they come to us with their creations with a great sense of achievement. When they meet with a problem, try to stop yourself from giving them the answers as that will take out the critical thinking aspect of it. Childcare teachers will try to lead them with open-ended questions and help to support them so that they continue to try and not give up. Playing with open-ended materials can be a good platform to introduce the concept of ‘sharing’ and ‘turn-taking’ too. This concept may be new to children and they may find it difficult to accept at the beginning. Teachers and parents can play with them and model this concept to them so that they are able to show such behaviour when they are playing with their friends.


As much as this article is about open-ended materials, it is not implying that open-ended materials are better than closed-ended materials as there are benefits for both. Ultimately, the materials chosen at home should be aligned to the interests of your child.

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