Last Updated: October 24, 2022
The best open-ended toys for kids – from babies to toddlers, preschoolers and beyond are toys that will “grow” with them. Toys that capture their imagination and creativity. Toys they’ll still play with in a few years – just in a different way! Read on for ideas of the best open ended toys – that we still play with years later! Here are our favorite open ended toys for kids – organized by the age that they first become interested. Jump ahead:
What is open-ended play vs “closed-ended” play?
So what are open ended toys and open-ended play? While many Montessori and higher-end toy brands would have you think open ended means – wooden toys and expensive! Open ended play simply means that a toy or activity has more than one use. Whereas, closed ended toys have a specific purpose and “finished” end goal (like a puzzle or a shape sorter) and open-ended toys encourage more creative or free form play. Examples of open ended toys are a block set, a play barn, dolls, or vehicles. And the great thing about kids is that almost anything can be an open-ended toy to them. Kids are the masters of re-inventing how to play with something in a different way.
But it’s important to remember that not everything needs to be an open-ended toy! “Closed ended” toys are also great learning opportunities for kids. For example: puzzles, board games etc. These types of toys are really satisfying to children. It teaches them mastery of a task, perseverance, and self-control.
There are toys that are more “open ended” or multifunctional than others. Those toys that they just want to play with forever and continually find new ways to play. Open ended play teaches our children creativity, independence, and to use their imaginations.
Best Open-ended Toys by Age:
These toy lists are organized by age. The age when children might start enjoying these toys the most and beyond. For example, you’ll find Magna-Tiles on my three year old list. Can two year olds enjoy magnetic tiles? Of course, but we found age three to be higher interest and ability for much longer open-ended play. So use these lists for planning toy purchases, or as a gift guide for family and friends.
The span between 12 and 24 months can feel like one of the biggest changes in parenthood (beyond having a newborn, of course). Finding toys they’ll actually play with and that will keep them busy in their transition from baby to toddler is essential. Here are our 15 favorite open-ended toys for 1 year olds.
The best open ended toys for toddlers help them discover the world around them. In the 24-36 month range, open-ended play is all about helping, exploring, and using their new creativity and imaginations. Here are our 15 favorite open-ended toys for 2 year olds.
Our favorite open-ended toys for three year olds are all about engineering, creativity, and problem solving. Open ended play for preschoolers helps them observe and analyze their world, with a healthy dose of storytelling, collaborative play and practical life thrown in! Here are our 14 favorite open-ended toys for 3 year olds.
Our favorite open-ended toys for older preschoolers are all about independent problem solving, experimenting, and using their more refined fine and gross motor skills. Open-ended play at this stage gives them opportunities for independent problem-solving, self-directed play, and helps them use their newly refined fine motor skills. Here are our 11 favorite open-ended toys for 4 year olds (and 5 year olds!)
Top 10 Open-Ended Toys
Just want the top ten toys list that will keep your kids busy in open-ended play for years to come? Here are the open-ended toys that have gotten the most use – not only in our household, but family, and friends’.
1. Magnetic Tiles
While Magna-Tiles can be used early than age three, 3 years old seems to be the tipping point for really digging magnetic tiles for most kids. As younger toddlers they can certainly connect the magnets and begin to understand how to build. But around three, they’re off and running with their engineering minds – building structures, and imaginative play. If they can think it, they can build it. And it seems to be just the right balance of satisfying work and challenge. It’s really fun to watch three year olds build and create with magnetic tiles! There are a few different magnetic tiles to choose from. Our top picks are Picasso Tiles and Magna-Tiles.
2. Wooden Blocks
Whether you get a basic wooden unit block set or a colorful wooden Grimms set, wooden building blocks are exciting around age two. As a recently turned two, our kiddo was even delighted with the wooden box that the blocks came in and would build ramps and tunnels and play “construction” within the constraints of the box – moving things in and out and around. Then as the year progressed, he moved more toward large scale building with the wooden blocks. Wood blocks are great for open-ended play and child-led interest items (cars, animals, peg dolls, small world play etc) can help them be interested in the blocks.
Age two Duplo play progresses from the basic “number train” etc to some actual building and creative play. This is when it’s fun to get some larger sets to add to your existing basic Duplo if you already had some. Most kids play with Duplos from 2 to 6, and even after they move on to real LEGOs, they often come back to Duplos as more of a larger building brick for a couple more years. Especially if you have more than one kid in your house.
Between 1 and 2, most kiddos are pretty excited about vehicles and things that go. Some of them stay in this stage for… ever? Ha! But this is definitely peek “things that go” season. Especially vehicles that they see in real life. So getting some vehicle toys that are large enough for them to handle are a great toy. Think Green Toys ferry boat, car transporter, or school bus. And it’s especially fun if there are a few people or animals they can fit in the vehicle. Green Toys School Bus Amazon $30, Target $30. Green Toys Recycling truck Amazon $22.
5. Train Set
While a one year old can enjoy a basic train set, around age two they really start to get excited about the building aspect of trains. Finally they can connect the tracks together and create a town, stations, and even stretch track through the house from one room into another room. IKEA, BRIO, and Melissa & Doug all make great train sets. The IKEA are the most affordable and have great design. You can also buy a 50 piece rail track set for $20 when they get to the phase of “I need more track!!”.
6. Mud Kitchen
Two is a great age to introduce a play kitchen. Don’t want to deal with mess and clutter in your house and have space outside? Check out my mud kitchen DIY for the ultimate sensory play station! Two year olds are such enthusiastic helpers. You’ll hear a lot of “I do it myself”, so a play kitchen is a great way for them to practice independent helping, problem solving and pretend play. In our family, we skipped the beautiful, yet expensive “loose parts” play sets. Nature is full of “loose parts” – so rocks, sticks, shells, leaves etc. are great for that style of open ended play outdoors. And remember, nature is the best playground! Indoors, we have a variety of art supplies that can also pass for “loose part play”, without investing in a marketed “loose parts” set. Think: beads, wooden blocks, shells, pom poms, cut up paper straws etc.
Pretend food for play – like cuttable veggies or the IKEA soft fruits/veggies sets are also fun at this age, along with other play kitchen and mud kitchen accessories. And KiwiCo‘s Koala crates (see my review here) and Kiwi crate activities that are messy we often do outside at the mud kitchen. While the crates themselves are not open-ended play, after the projects are done, the supplies turn into wonderful open ended play time.
7. Dramatic Play & Costumes
Kids love pretend play. Starting around two years old – pretend play really starts to take off. And depending on the kid, it might be sooner or later! For their simple beginnings of pretend play, they might use almost anything as their “costume” or dress up. Some crowd pleasers for most two year olds is things that they know – like professions such as fire fighter, doctor, mail carrier etc. And who says dress up has to be boring! For those kids that just can’t resist the princess tutu. Rainbow Unicorn Tutu: $16.
8. Imaginative Playset: Horse Barn, Dollhouse, Car Garage
One of our favorite open-ended toys is pretend play with a theme building or structure type of playset for small world play. Follow your child and family’s interests and budget. This could be a barn (like from my one year old open-ended play list) for your horse or farm-loving kid, a doll house (IKEA has a great simple one, Calico Critters have a lot of options) for your doll and caregiving little mama or papa, a treehouse or horse club (Schleich makes really cool future-proof ones) for your animal-loving kid, a school or classroom (Playmobil) for your little realist or engineer, or a car garage (BRIO makes a great train/car combo one) for your engineer and “things that go” kid etc.
Expand their storytelling and imaginary world with one of these items open-ended play items.
While Duplos rule from ages 1-4, four is a great age to introduce LEGOs. Most kids will continue to play with Duplos for a couple more years still, so there will be some overlap between the Duplo and LEGO years. But most kids will finally have the fine motor skill ability to build with LEGOs, sometime in their fourth year!
Our favorite LEGOs for open-ended play are classic LEGO brick sets. IKEA has a great 201 piece set for $20, LEGO has their Classics 484 piece set for $28, or the LEGO Classics Creative Suitcase 213 piece set for $16. While the small LEGO City kits (street sweeper, fire truck etc) are fun to build, kids will really start playing and creating more freely with a bulk set. With no building objective, it’s fun to see what they can make!
10. Cardboard box & art supplies
And as usual, the cardboard box always makes an appearance on my toys lists! Box road, pretend car, train background – a large cardboard box is one of the best creative open-ended toys. Add in some art supplies, like drawing roads and mountains with markers and you’re on your way to cardboard town! Plus it’s free so win-win for the whole family! Cardboard Box $ Free!
In summary, the top 10 open-ended toys for kids are
- Wooden blocks
- Train set
- Mud kitchen
- dramatic play/costumes and accessories
- Imaginative play building/playset
- Cardboard box
I hope this has given you some ideas for the best open-ended toys for your family for open ended play that keeps your kids busy and learning! Need more ideas? Check out our toy and play guides.
What are your family’s favorite open-ended toys?