Open-Ended Play

Emergent WritersWhen children play freely they make sense of the world, they explore, experiment, and problem solve.  Mr. Rogers said,

Play is often talked about as if it were a relief from serious learning.  But for children play is serious learning. Play is really the work of childhood.” 

     There are many different kinds of play children engage in and the way children play evolves and changes as they grow.  Open-ended play encourages children to play freely and creatively without constraints.  When children play freely they follow their own ideas and are not expected to complete a project or solve a specific problem.  Open-ended play materials such as, blocks and play dough encourage imaginative play.


     In 2013, when my kids were 2, 6 and 8, I came across the beautiful blog, An Everyday Story written by Kate from Australia.  Kate’s beliefs about about play and learning resonate with me and she describes inquiry-based learning and the Reggio Emilia approach very well. She posted a guide to help parents encourage more meaningful play,  30 Days to Transform Your Play.  I found the guide very helpful and it prompted me to observe and reflect on the ways my kids were playing at home.  I donated our noisy plastics toys and added small items to for loose parts play.


Loose Parts Play

     Loose Parts is a term used by architect, Simon Nicholson.  Nicholson believed that “loose parts” in an environment foster creativity and imagination.  Early childhood educators have adapted the term and refer to this type of play as the theory of loose parts. Sally Haughey, at Fairy Dust Teaching, writes a wonderful blog post about the difference between “closed-” and “open-” play,  titled, “Loose Parts: Who is Doing the Thinking….the Children or the Toy?”.  She also provides a free Loose Parts Play Guide that can help you put into practice the theory of loose parts in your home or classroom.

Magnatiles, Haba Blocks, Spielgaben blocks, homemade Peg People, and a Calico Critter kitchen.

 Evolving Play

     Over the last year, I have been observing how my children’s play has evolved and changed since their days of early childhood are over. 😦 It is bittersweet to see them grow and it has also been insightful.  My older kids will soon be 14, 12 and my youngest is seven.  As they entered the elementary school years, I noticed that they developed specific interests and their play became more project-based.  For example, my son loves Legos and has an interest in movies, so he enjoys thinking about movie plot lines and uses stop-motion animation apps to create mini-movies.  My daughter has always been a maker and has always enjoyed various art materials and supplies.  Recently she spends most of her free time making slime.  My youngest at seven is very playful and still enjoys loose parts play.  He uses a mix of blocks, Magnatiles, Spielgaben, and loose parts to create big play scenarios.

Homemade Peg people, Kiva Blocks, and Jenga Blocks

Maker Spaces

     One of the most noticeable changes in their play is wanting to learn and put to use specific skills.  As a former teacher, I have been wondering about how we take the ideas from early childhood learning and apply them to elementary and middle school learners.  Children seem to naturally move from imaginative free play to more skill and project-based play.  They have a desire to learn, make, and create.  This is where makerspaces can help children follow their interests and continue to encourage a hands-on learning.

Snap Circuits used to make Spin Art

     Allison Galloway, wrote an insightful Master’s of Education paper titled, Bringing A Reggio Emilia Inspired Approach into Higher GradesLinks to 21st Century Learning Skills and the Maker Movement. She has written about the overlap of ideas within each philosophy or movement and how incorporating a Reggio inspired makerspace in schools and/or classroom can address 21st century learning goals.  You can read more about Allison’s ideas at her website:

Mini Tinker space for my youngest with loose parts and glue.

     I put in a little tinker table for my seven-year-old. His older siblings and I often use the main table so I thought he could use an inviting little space to make.  I placed the pumpkins, glue and eyes on the table as an invitation or prompt.  In the evening after dinner he sat at the table to explore the materials and made his own pumpkin creations.  I have no preconceived notions of projects he can has to do there, it is just a little space to explore materials and to see what comes about.

The wonderful thing about makerspaces is how inclusive they are.  You aren’t limited to robotics or any one type to making. You can use recycled materials, wood, set up a sewing station, a fiber arts area, or clay and clay tools. You can find more makerspace resources here.  Below are a couple photos of bead and clay making the kids did a few years ago.


     I have my father to thank for my interest in making and creating.  He was the maker in my family.  The beads in the photo above are from his stash of maker materials.  My dad was the one who made my Halloween costumes and cooked fancy meals.  He instilled a love of making and always invited me to have my own little stash of materials to play and make with.  I’ve tried to continue that tradition with my kids.

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Maria Arana

Hi, I am Maria, a mom to three wonderful kiddos. My family and I live in Phoenix, Arizona. We love the beauty of the desert southwest. I am a former primary teacher and elementary math coach. I love to encourage my children to follow their interests and passions. At Guided Learning Studio, I offer private personalized lessons and enrichment classes. Tutoring services are best for families seeking long-term educational support over a semester or school-year.

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