T+T Storytellers: On the importance of open-ended play

We are pleased to welcome Martha, a member of the Storyteller Team, with some reflections on the importance of open-ended play, and how sewing can be used to foster it.     

Holding space for unstructured play is one of the most important things we, as parents, can do for our children. It is through play that children learn to navigate the world - they observe, experiment, experience emotions, test limits.  So much learning takes place when we step back and give children the gift of uninterrupted time to play!

Play in Today's Busyness

It seems that today's society is in such a hurry.  We are living in a world where 'busyness' has become the norm.  Whether we are rushing kids out the door to school, sports, parent-teacher meetings, or weekend getaways.  We have so much that we have to accomplish, that play is often left to the end, "when we are done".

Not only is it important to make time for play, it is important to make time for open-ended play - where we simply allow the play to go in any direction that a child's imagination and creativity takes it.  There are no set outcomes, no "where to go, what to do, and how to do it"; there is no "right" or "wrong" with open-ended play.  Remember that children learn to negotiate the world around them through play. 


Making Time for Play

The key here is allowing the time for play to happen.  Slow down, and provide opportunities for creative play.  Keep in mind that every child is different and they learn, explore and create at their own pace.  Provide a creative play environment that allows them to explore through play, as they are ready. 

One of the greatest things about open-ended play is that you don't "need" anything special or expensive to allow it to happen.  Give a child a stick and a cardboard box, and they will naturally play and create.  

There are no instructions or rules for children to follow.  They have the ability to make their own decisions and fully engage their creativity and imagination.  Engaging your child in open-ended play is easy.  Open-ended materials and toys are nondescript items that a child can play with freely - sand, blocks, blankets, cardboard, sticks...

Try providing opportunities for the type of play that runs seamlessly into learning in nature.  Natural objects such as pinecones, rocks, and sticks combine effortlessly with art supplies, dolls, cars, and wings.  Sticks become swords or wands; pinecones become currency and food; rocks and shells become jewels or treasure.  The imaginative world is full of endless opportunities.  


Benefits of Play

Open-ended play is very important in early childhood development.  It promotes imagination, confidence, independence, creativity, and resilience in children, rather than restricting them with guidelines or rules.  Think of all the different developments that happen when children play!

They practice fine motor skills by grasping small items, and gross motor skills by walking, running, climbing and balancing.  They learn language, develop knowledge and remember experiences.  They learn to solve problems through doing, learn how to collaborate, and have lots of opportunities to express and regulate emotions.   

Children are naturally curious about the world around them.  Perhaps they are inspired to build a tower using blocks or rocks.  Allow the child to take the lead, to make mistakes.  This is all part of leaning and problem solving.  Allow this play to happen uninterrupted.  Down the road, this may lead to discussions about "what objects work best for building a tower?  Why?  What would you do differently?".  But by allowing the uninterrupted play, the blocks may be a tower today, a car tomorrow, food next week.  Imagination has no limits.  


Playing in Nature

Children naturally use their senses to explore their environment.  Allow them to explore their senses and test their boundaries/comfort level, in terms of balance, position and movement.  Natural resources provide so many opportunities for children to observe more closely and explore, using all of their senses.  Natural materials are ideal open-ended play things.  They can also be discovered in natural settings and encourage outdoor play and discovery.  

It's important to give young children the freedom to play and explore and to take risks; however, it's also important to ensure that the items they play with and the environment in which they are playing are safe and age appropriate.  


Sewing for Open-Ended Play

Although children can be incredibly creative with very little, it certainly doesn't hurt to inspire them with me-made items.  Twig + Tale has always provided such beautiful opportunities for this with their gorgeous patterns, allowing the maker's imagination to become as excited as the child's. 

It is important that children are dressed appropriately for outdoor play.  T+T clothing patterns are developed for everyday play and adventures, with room to move, pockets for treasures, and versatility to suit the user's needs and preferences. 

Our Canadian weather is ever changing, and it is important to dress for the changing seasons and changing weather.  Rainhaven Overalls are a staple for our spring/fall outdoor play, when the weather is wet and cool, and mud and puddles are plentiful.  Layered with a vest and an Alpine Hat, it allows for extended comfort outdoors, in nature.  

Maybe your child is excited about natural ecosystems or fantasy worlds - make a leaf blanket into a playmat for their toys.  Are they more interested in role-play?  Perhaps a cape, a pair of wings, or a baby blanket would be in order.  Nature baskets can be used in role play to carry a baby or stuffy, or your child may choose to use the hood as a cave or grotto.  Get them involved in choosing patterns, prints, fabric.  Allow them to integrate their handmade items with other toys/objects.  Encourage them to have fun and explore!!!

There is nothing more heart-warming than our children grabbing their handmade-with-love items to run off playing out in nature, full of joy and imagination, without a care in the world!  It fills my heart with joy.  

Martha is a primary school teacher turned Stay-At-Home-Mom/Specialty Cut Flower Grower.  She lives with her husband and two young daughters in Ontario, Canada, where they enjoy all things outdoors.  Sewing is her creative escape.  You can follow Martha's sewing adventures on Instagram @tinymakes.  



There is lots more great Storyteller content on the T+T blog!  Click here to view all of the Storyteller articles.