Open-Ended vs. Structured Toys: How Children Benefit From Both

Staff Writer
Baystateparent Magazine


Through play, children explore, develop ideas, experiment, learn, and construct knowledge about the world around them. Both structured and unstructured play are important in learning and development. Children learn while they play!

Structured play is a predetermined or prescribed activity, such as giving a child a craft with a set outcome -- for example, making a paper snowman. This art activity provides a child a paper cutout of the body of a snowman with buttons for eyes and shirt, and other accessories to complete the look (stick for a broom, small orange triangles for a nose, and so forth), along with a completed sample snowman. The child is encouraged to do it alone but will make use of the materials provided and follow the example as a guide.

Unstructured play, or free play, is when a child is able to play at their leisure and explore in an unstructured way, with toys, resources, or materials available to use or do whatever they choose (in a safe way) -- for example, playing in a sandbox or with dolls.

The Benefits of Different Types of Toys

There are many different types of toys, but all toys are not all created equal. Toys set the basis for how children experience life, and the right ones can be tools for understanding rather than just trying to keep them busy.

Stuffed animals are not my favorite, not only are they dust collectors but also home to dust mites that can be horrible for children with allergies. That said, children absolutely love how cute and cuddly they are, so they are an unavoidable part of childhood. Children do see these as “friends.” A stuffed animal is great to cuddle and feel, and often one becomes a favorite transitional toy, but too many are a waste of money! If a child is given other resources, stuffed animals are great when playing veterinarian or as an audience to a puppet show.

When using the right toys, a child’s development will dictate its use rather than it becoming obsolete. Open-ended toys tend to be the best to have at home as they host limitless possibilities. Once a child masters a structured toy (such as a puzzle), they will rarely use it again. A child often spends more time with the empty box and packaging than with the toy itself. Sometimes a box of plain sticks and buttons will keep children busy for close to an hour! You will be amazed at how much time they spend with toys that are open-ended.

Playing with blocks, for example, will evolve as a child grows and develops. First a child will learn by exploring the different types of blocks and objects (touching, biting, feeling, holding, carrying, throwing). This play will progress to stacking and sorting, to making and knocking down towers. The play will then evolve to building different types of structures. Older children will begin to use the blocks in complex and dramatic play (building structures and playing with them, such as building a city with a friend or friends and having dinosaurs invade it).

Provide a mix of open-ended toys and structured toys. Offer a higher challenge as children grow in competency. The brand or type isn’t as relevant as the way it is used and rotated into a day. Make sure the toys are child safe, quality products, and age appropriate.

Open-Ended Toys

Open-ended toys offer open ended possibilities and provide years of learning! A child can use his or her imagination, experiment, and every time they use it, they can create something different or the toy can be used in a variety of ways, such as play dough, dress-up clothes, Legos, or musical instruments. Little hands are comfortable and attracted to something that can be touched and used, and taken apart and put back together over and over again. And this also saves a lot of money!

A manipulative is an object that is designed for a child to learn by “manipulating” it. The use of manipulatives provides children the opportunity to learn concepts such as counting, stacking, sorting and unsorting, matching, construction, patterning, classifying, and comparing, while also learning about quantitative concepts like shapes, numbers, number symbols, in a hands-on and experimental way. Playing with manipulatives also developes and enhances fine motor skills and hand-eye coordination. Manipulatives are objects like texture links, sorting shapes, rings, balls, puzzles, or stacking toys. The Melissa & Doug Company have some wonderful products as well as

Other important open-ended toys involve role play, such as action figures, dolls, Fisher Price houses, farm animals and trucks, kitchens, dinosaurs, and dollhouses. Even various books stimulate creative thinking because they provide “food for thought” and enliven imaginations.

Whenever I bought something new for my children I always tried to make sure it was something open ended; something that could be used in multiple ways, over and over again or, more importantly, would add to the current foundation of toys I had. Play money and a cash register and regular calculators were added when the children started understanding the concept of money and how money was used to pay for things, adding an entirely new element to playing store than how it was played before. The children went from simple to complex play, attaching price tags, calculating, and exchanging money.

Sample Open-Ended Toys

Infants & Toddlers

-Play kitchen with pretend food

-Stacking cubes

-Baby dolls

-Wooden blocks

-Mr. Potato Head


-Dress-up items (superheroes, princesses, pirates)

-Toy trains, cars, and trucks

-Puppets and other storytelling materials

-Role-playing kits (doctor, veterinarian, others)


-Magnetic letters and numbers

-Interlocking links and cubes

-Felt boards

-Pegs and pegboards

-Matching games (starting with colors or pictures to adding words)

Elementary-Age Children

-Fashion dolls

-Action figures-

Make-believe school or house

-Battle/war games



-Card and board games

Structured Toys

Structured toys have a clear beginning, middle, and end. It refers to toys that can only be put together one way, such as puzzles or nesting blocks. There is generally a rule or set of rules, and each piece or type of piece plays a clear role in the completion of the play activity. The materials themselves often indicate the method of play.

A child solves a puzzle or matching game, maybe with a little help at first but then independently. Not only has the child solved a problem toward mastery and independence, but he or she is beginning to memorize concepts (like the letters of C-A-T, and what a cat looks like, for example). These types of toys change as a child develops. More difficult puzzles will be needed as a child masters easier ones.

Sample Structured Toys

Infants & Toddlers

-Ring stacker

-Stacking cups

-Shape sorter

-Graduated cups

-Inset puzzles

-Puzzles (one to five large pieces)


-Basic board games (like Candyland, Chutes & Ladders)

-Floor puzzles

-Building blocks

-Lacing cards

-Pegboards with a set number of pegs

-Puzzles (ten to 30-plus pieces)

Elementary-Age Children

-Pre-designed Lego sets (like Star Wars, Harry Potter)

-Jigsaw puzzles

-Board games for older children

-Model vehicle sets (cars, airplanes)

-Puzzles (30-plus pieces)

Creating Collections

Establishing collections of the right toys will lead to years of play and learning. People often buy one toy when a child wants it, instead of creating an “open-ended” collection. For example, a child may express interest in “Army guys,” so one or a few are purchased. All new toys are played with temporarily, because they are new and interesting to explore (the uniforms, the color, the texture, the size, even the packaging). With just one or two, there is little else to do with these toys, but if this “Army guy” is added to a collection, with different colors of Army guys and trucks, equipment and tools, the play becomes much more open ended and involved.

Sample Toy Collections

-Fisher Price people, Fisher Pricehouses, accessories

-Action figures, superheroes

-Service heroes

-Melissa & Doug food sets

-Army soldiers, Navy sailors, Army trucks and accessories, barracks,hills, fences

-Barbie dolls, dollhouse, clothes and accessories, houseaccessories

-Shopkin houses, accessories

-Full-size babies or life-size dolls, clothes, and accessories

-Wooden puzzles, floor puzzles, jigsaw puzzles

-Dinosaurs, environmental accessories

-Farm animals, farm equipment, barn, farmhouse, accessories

-Matchbox cars, garages, trucks, monster trucks exhibition setup, accessories

-Sea creatures (whales, fish, sharks, other) or Insects