Open-Environment Play

(If my goal is to support my children’s creativity–and that is most definitely my goal–then this takes place not just in the art studio but in all we do. So occasionally I’ll post some other examples of creativity. These will be labeled kids out of the studio.)

A discussion over at Kidoinfo led me to this article, where I learned that a better-sounding term for what I’ve always called “stupid plastic toys” is closed-environment toys. Those are the toys that are supposed to be played with in a particular way. Conversely, “open-environment” toys would be the ones that allow the kids to make the decisions and direct the play. I don’t like the closed-environment toys, and I try not to let them sneak into the house. When they do, I try to sneak them back out again.

There are compromises, to be sure. We have one of those battery-operated hand-held Simon Says games referenced in the article; we bought it a few days before driving to Canada for vacation, and it lives in the glove compartment of the car, along with the travel bingo set and the travel tangrams. We are venturing into the world of Nintendo DS, ever so cautiously, with our oldest. But above all other toys, I love the open-environment playthings and the many, infinite ways they can be transformed in the hands of a child.

Home sick from school earlier this week, my six-year-old brought out the play silks and the tree blocks. Working with his younger sister, he set the scene and populated it with the bunny family and the gnome family (the latter made from wooden peg people wearing the little sweaters and gnome hats I knit them).

He built the bunnies and gnomes a house.

He brought out the pattern blocks and built them some furniture. Here is a close-up of the kitchen, with the Mama Bunny cooking at the stove.

The brother and sister bunny went out to play on the bridge.

After these pictures were taken, he used more pattern blocks to add flowers to the field and lily pads to the water. I’m not sure how long he worked on this–at least an hour, probably close to two. It wasn’t my idea, it wasn’t my suggestion, and I stayed out of it completely except when he came to show me his creations. The materials were all on the shelves, and this particular morning, they were his medium. While the kids have built homes for the gnomes with the tree blocks before, this is the first time he’s created such an encompassing environment and the first time he’s built furniture.

It stayed up all day (quite an accomplishment, considering there’s a toddler in the house), and he was okay with cleaning it up before dinner, because he can look at the pictures any time he wants. And I couldn’t resist documenting his creativity.

What are some of your favorite “open-environment” playthings?

9 thoughts on “Open-Environment Play

  1. donna lee

    That is amazing and wonderful. We had lots of odds and ends in the house but the favorite “plaything” was the dress up box. It was filled with all sorts of things and led to hours and hours of imagination. We had flights to the moon and walks on the catwalk in front of photographers.

    1. amy

      My kids like the dress-up box, too. I like how they don’t feel limited by even the specific items, so that a NASA space jumpsuit just as easily becomes a snowsuit for a climb of Mt. Everest, if need be. They just go in there and improvise what they need.

  2. Victoria

    Right now, Dante is into creating worlds with little people, blocks and Lego. We have a whole mess of little plastic people, some that came with various vehicles. He doesn’t use the vehicles, just the people. He likes to construct towers or buildings for them out of Lego and wood blocks, and he’ll often add various other toys (puzzle pieces, Wedgits, etc) to his scene. Then he’ll stand at his table, narrating a conversation between the people, or he’ll move the people back and forth between buildings on his table and his little piano (which is mostly used as a surface for playing on).

    1. amy

      I love the things I overhear when my kids are narrating like that! (Also, aren’t Wedgits cool?!) I can remember building cities on my bedroom floor, after reading Knight’s Castle or possibly the Magic City or probably both.

  3. Michelle

    I like “open-environment” toys better too, because we have some plastic toys that I don’t consider stupid plastic, like our NASA figures. They are definitely open-environment, and they regularly visit the plastic dinosaurs and Galapagos Island creatures. If I could find them all in non-plastic, that would be great. For now, I’m completely satisfied that they are open, not closed.

    Oh, and I can’t wait to take out the tree blocks for Christmas. I want to play with them. All by myself. šŸ™‚ It doesn’t look like I’m going to have time to dress some gnomes in felt. I’m pretty sure I’m not going back on THAT end of town for a few weeks.

    1. amy

      My house is FULL of Legos, which are plastic. That’s why I always said “stupid plastic,” to differentiate from the not-stupid plastic. šŸ™‚ The first set of Duplos we bought our oldest, and one of his grandmothers said, “But you said no plastic toys!” And I said, “No, we said no *stupid* plastic toys–Legos aren’t stupid.”

      I definitely didn’t mean to imply that toys weren’t worthwhile unless they’re not plastic, although I do like the tactile differences, especially for very young kids, in toys made from more natural materials. But we definitely have a mix over here.

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