In this post, we’ll cover 13 favorite open-ended toys that every kid should have. Plus we’ll share the links to our favorite items.
Let’s talk about toys.
I dread gift-giving occasions with our extended family. Of course, it’s amazing to see kids light up with joy when they get the latest action figure. But so many toys are made with cheap plastic and come in terrible packaging that is definitely contributing to our environmental crisis (I’m looking at you, LOL Dolls…). And then when they get obnoxious, battery-sucking toys that light up or make sound, I just know I’m going to be living on Tylenol for the next several weeks. At which point my kids will be sick of those toys and never touch them again.
I’ve decided that it’s enough. We’re sticking with the inexpensive, open-ended toys that my kids keep coming back to after those crappy toys have lost their luster.
What are open-ended toys?
Open-ended toys are ones that don’t have a specific predetermined use. They can be used in an infinite number of ways, which is why they’re so great for kids. They encourage creativity and problem-solving skills. The best open-ended toys are sturdy and can be used in a variety of ways. They hold up to hours and hours of play and grow with your kids from toddler to tween.
Signs of a great open-ended toy:
- Simple, yet sturdy
- No batteries
- Does not have one specific use
- Easy to clean
11 BEST inexpensive open-ended toys for kids
You don’t have to spend a fortune to entertain your kids. Almost anything around the house can turn into an open-ended toy. Have you ever bought a new expensive toy for your tot, but they prefer to play with the box it came in? Or instead of opening their toy chest in the morning, they open your Tupperware cabinet and play with random storage containers?
Open-ended toys are simple, inexpensive, and perfect for toddlers and kids of all ages. Here are our favorites:
Every parenting expert will tell you that you need to have a set of blocks. And for good reason. Blocks are a classic open-ended toy. And there are so many varieties out there now, including magnetic blocks and foam blocks.
Playing with blocks helps with math skills, engineering skills, and creativity. My kids have designed houses, cars, and even entire cities with their blocks. And best of all, they can play with them for hours on end.
We have a custom set of wooden blocks that were hand-made by my father-in-law. But you don’t have to splurge on expensive wooden blocks. Melissa & Doug sell a really nice set of painted wooden blocks that will last a lifetime. You can get them here.
Colored scarfs are an often underrated open-ended toy. They’re perfect for sensory play and can be used in so many ways. You can make a scarf parachute, fashion them into a dress, or use them as bandanas. My kids love to tie them around their necks like capes and pretend to be superheroes.
They also make great building materials. My kids like to make forts and castles with them (a practice that comes in handy when they want a pillow fort for movie night). They can also be used as puppets or streamers, too!
You can find inexpensive play scarves on Amazon or at Target. They are often a mesh material and are small squares (about 2 feet by 2 feet). For us, they did not hold up well. We really like these high-quality silk scarves.
Kinetic sand is a newer open-ended toy that has quickly become a favorite in our house. It’s made of fine grains of sand that stick together. And it never dries out, so you can keep it forever (or until your kids mix all the colors to make an unappealing brown).
If you add a few kitchen tools, like sauce bowls, spoons, and cookie cutters, you open up a lot of sensory play opportunities. Kids can mold the sand into shapes, squish it through their fingers, and even build with it!
Kinetic sand is one of those toys where kids lose track of time. They can play with it for hours!
You might find kinetic sand “kits” that include a little bit of sand and several plastic molds and toys. We avoid these kids and get the 2lb bags of colored sand. You can get it in a variety of colors here. (Hint: you can make more fun colors by mixing the sand)
We don’t like Playdoh quite as much as kinetic sand because it can easily dry out, but it’s still a great open-ended toy. Playdoh is non-toxic, so even the tiniest baby can play with it.
And there are a lot of fun things you can make out of play-doh! My kids love to use their cookie cutters on it and then create shapes or letters. They often use it to make pretend food and serve up a fun playdoh picnic lunch! You can also mold animals and people with it.
Just like with the kinetic sand, you might be tempted to purchase Playdoh kits that contain tools and cookie cutters. Don’t do it! You’ll have to refresh your Playdoh more often than kinetic sand, and I found this great bulk variety pack on Amazon that doesn’t contain any of those extra pieces.
The Kitchen Sink
If you have a kitchen sink, you have the ULTIMATE open-ended toy. Kids love to move the water around, experiment with different cups and spoons, or build towers (and then inevitably open up the drain).
Kitchen sinks are especially great for kids who like tactile sensory play. They can feel the water running through their fingers and experiment with different temperatures.
Some of our favorite kitchen sink activities are:
- Making “potions” with cups of water (and a little food coloring)
- Pouring into different sized containers and funnels
- Washing plastic cups and plates
- Giving a babydoll a bath
- Creating bubbles with soap
- Painting small figures with washable paint, then scrubbing them clean in the sink
Easel & Coloring Supplies
Coloring is simple, but it can hold kids’ attention for hours. Some kids like the structure of an outlined picture to color, but you can also encourage more creativity by providing plain white and colored paper, along with a variety of markers, crayons, and pencils.
Keeping an art station with an easel and supplies is a great strategy for open-ended play. Kids can paint, color, and draw whenever they want (and you don’t have to worry about them making too big of a mess).
We bought a table-top easel that my kids can easily set up and take down on their kiddie table. It folds up and has space to store paper. And it’s two-sided, so both kids can use it at the same time. It’s one of the best toy investments we’ve made. You can get it here.
Small, sturdy play vehicles bring a sense of action and adventure to open-ended play. Whether it’s a police car, ambulance, fire truck, or train, kids love to pretend to drive them around and save the day. I love that vehicles inspire my kids to make up their own sound effects as well.
I personally prefer ones that have working wheels but are still simple enough that adding them to water play won’t destroy them. Usually, they are metal diecasts, like these. The one exception to this is wooden vehicles, which are great, but should stay out of the water!
Colored Masking Tape
We have a stash of colored masking tape at our house at all times. It’s inexpensive and extremely versatile. And the best part is that it won’t destroy your walls if your kids decide to tape it all over (like mine do).
Masking tape can be used for a million different things. Some ideas are:
- Making a rainbow on the window
- Taping lines to create a maze or track for vehicles
- Make 3D crafts or tape pages together to make a large canvas
- Making designs on windows and mirrors
- Add colorful edges to paper snowflakes
- Create a sensory path or obstacle course on the floor
- Creating patterns with different colors of tape
- Labeling things for kids learning to read and spell
I keep a package of this set at home at all times. They come stuck together, which is nice so my kids don’t lose the individual rolls (but you can pull them apart if you want). And the best part is that the tape is super easy to tear – even my 4 year old can do it!
A Baby Doll
A baby doll is a great toy for both boys and girls. It’s open-ended because kids are free to make up their own stories and scenarios with it. I recommend getting a baby doll that can go in the bathtub since open-ended play often involves water!
Kids love taking care of their babies by feeding them or changing diapers (although they may need some help for this). Some other ideas include:
Baby dolls also offer kids an opportunity to role-play real-life scenarios! It can be a helpful tool for practicing new routines and tough or scary situations.
We’ve had dolls of all sizes, and I think the best size for toddlers and little kids is a 12″ to 13″ doll. You can find them at any dollar store, Target, or Amazon.com. Be sure to get one that you can put in water!
No kid’s toy list is complete without a few outdoor play options. Getting kids outside has a huge number of benefits, and when you add in open-ended toys, it’s a win-win.
Sidewalk chalk can be used for so many things! Kids love to create designs on the pavement or draw out their own story scenes. You could even incorporate open-ended toys into your sidewalk chalk play – building with blocks and then drawing a city scene around them and using small vehicles to roam around the new city.
Sidewalk chalk can be used on more than just the sidewalk and driveway. You can also draw on wooden surfaces like a deck or a retaining wall and it will wash right off with the rain.
We strongly prefer the Crayola brand sidewalk chalk. It writes smoother and comes in more vibrant colors. You can get a pack on Amazon here, but they also stock it at Target (and in the spring they sell a HUGE box at a really good price).
Wiffle Ball & Bat
Another outdoor classic – the Wiffle ball. My kids love nothing more than spending an afternoon batting around a Wiffle ball. It’s great for all ages and abilities, and you don’t have to worry about anyone getting hurt (usually).
At first, you might not think this is an open-ended toy, but you can actually do a lot of things with Wiffle balls and bats. You can:
- Play catch or hit the ball around (like we do)
- Use the bat and ball to play backyard golf
- Hang a target in the yard and practice hitting it with the ball (or other open ended toys like whiffle golf )
- Make up your own games involving throwing, rolling, etc.
- Pretend to be baseball players and play out scenes
- Stack cups and try to hit or roll the ball into them (like backyard bowling!)
We bought our set when our kids were very little, so we have this one that includes a tee and a thicker bat. The tee is made of cheap plastic and we don’t use it often anymore, but the bat and balls have held up to TONS of use. You can get it here.
Don’t forget about outdoor water play! A sprinkler can become a favorite open-ended toy in no time. Kids can run through it, hide behind it, or create patterns with the water spray. They can use it to pretend it’s raining or to water their pretend (or real) garden.
Sprinklers are a great way to encourage active play and open-ended play at the same time. It gets kids up and moving around while letting them experiment with different ways of using water in their pretend adventures.
We’ve purchased an unreasonable number of outdoor toys that hook up to the hose (I don’t know that I’d call them all “sprinklers”, but I digress). Without a doubt, our favorite is this one that spins. It’s much more sturdy than any of the blow-up versions. If you really want one of the themed ones (like unicorns) or one that blows up, ALDI sells several during springtime or early summer. The ALDI ones have held up much better for us than the ones we purchased on Amazon.
Benefits of Open-Ended Toys
I get it. You’ve spent hundreds… maybe thousands on fancy toys with all the bells and whistles. You might be reluctant to sacrifice those toys in favor of simpler, open-ended toys. But it’s worth it. When you combine a minimalist toy approach that features open-ended toy options, you’ll reap these amazing benefits:
- Kids will become more creative and imaginative.
- Kids will learn to problem solve and think critically.
- Your kids will be more open-minded (no matter what the toy is) since they’re not limited by it’s intended purpose.
- They’ll feel more confident about their ideas and input, which boosts self esteem.
- Kids will feel a sense of power and freedom that open-ended play brings.
- Kids will become more flexible and able to adjust their thinking on the fly. They’ll learn how to work with what’s available, rather than get stuck when things don’t go as planned.
- Your kids will play better together since open-ended play encourages collaboration and sharing.
- Your children will discover a new skills or ideas they wouldn’t have stumbled upon otherwise.
- Kids will feel more satisfied when they play since open-ended toys allow for a deeper, longer engagement level – which means less fighting over the same toy!
- You’ll spend way less time (and money) picking out toys.
One common question we get: What if you don’t have space to store toys? You can get creative! Check out this guide on clever toy storage ideas from our friends at Pomogranant Mom.
The Bottom Line
A simple open-ended toy will have a much bigger impact on your child’s growth and development than any pre-packaged, expensive, fancy toy ever could.
The question isn’t whether open-ended toys are worth it or not – they’re 100% worth it! The real question is which open-ended toys to get first? There are literally thousands of open-ended toys your kids can explore with. The best thing you can do is to start small and then expand as they grow into new open-ended play hobbies and interests.
Excited about open-ended toys yet? I hope so! Don’t forget, getting rid of the “must-have” status attached to each toy will free up not only your child’s playtime but also your wallet. So go ahead and let open-ended toys take over your home!