Throw Away the Directions! The Importance of Open-Ended Play


“This hose is a breathing tube,” our 9-year-old son said holding up a piece of garden hose.
I nodded and continued chopping carrots.
“And this foot pump is part of a tricky machine that lets you breathe underwater.”
“Uh-huh,” I said absently.
I was used to the boy’s inventions. Mousetraps from duct tape, helicopters from old egg beaters, and remote controlled cars covered with fake fur used to scare his unwitting brothers—Daniel was a non-stop, ever-thinking inventor.
Dinner was nearly ready. I opened the screen door to holler everyone into the house when I froze. There on the dock was Nicky, our 7-year-old son pounding away on the foot pump with the hose attached and leading straight down into Puget Sound.

“WHERE IS YOUR BROTHER?!” I yelled.SCN_0002-300x196
“Down there, but I can’t stop pumping or he won’t get AIR,” he said.
I ran down to the dock and screamed Daniel’s name hoping irrationally he could hear me 8 feet under the green water.
Up the boy popped from the water like a wet seal.
“It WORKS!” He crowed. “My breathing machine WORKS!”
And that is the crazy side to open ended projects, where providing materials and ingredients and inventor’s tools can go sideways down rich and twisty rabbit holes.

Open-ended projects offer endless possibilities for working the old into the new, it’s called functional freedom, and it is heady play. There are no directions, no winning or losing, no right or wrong way to arrive at an end. It is all part of the process of developing imaginations, and that is the key to creativity: honoring the process and not the product. Open-ended projects also boost the brain’s problem solving skills, and decreases stress in a hurried world.

One of the best things you can do for your kids’ creativity is throw away the directions, and provide the raw recycled materials to build boats, and space stations and homes for dolls from cardboard boxes. Leave behind expectations, do not give feedback (even positive feedback is a form of judging), and tolerate the messes of good creative work. You will be offering your child the greatest of gifts: the chance to imagine her way into a future of possibilities.

Our Favorite Open Ended Play Ideas:
• Dress-Up basket
• Art Box
• Inventor’s Box
• A bin of Legos or blocks
• A collection of dinosaurs or dolls or balls
• Box of puppets
• Making no-recipe fruit salads, or a vegetable soup




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