5 Myths : Open-Ended Materials

As a workshop facilitator, I have the pleasure of talking to early childhood educators about open ended materials.  I get to sit on the floor with teachers and caregivers, playing with materials, and engage in dialogue around their experiences, and the experiences they want to frame for children.

There are a few assumptions that people make about using open-ended materials with children, and they seem to come up over and over again in dialogue and conversation.  

Let's debunk a few of those myths - because open-ended materials are a timeless addition to any learning environment, with children of all ages.

Myth #1 : They need to be presented on a table.

 Weaving materials at  Play Lab, 2013

Weaving materials at Play Lab, 2013

Using open-ended materials has become synonymous with trays and small items: creating playscapes and prompts for children to encounter and engage with.  When you lean into this kind of thinking, you immediately end up in a corner: imagining materials as teacher chosen, and only presented in offerings.  You can offer materials on tables, of course, but it is not the only way.

Open-ended materials can be an exploration together at the carpet; moving items on the playground; an assortment of items in the sensory table; and more:  you should open your mind to new, never-tried-before opportunities when you plan.

Myth #2 : Children are most engaged when they are quiet.

Video by AnjiPlay

This goes for materials and beyond: "quiet" is not a synonym for "engaged".  There is an image in most of our minds of the child at the table (probably about four or five years old), carefully moving materials.  That child is engaged, but so is the child who is dumping all of the materials into a bowl in the dramatic play area, then putting that bowl into a purse, then carrying that purse around the room for an hour.  Is his work less meaningful than the child at the table?  

Open-ended choices in the outdoor area are a great example.  Remember that children are children, not small adults, and their behavior and choices will be different than the choices you will make.  This is not to say they are not capable, competent, and curious!  Noise is an exploration in itself, and is an excellent partner for open-ended materials and process-based play.


Myth #3 : Materials = Loose Parts = Small Items.

 Radial shovels on the playground, 2016

Radial shovels on the playground, 2016

A muddy definition of loose parts has led to a common assumption about open-ended materials: that they are small items.  

When I think of open-ended materials, I think of absolutely anything that can be used for more than one purpose:  rocks, marker caps, sticks, sand, water, bolts, fabric scraps - these are items that can be mixed and matched to the heart’s content, and will rarely serve the same purpose twice.  The the whole idea of using open-ended materials is to be more flexible, and more open, with the materials that the world has to offer.  These don’t necessarily need to be small: they just need to be anything that can be used for limitless purposes.


Myth #4 : Materials are a Reggio thing.

Yes, open-ended materials can be found in the municipal preschools of Reggio Emilia.  But more importantly, they can be found in many other places, and they do not need a label or an attribution: in general, it is the way children played before the commercialization of play.  Children often find materials for play themselves when given the time and the space to explore.

Open-ended materials do not make a program more or less like the schools of Reggio Emilia, which are set in a time and a place that cannot be copied word for word.  Open-ended materials go far beyond glass beads and bottle caps in Reggio Emilia.  Materials are one language among many: other languages include paint, clay, music, construction, any way to communicate about and with the world.  


Myth #5 : Materials Play is not for infants and young toddlers.

 An infant explores @ Play Lab Cardboard Playground, July 2016

An infant explores @ Play Lab Cardboard Playground, July 2016

When you are planning prompts and play opportunities for very young children, you do not need to dismiss open-ended materials: you simply need to understand how to curate the most appropriate materials.  This is true for any age group, really.  

Very young children can engage with everyday objects - and they often do, regardless of whether they are offered the materials or not.  You can take this as inspiration, offering children more open-ended opportunities to explore everyday objects on their terms.  The exploration is a young child's work and play, and it looks different for children of different ages.  Keep children's safety in mind when you plan, and offer an experience that will be engaging - not one where you need to hover and fret.


Learn More with the Bakers and Astronauts Materials and Prompts Online Workshop!