Updated on 03.09.12

Focus on Buying Open-Ended Toys (69/365)

Trent Hamm

Yesterday, I wrote about the advantages of buying fewer toys, but focusing on higher-quality toys. This makes sure that you’re not replacing toys because they’re cheap, you’re not filling your house up with clutter, and the toys have resale value when you’re finished.

If you’ve spent time around children, you’ll quickly notice a few key things about how they play. First, they play imaginatively. They’re constantly making up adventures and games. They’re constantly drawing pictures and creating art. The only time I’ve found when my children don’t do this is when they’re watching a television program or sleeping.

If that’s how they play, then doesn’t it make sense to purchase toys that actually support that kind of play?

An ideal toy for a child is one that can be used in a wide variety of situations for a wide variety of purposes. There’s no set beginning, middle, and end of playing with such a toy, and because of that, open-ended items tend to get played with a lot, meaning that your children need fewer toys to play with.

Focus on Buying Open-Ended Toys (69/365)

The toy above is a great example of both the good and the bad of what I’m talking about here.

On the one hand, it allows the person playing with it to create free-form art. You can essentially draw anything with this set, and you can constantly create new pictures with it. That’s a very good thing, as there’s no set way to play with it.

On the other hand, it’s limited in that you can only really draw on this one screen and you have to use special supplies to draw on it.

What I look for in a toy are two things. One, can it be used in a wide variety of situations? A box of crayons is more open-ended than this, for example, because you can color on a wide variety of papers and surfaces, plus replacing normal crayons is much less expensive.

Second, does the item offer a wide variety of possibilities for play? For example, look at two dollhouses. One has the furniture and floors all fixed tightly in place so that they cannot be moved. Another dollhouse enables you to move the floors and walls and furniture to your heart’s content.

Both can be played with as houses for dolls, but one can also be used as an interior design toy. The second offers much wider opportunities for play.

Why is this so important? Again, an open-ended toy is much more likely to attract lots of play as compared to a less open-ended toy. If your child plays with a small number of toys a lot instead of the reverse, that means you’re spending far less money on toys.

Open-ended toys also tend to grow with the child, having a much longer lifetime of play than other toys. My son goes through phases of who his favorite comic book hero is every few months, but he and his sister still draw all the time, just as they did three years ago.

So, fill your house with blocks, Legos, building materials, dramatic play clothes, and art supplies, and perhaps build a sandbox in the back yard. The relative cost of these things is really low, while the replay value is incredibly high.

This post is part of a yearlong series called “365 Ways to Live Cheap (Revisited),” in which I’m revisiting the entries from my book “365 Ways to Live Cheap,” which is available at Amazon and at bookstores everywhere. Images courtesy of Brittany Lynne Photography, the proprietor of which is my “photography intern” for this project.

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  1. Lilly says:

    I LOVE this post. I have a 2 year old, and it seems like the fewer toys she has, the more creative she is.

  2. Lilly says:

    I LOVE this post. Another good thing (that you briefly mentioned) is that you end up buying fewer toys overall because your kids don’t “grow out” of them as quickly. We have a VERY small box of “baby” toys put away, that she has grown out of. But her wooden blocks, baby doll, teddy bear, jumbo crayons, etc are still great for her.

  3. Lilly says:

    Ouch, sorry for the double post… I didn’t think my first one went through! Now I feel like I’m talking to myself….

  4. Roberta says:

    This post amplifies something Amy Dacyzyn (The Frugal Zealot) mentioned years ago.. along the lines of ” a zxy-93 fighter plane can only be a zxy-93 fighter plane, but a block can be anything”. I’m with you Trent on this – blocks, art materials, Legos and the like. My boys LOVED K’nex and we kept all of them, along with the blocks, the Legos and the GI Joes. Our oldest boy home from college at 22 years old still gets on the floor and plays legos or K’nex with our youngest, who is 12. Sometimes I get down there and play too, and I’m over 50.

  5. Roberta says:

    And my sister kept the wooden doll cribs that my four sisters and I played with, and my niece puts her “babies” to bed in them just like we did….

  6. Nate Poodel says:

    Several years ago I heard on the radio that they were going to announce the MOST popular toy of all time. Everyone thought it would be balls, trains, dolls, blocks, etc. It turned out to be the Stick! Yes a stick and runner up was the Box. Kids can use them in the most creative ways. I think the same goes for toys. Keep ’em simple and you’ll have plenty of play time.

  7. Carol says:

    Thanks, this post made me want to play and color myself! We as adults need to feel more like playing and creating things, especially when life gets stressful, it’s good to remember the fun stuff.

  8. valleycat1 says:

    #6 Nate – LOL! My child was happiest in almost any situation if there was a stick or a small container (box, cup, whatever) at hand to play with. On our first visit to a large zoo, the toddler was cranky until we found a stick, a cup, and a small patch of dirt to play in.

    Large boxes are also magical.

  9. Kai says:

    I’m pretty sure that scrap paper and crayons serve the same purpose as the COLOUR EXPLOSION GLOW BOARD for a fragment of the cost.
    How about a photo of some lego, or those tiles that Trent raves about, or those blocks from the previous post? -Rather than something that I can’t imagine a frugal parent purchasing

  10. Izabelle says:

    LOVE this post!

    My brother and I used to fight over the Lego blocks, and we kept playing them from pre-school into our teenage years.

    I’d add that open-ended toys, used enough, can help train children to think laterally and creatively rather than in a linear manner (in other words, it keeps the “inner child” active into adulthood!). That skill will be useful their entire life, no matter the path they choose.

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