Open-Ended Play and Sensory Materials Gift Guide

I say this a lot and you will read it throughout this post, but how I wish I knew what I know now about open-ended play when my now 11 year old daughter was younger….I would have done things so differently. While she is a truly creative kid, I think that had I encouraged more sensory and open-ended play to her at a young age, she may not be so hooked to her electronics! 

Open-ended play materials encourage children to be more independent and creative thinkers, help them make choices and really foster creativity and imagination. By definition, open-ended materials do not have a pre-determined use….kids are in charge of deciding what will do with these materials. For example, a block can be a person, car, rocket ship, etc.. Children who engage in more open-ended play tend to develop wonderful problem solving skills. Sensory play is critical for development as well. Sensory play supports language development, cognitive growth, fine and gross motor skills, problem solving skills, social interaction and so much more.

If you are interested in building up your child’s open-ended play experiences, be sure to check out my gift guide below. I have tried to include things that can be played with as toddlers through childhood. 

1. Tegu Baby’s First Magnetic Blocks-I’ve always loved all things Tegu and always include them on my gift guides. They are especially great for children who have motor coordination difficulties because the magnets inside the blocks allows them to be successful with building and putting structures together. Ideal for children 6 months and older but I have a feeling some of my bigger kids would love these two. The brightly colored set of magnetic square blocks come in appealing colors and are easy to wash. Perfect for working on hand-eye coordination, visual motor and visual perceptual skills, and encouraging fine-motor, grasping and manipulation skills for your little ones. 

2. Magna-Tiles Doodle Tiles-I am always looking for ways to make handwriting and drawing more fun and knew that my magenetic-tile loving kids would most definitely be motivated to practice graphomotor skills with these. My 11 year old daughter and her friend were even motivated enough by these to put their phones down for a while to test them out for me! This Magna-Tile and Crayola collaboration is so great and will encourage creativity and imagination skills while also working on developing fine motor, grasping, visual motor and visual perceptual skills and work on improving hand-eye coordination and bilateral coordination. Each set comes with 8 small square tiles, 2 large square tiles and 5 Crayola markers that easily wash off. Compatible with all other Magna-Tiles. 

3. Magna-Tiles Jungle Animals-another awesome new set from Magna-Tiles that again be used with any other Magna-Tiles in your collection. This 25-piece set includes colorful tiles with different jungle patterns on them and 5 of the most adorable magnetic animals that stick to the other pieces. These are great for encouraging creativity, imagination and language skills while also working on developing fine motor, grasping, visual motor and visual perceptual skills and work on improving hand-eye coordination and bilateral coordination. 

4. Silicone Pop Fidget Building Blocks-one of my speech therapy colleagues tipped me off on these and I am now obsessed. Think a fidget pop-toy that you get to build yourself! These incredibly well-built and sturdy building blocks come in a variety of colors and can be snapped or slipped together to make shapes, objects or to even practice learning how to make letters. Great for working on improving fine motor, grasping and manipulation skills, improves hand-eye and bilateral coordination skills and works on motor planning and organizational skills. You can also work on sorting, matching and following patterns. A great on-the-go building material that will keep your kids entertained for a long time. 

5. Grapat Lola Building Toys-this beautiful open-ended building set is definitely what I would call an investment piece (a toy with a bigger price tag but that will last forever and has endless play and learning potential. This set comes with 72 pieces….36 colorful Lola dolls in various colors and sizes. Kids work on improving matching, sorting, stacking, problem solving and categorizing skills while also working on improving fine motor, grasping, manipulation and hand-eye coordination skills. Playing with open-ended play materials is also great for working on encouraging creativity, imagination skill and early storytelling skills. 

6. Grimm’s Shapes and Colors Block Set-another investment toy that will last you forever. This brightly colored 70-piece set from Grimm’s comes in a variety of geometric shapes and sizes. Kids can learn about shapes and colors through open-ended building and exploration. Introducing block building with kids at a young age is so beneficial and helps them develop life-long skills. It helps children develop language and vocabulary skills, encourages creativity, imagination and play skills and helps them learn about things such as early math skills, balance, motor planning, organization and problem solving skills. When building with siblings or peers, block building can teach children about turn taking, accepting other people’s ideas and collaboration. 

7. Magic Color Changing Dough Jars-I saw these and thought about how much fun my kids at work would love to see these glittery white balls of play dough magically turn into a mystery color. I actually have ordered a bunch of these to give each of my kids this holiday season. I love how the simple act of manipulating the play dough works on increasing grasp strength and manipulation skills. Once they find out what color it is, they can build whatever they want. I always like to have tools such as a rolling pin, scissors, beads or whatever else I might have lying around to spark their creativity and imagination. 

8a. Build A Snowman Sensory Sand Bin-sensory bins are a great way to keep kids occupied as the weather gets colder and it gets dark earlier. I know so many parents are trying to limit the amount of screen time since 2020 and 2021 meant so much screen time for their kids. I am in love with this Snowman Sensory Bin from Young, Wild and Friedman and think it would be a great gift, especially for those little ones who might not get to actually experience snowy weather. This set comes with homemade moldable sensory sand and cloud sand, various snowman figurines, SNOW glitter letters and a bucket and shovel all stored in a sensory bin with a lid. What a fun way to work on improving fine motor, grasping and manipulation skills, encourage hand-eye and bilateral coordination, encourage sensory and tactile exploration and encourage imagination, creativity, language and play skills, right? If snow play might not be your kid’s thing, be sure to check out the extensive collection on the Young, Wild and Friedman website. 
**If you are looking for a way to contain your child’s sensory play or make it easy to move around your house, I can’t encourage the Hope Learning Tray enough. I have one at work and at home and it’s been so incredibly handy. I have referenced this amazing sensory tray in my Baby and Toddler Gift Guide so be sure to go and check that out for more information.

9. Bristle Blocks-each year I like to include some of the classic toys in my gift guides. I think that a toy that has been around as long as I have been must be doing something right! Bristle blocks are not only a wonderful building toy, they offer a sensory and tactile experience that no other blocks do. They are also pretty indestructible which is a real bonus for some of our rough and tumble kinda kids. Young children can work on improving fine motor, grasping and manipulation skills, improve hand-eye, bilateral coordination and motor planning skills while playing with these blocks. As grown-ups, we can teach kids about shapes, colors, size, etc. while they play with these blocks.  

10. Roll and Bounce Tower-I will never not be mesmerized and fascinated by a marble run and have often wondered how to introduce this toy to little ones but was always so nervous about the safety risks because of the marbles. This set comes with 27 chunky track and tower pieces that can be mixed and matched to be a different path each time. Kids place the large ball into the starting point and watch it go through the tunnels while watching panels flip and spin. This toy is great for working on improving hand-eye and bilateral coordination skills, increases grasp strength, fine motor skills and manipulation skills and teaches kids about cause and effect. Since there are an infinite ways to put the tower together, kids won’t get bored or feel like they are playing with the same toy over and over again. 

11. Stained Glass Jewel Mandala Loose Parts-while looking through Etsy I stumbled upon these beautiful blocks and thought they would be a beautiful addition to any child’s toy room. This 15-block set comes in a variety of colors and are great for open-ended play and can be used with any other blocks. These blocks can be stacked, sorted by color and can be used to work on sequencing and following patterns. 

12. Design and Drill Toolbox-we have had a different version of this toy at my gym for years and it is a big hit amongst the kids. I chose this new drill set from Educational Insights this year because of the storage box which is always a selling point for me. In addition to the power drill, the screws and the board, this set also comes with a handful of other tools including a hammer, measuring tape and much more. Kids can make their own designs or can work on improving visual motor and visual perceptual skills while copying the designs on the cards included with the set. This toy is also great for working on increasing grasp strength and manipulation skills, improves hand-eye and bilateral coordination and can be used to encourage creativity, imagination and expand play skills. 

13. Way To Play Road Pieces-I have loved these interchangeable road pieces since I first saw them a couple of years ago and recommend them to any of my families who have a little car lover in their life. This set of 40 interlocking pieces helps your little one create different routes and paths allowing your child to make his/her perfect path. The best part is that because they can design their own paths, they don’t get bored and can change it up anytime they want. They are made of a soft, flexible rubber so you can create obstacles over other toys. Playing with these road pieces are great for working on improving fine motor and manipulation skills, improves bilateral and hand-eye coordination and encourages motor planning and organizational skills. Pair with your favorite cars and let your child’s imagination take the steering wheel!

14. Rainbow Peg Dolls Sorting Set-I have a set of sorting dolls and with boxes and work and they have been one of the best purchases I have ever made. This set of 12 rainbow colored peg dolls comes with a cotton bag for storage that also doubles as a play with the numbers 1-12 in colors for kids to work on matching skills. Kids not only work on color and number recognition, they can work on developing counting skills. When not used for matching and sorting, they can be used during open-ended play which encourages creativity, imagination, play, organizational and language skills. 

15. Wooden Loose Parts Kit-I am in love with all of Hope Learning Toys products. This set of wooden loose parts comes with 6 3D shapes, 7 forest gnomes and 8 piece peg doll family. As I have mentioned in previous posts, I wish I knew more about open-ended play and the benefits of playing with loose parts when my daughter was younger. Not only is it great for working on grasping and manipulation skills, it encourages creativity and imagination skills, encourages play skills and is a great way to work on improving language and conversational skills. Loose parts can be used on their own, in sensory bins, with doll houses or any building toys you already might have at home. 

Once again, I have tried to link some of my favorite local toy stores whenever I could as I have always found it very important to support our local businesses but even more so now. Many of the items listed above are ones that I have seen in most toy stores I have visited all over the place. And since are all hearing about shipping nightmares and problems with supply chain, why not take out some of the stress and support your local stores where you don’t have to worry about toys arriving on time. If you are shopping for family members who are not local, find out their local toy stores and see if you can shop from there. If you are in the NYC area, be sure to check out the following stores: Lulu’s Cuts and Toys, Little Things Toy Store, Norman and Jules, Annie’s Blue Ribbon General Store, West Side Kids, Stationary and Toy World, Mary Arnold Toys, Kidding Around Toys and Boomerang Toys. 

Again, if you are looking for specific open-ended or sensory toys for your kids or kids on your shopping list, please do not hesitate reaching out to me for suggestions. I have so many more thoughts on great gifts for the important kids in your life. I am only an email away at [email protected] and love to hear from and help in any way I can. 

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