Open-Ended Materials in Preschool

Updated: Apr 20

If you have been staying up-to-date with the news here at Honey Bear, you will know that we recently started a biweekly blog to keep new and prospective parents informed about what our students are doing. This however is not that blog. Here we have decided to take a step back and take a deeper look at some of our teaching philosophies and principles. This week, our wonderful teacher of the 3-year-olds, Jackie, will be taking you all on a journey to learn about what open-ended materials are, and why we believe they are some of the best things students can use to learn and progress throughout their time at Honey Bear Preschool. With that, take it away Jackie!

Hello Parents! It has been such an honor working with the amazing students I have at Honey Bear. I am so excited to tell you all about open-ended materials, and how I incorporate them into my classroom. When you think of open-ended what does it mean to you? For some, open-ended could mean something in the literal sense of “open-ended” for example, questions that cannot be answered with a simple yes or no. For us, open-ended is taken in a more loose definition. We believe that for preschoolers, open-ended should mean that anything is possible. This is one of our mottos here at Honey Bear, and we do our best to empower our students' sense that they can achieve anything through art and creative experiences. The use of open-ended materials helps our students grow and uncover their inner confidence, which in turn allows them to express themselves in ways that more ridgid learning materials cannot. Throughout the rest of this blog I hope you’ll join me as I discuss the amazing benefits of open-ended material learning, as well as some of the open-ended materials that I use on a daily basis to stimulate the minds of my awesome 3-year-old students.

Benefits of Open Ended Materials

Before we truly dive into the benefits of using open-ended materials in the classroom, I should first do a better job explaining what exactly open-ended materials are. Open-ended materials are things with no direction, no instructions, no order. Materials that can be used by themselves, or in combination with others. Things such as sand, playdough, paint, blocks and water. All of these materials can be used to help a student explore, experiment, and learn in an unstructured environment, thus stimulating their creativity, and helping them develop.

In reading professional research, as well as through some of my own trial and error, I have found that my students learn the most with a combination of unstructured activities in conjunction with some guidance from myself and other teachers. As you can see in the picture below, one of my students was playing with PlayDoh. During this activity I set out a number of open-ended materials including playdoh, pipe cleaners, bottle caps, glass beads, and buttons. During this play time there was no “goal” for my students. No directions were given to make a certain sculpture, or paint a specific picture, we simply gave students the materials and let them create what they wanted to create. With her materials in front of her, this student first began by creating a bird. This was going well until halfway through she decided that she wanted to make a sculpture of her mom instead. These are the types of things I love to see as a teacher. Walking through the classroom and talking with my students, I could help each of them figure out what they want to make, in this case a bird. But then five minutes later when I made my way back around, this student's whole idea and through process had changed. What had once been a bird was now her mom, and her creative thinking process had improved. It is these sorts of progressions that are not as common with structured play and toys.

While this change from bird to mom may not sound impressive at first, it is the idea behind the change that makes working with open ended materials so valuable to developing minds. If I had simply put a paint brush in front of my students and told them to draw their moms, little to no creativity would be involved in the process. By allowing students to discover what they want to do, helping them reach that goal, and then allowing them to switch directions half way through, open-ended materials push creativity to the foreground. This forces students to think, adapt, and decide for themselves what they want to create. The idea of choice has been studied many times in the context of childhood development and the research is clear; giving young students toys that force them to make decisions and discover their uses are far better in promoting creativity, as well as cognitive, social, and motor skills development as compared to more structured toys. Open-ended materials work for preschool-aged students much like open-ended writing prompts might work for an advanced placement writing class in high school. The materials give my students a groundwork to start at, but it is up to them to decide where they want to go, and up to me to help them get there. During our time working with open-ended materials I have learned that oftentimes it is best to simply sit back and let my students express themselves through their materials, though of course they all need a little inspiration from time to time.

In addition to boosting creativity and expressiveness in students, the use of open-ended materials has a number of other benefits as well. Chief among these benefits for my students is the chance to work on their social skills while playing with each other. With open-ended play, the choices are endless, which in turn means that each student can have a completely different idea as to what they want to create or accomplish. For example, when playing with blocks, one student might want to have a “car” race, while another could see the blocks as phones and want to use them to talk with one another. During our free play time, the teachers and I do our best to let the students work out issues on their own. It is through this problem solving that they learn to interact with their classmates, solve issues through communication, and figure out how to compromise with each other. Of course we are always keeping a watchful eye, however, throughout my years as a preschool teacher I have come to find that students learn far more when they are allowed to solve their own problems, rather than having a teacher solve it for them. When possible we do our best to let small issues resolve themselves, and try to step in only when necessary.

My Favorite Open-Ended Materials

Here are just a few of my favorite open-ended materials that we use throughout the year here at Honey Bear. I believe that these materials give students the greatest opportunity to express themselves and their creativity, while at the same time helping them develop other important skills such as cooperation, communication, and fine motor skills.

Paint and other Art

Of course art is an important part of every great preschool, however here at Honey Bear we make sure to allocate some time to fully unstructured art. While there are certainly benefits to telling students to paint a tree, or a house, or their mom, we believe there is much to be gained by allowing students to figure out what they want to paint on their own, and then helping them achieve that vision. This principle holds true for our other art as well, as you can see from the PlayDoh art I talked about earlier in the blog.


Blocks are some of my favorite open-ended materials to bring out for my students because they really allow their creative side to flourish. Something as simple as a wooden block can be so many different things in the eyes of a child: a boat, a car, a phone, a bridge. The possibilities are endless and watching my students think of games and imaginary scenarios as they play with each other always puts a smile on my face.


While not super usable on its own, in a very slightly structured environment water becomes one of the most valuable open-ended materials for children to experiment with. What happens when you pour water from a large cup into a smaller one? Why does water form a curved surface on a penny (this was an experiment our four year olds did with Mrs. Sandra, you can read more about that here)? How does water combine with sand to make it into something you can form and mold? The properties of water make it fantastically unique and my students have a wonderful time learning what they can do with it.

These are my top three favorite open-ended materials however, there are of course countless numbers of things that can be used. I do my best to keep our materials as fresh as possible, rotating new toys for my students to explore with as often as I can. I find that even with open-ended materials unless students are presented with new materials on a regular basis they fall into a routine with their toys, effectively eliminating the benefit of using open-ended materials in the first place.

Wrap up of Open-Ended Materials

I hope that you have learned something new about open-ended materials after reading through my blog. They are some of the best things for new children to learn with and it is incredible to see the progress my students make playing with open-ended materials throughout the year. Thank you so much for reading and I can wait until my next blog, until then leave a comment down below on what your favorite open-ended materials are and I will try to incorporate that into our next lesson!

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