The Truth About Open-Ended Materials


Open-ended materials are objects that have no prescribed or predetermined use or function. They are loose parts—the raw materials to build or create something…and then be recombined to make something new. Open-ended materials can be big or small, round or square, rough or smooth, stiff or pliable, heavy or light,….and they can be stacked, combined, manipulated, collaged, measured, and arranged in infinite ways.

table of stuffBlocks are open-ended materials. Sand, gems, bottle caps, string and paper are open-ended materials. Almost anything can be a raw material to create something else!

Open-ended materials provide endless possibilities for learning and creativity.



Open-ended materials empower children to make reality of the concepts they imagine. Children observe that the materials can be used for many different things and open themselves to possibilities…not just in the classroom but in their own lives as well.

venn2   DSC02438Open-ended materials provide decision making and problem solving opportunities. They challenge us to explore, observe, analyze, compare. As we play with the materials we discover the properties of each material and understand the benefits and drawbacks of each. We notice similarities, differences and patterns. Open-ended materials stimulate our senses and develop our large and fine motor skills.


Children enjoy the opportunity to rearrange and transform materials. They become designers, engineers, architects, artists, innovators, collaborators and explorers, often using materials to represent other things.

couchChildren may not consciously think, “What can I make with these materials?”, but they will explore the materials’ sensory qualities that stimulate and inspire them. Children will build, collage, sort, pattern, make designs, and recreate objects and places from their lives. They will add things like signage, labels, and toys from home to further personalize and explain their creations. They will create objects that replicate and explain topics of interest to them.

Children will play with open-ended materials to understand them. “There is no correct way of understanding anything even though the world wants us to believe it, it’s not true.”* The open-ended materials will become a reflection of a child’s life—interests, dreams, culture, IMG_0018family, neighborhood, all of the things that make her feel significant. Open-ended materials allow a child to use whatever frame of reference is her own. Ask a child, “Tell me about your creation” …and you will learn a lot about that child!



 *Keri Smith, author of Wreck This Journal and How To Become An Observer Of This World