Making Play Limitless – Music in Open-Ended Play

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Open-ended play is vital to a child’s development. It enables learning in a truly holistic way, through active play and exploration – with no instruction or direction. With no pre-determined limitations and no fixed answer – open-ended play means children simply follow their imagination and allow the play to go in any direction their creativity takes them. As there are no set outcomes, there is no right or wrong way to play – no rules, no expectations, no specific problems to solve, and no pressure to produce a finished product.

The Benefits of Open-Ended Play

The benefits for children engaging in open-ended play are numerous. Allowing for self-directed exploration and repetitive behaviors gives children the chance to experiment and consolidate their learning. Open-ended resources support this creativity while resources that are made for a purpose have a fixed outcome e.g. a large cardboard box can be a car, a shop, a spaceship whereas a puzzle will always be a puzzle. While it has its own educational benefits, it will only ever be one thing.

The creative nature of open-ended play also enhances cognitive skills, such as working memory, cognitive flexibility, self-regulation, and self-discovery.

Children can focus on ‘creating’, based on their inner inspiration and motivation. It is an outlet for a stream of continuous thought development and expression. Open-ended play links directly with the Early Years Foundation Stage, allowing practitioners to observe children using a multitude of skills – for example creating props to support role-play or investigating shape, space, and measure. These observations also link to the Characteristics of Effective Learning – fostering opportunities for children to create and think critically, play and explore and be active in their learning.

Music Fosters Open Ended Play

Unstructured outdoor musical play offers opportunities for children to discover ways to express their thoughts, ideas, and feelings, and improvising with music is a wonderful way to foster open-ended play. Outdoor musical instruments located in parks and playgrounds allow children to explore their musical selves, including their originality, and offer a safe, secure space in which to experiment with improvisation. 

Open-ended musical play differs from teacher-structured music time in an educational setting. Initiated by children of their own volition and intrinsically motivated, play and participation prevail performance. This is critical since many self-confidence issues regarding music and the performing arts are centered around the idea that you can “get it wrong” or that what you’ve created is less than perfect. Many of the Percussion Play outdoor musical instruments are tuned to a simple five-note musical scale called the pentatonic scale. Pentatonic scale notes are harmonious in whichever order they are played and great for developing musical skills and technique without tuition. Since it is impossible to play a ‘wrong’ note anyone can create music that sounds good – building the confidence of inexperienced or very young musicians and encouraging spontaneous musical behavior. Suddenly, musical composition isn’t just for prodigies – it’s a form of artistic expression that every child is capable of doing, free to experiment with new concepts as they realize there’s no right or wrong way to engage.

Although children are surrounded daily by a variety of musical experiences, there are fewer and fewer opportunities for them to actively and freely engage in the music-making itself. Modern life means they’re inundated with melodies emitted from computer games, phones, TV shows, and toys, meaning most of the music they encounter is “unchosen,” making them passive recipients of the music in their lives and not actively engaged in its selection or making. Given the chance, children are natural composers and love to experiment with the sounds all around them. The freedom of improvisation has significant effects on the development of a child’s creative musical thinking, and that musical originality—the way the child uniquely manipulates musical sounds—increases along with their musical potential.

Open-Play Environments to Practice and Hone Key Skills

Children grow emotionally, socially, creatively, and cognitively through spontaneous music and movement, with their impromptu musical performances often revealing what they are thinking, seeing, or doing. Even when their language isn’t quite at a level to articulate their fears, excitements, or opinions, the type of music they produce during open-ended play will speak volumes.

It is imperative that young children are given access to environments that support this musical freedom, interaction, and development as well as the time to enjoy them. The permanence of outdoor musical instruments means no tidying away at the end of the day, allowing children to constantly revisit and tweak their musical compositions or repeat their choice of learning – allowing them to merge all the information they have gathered when experimenting with pitch, tempo, and dynamics.

Playgrounds are an awesome place to encourage open-ended play. Spaces that children of all backgrounds can enjoy in play areas that fuel young imaginations, encourage interaction and engage all of the senses.

Encouraging Open-Ended Play

Open-ended play strips away all rules, expectations, and time frames, and encourages children to think for themselves. Children learn to react better in situations, they learn to make choices, and they feel more inspired. When a child is asked to solve an academic or a real-life problem, they will be better equipped to resolve it through using the skills they have practiced and learned during open-ended play.

Whether you’re playing with a child or asking about their play, use open-ended questions and avoid directing their play or taking over their lead. Nothing squashes open-ended play more than being told what or how to play. Follow their lead and nurture their creativity and problem-solving skills.

By permitting our resources, learning environments, and our support as adults to be open-ended, learning through play continues to be dynamic – and most of all, fun.