Open Ended Learning: What, Why, and How
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When my children were just babies, I started reading lots of articles on how kids learn. I was intrigued by the idea that children learn best by unhindered exploration and doing. This concept of open-ended, interest-led learning made sense to me.
After years of school, work, and learning along side my children, I still count my years growing up in a farm family in a rural area as when most the my important part of my education took place. There were no scheduled play dates, classes outside of school, video games, or Netflix. There were backyards, front yards, creeks, barns, woods, gardens, animals, puddles, ponds, and trees to explore. Sure, I had toys. Toys like dolls, trucks, cars, pop-guns, swords, wood blocks, sticks, string, rocks, and feathers – the basics. As I found out, those basic toys and materials could be made into anything.
I wasn’t alone. That’s how most of my friends grew up. Our toys didn’t have instructions. We played with them as our imagination guided us. The rules to our exploration, discoveries, and games were created by us kids. I learned about how plants grew and which birds like the field and which liked the woods by observing. I learned that I could throw a rock farther than a pine cone and that creek beds were cool places to play on hot summer days by doing, by playing, by exploring…..on my own without anyone giving me direction or a textbook.
In this world of structuring every minute of a child’s life and education, that seems so foreign.
As I have researched various methods of education and child development, I have noticed a resurgence of open-ended play and interest-led learning. Books, articles, and websites are available to help parents understand this type of learning. Educational movements, such as Reggio-Emilia, have their foundations set in open-ended play and child-led learning.
Open-Ended vs. Closed Learning Systems
When a child is engaged in open-ended learning, he or she is not bound by rules or instructions. There is no right or wrong way. There is no set end to a project. On the other hand, a closed learning system has parameters and rules. There are set right and wrong answers.
A set of wood blocks is a good example of open ended learning. Blocks can be played with in a multitude of ways. They might be used for building any type of structure or for symbolizing another object in imaginative play situations. There is no wrong way to play with the blocks.
Puzzles are an example of closed system learning. There is just one way to put together a puzzle. There is a definite right and wrong way. Memorizing multiplication tables is, also, a closed system of learning.
Both open-ended and closed learning are necessary in the education process. However, we need to be able to move beyond memorizing and being able to follow rules and directions – closed learning. We need the benefits of open-ended learning to understand how the world works, make the rules, and find the answers.
Right now, our school systems are focused on closed learning, memorizing facts, and taking tests. As homeschooling families, we have a great opportunity to let our children take advantage of both open-ended and closed learning. We have the opportunity to truly nuture the minds of the future.
Benefits Of Open-Ended Learning
We’ve already talked about how open-ended learning allows children to explore and learn on their own. It might seem a too little hands-off for some. I mean, where are the flash cards and textbooks? Sure, it sounds fun for the kids, but what are the real benefits?
When I was young, the neighbor kids, my brother, and I would head to the woods behind our house. We had built a “fort” in the creek. It was just some branches propped between two trees that had fallen over two high banks of the stream and in the summer there wasn’t much water running so we had room to hang out on the rocks and bank.
That fort served as a hideout for bandits that ruled the woods, a castle where the princess was being kept, a Native American dwelling, and a cave where we hid from dinosaurs. We made guns and spears out of sticks and rocks. We created dishes from leaves and nuts. It was our own world created from what we found around us. It didn’t cost us anything. We used our imagination. Open-ended play like this helps develop imagination. This creativity is used all throughout life to solve problems, but is most effective when imagination is cultivated.
Develops Critical Thinking Skills
While defending the castle from enemies or when trying to build a bridge across the moat (from your bed to our dresser) out of paper, pencils, and kite string, there are bound to be some issues. If a child has no instructions, they will be forced to turn on their critical thinking.
No doubt there will be trial and error, but through that process learning will take place. They will develop the skill of looking critically at what they know about the material, what the end product should look like, which building technique works, and which did not. This is a skill that will take them far in many aspects of life.
Teaches Children To Ask Questions
Open-ended learning activities cause children to think, to wonder, and to ask questions. They might ask questions like:
“I wonder what would happen if…?”
“What can I make with this clay?”
“How did that happen?”
These questions spur curiosity and further exploration and testing. This is how children become little scientists!
Promotes And Develops Higher Order Thinking
We discussed the difference between open-ended and closed learning earlier. They are different approaches to learning, but also help develop different types of thinking. Closed learning is very black and white. It is helpful for memorizing vocabulary words, multiplication tables, and other facts.
Open-ended learning helps develop skills to take those facts, analyse them, and apply the results to come up with solutions to problems and new questions to answer. This process is higher order thinking. It is more than coming up with a simple answer to a question. It is thinking things through. This is a skill that people need to be able think on their own.
Choosing Open-Ended Learning Resources
Introducing open-ended learning to your children is easy. You have probably done it already and haven’t realized it. Do your children have wooden blocks, Legos, or art supplies? Then, they have already been exposed to open-ended learning! Those resources allow children to use their imagination and critical thinking skills to build, design, create, and story tell.
Here are some other favorite open-ended learning resources for you to consider:
- Spielgaben educational toys are among the highest quality resources you will find. The complete set offers endless learning opportunities. Learn more from my Spielgaben review post.
- Art supplies like clay, craft sticks, paint, and brushes
- Pretend play supplies such as costumes, baby dolls, wooden dolls, and toy animals
- Items from nature: sticks, rocks, grasses, leaves, and nuts
Do you practice open-ended learning with your children? Are you going to start?