open ended toys - small world play

Open Ended Toys: Where To Start?

If you’re new to open-ended and wooden toys, browsing Instagram, Pinterest and Facebook can be overwhelming with a plethora of ideas and things to choose between.  These toys are an investment, and its hard to know where to start.  This guide has recommendations for a set of toys for kids between 0-5 years old.  With just a few of these across four categories, kids will be set up for a wide variety of play. 

One of the most important things to look at is whether a toy allows the child to imagine, or if the toy does all the work itsef. When the toy takes over, children don’t learn and explore. A toy that is open-ended may look like one thing (a rainbow) but it can be used many ways to represent different things (a building, a bridge, a bed) and most of all, it enhances the child’s ideas and imagination, letting them build and learn in their own world.

There are a few categories to touch on when you are building a well-rounded set of open-ended toys:  building materials, small world materials, loose parts, and figures. Buttons are included at the bottom of this post for easy browsing and shopping.

Building materials:

1: The Grimms Basic Building Set is a standing favorite always-my-first recommended set.  We got ours 5 years ago (ages 0/3) and it’s still one of our most popular sets today at ages 5/8.  Big pieces are sturdy and stable and fun to build with. 
2 + 3: A Rainbow and Semi-circles are great for building towers and adding height. This is the Grimms rainbow, but the Ocamora is also beautiful, and Myers are delightful. Read here for more information about picking a rainbow. The Grimms semi-circles work with most rainbows.
4: Building Boards are great for roads, bridges, and structures
5: The Grimms Stepped Roofs work as blocks, as decorations to make a building fancier, or steps inside a building. Even alone they can be a great balancing challenge.

Loose parts: (note:  some of these are choking hazards, please play attentively)

6:  The Grimms Pebbles can absolutely double as building materials—they’re great for stacking, but at our house they’re everything from Islands to scenery to boats and cars and beds. 
7: The Grimms Color mats are fun for building, color matching, making beds and floors, but also as pretend money. In the picture above, they’re the foundation for the river.
8 + 9: Grapat coins and rings are everything from flowers to money to threading activities
10: The Bauspiel translucent cubes light up any play—as gems, as water, plants, or alone as a building and sorting and arranging toy.
11: The Grimms small balls are a great size to start with if you’re planning to build ball runs, but also a lovely hand held size for other play.
12: Grapat cups hold loose parts, peg people, or are great for building. We also really like the ones that come in the Seven Moons set.

Small world

13:  When we first started in on open ended toys, I had no intention of getting explicit trees or animals—but after the first tree came into our house, it was clear they were only an asset.  In addition to being beautiful to look at on the shelf, a few trees and plants make small world play come alive.  We love the Ostheimer, Holtiger and Dadakacraft trees.
14: Playsilks (scarves work great too) can be grass, water, clouds, or a costume. Ours come out to play every day! Earth tones tend to be the most popular in play here.


15:  For ages 0-5, peg people are perfect.  They’re sturdy, open-ended enough that they don’t always have to be people in play. They’re also easy to grasp and fit through rings and into cups.
16: Animal figures are also a lot of fun. The biggest animals are always tempting to buy, but young children often reach for the smaller hand-sized figures. A mix of familiar and exotic animals keeps it interesting.

In each of these categories, there are so many different pieces and sets that could meet these needs.  We’ve found these to be some of our most-used pieces, and these give a really solid foundation to any collection. 

Please don’t think you need to get everything listed above all at once to foster fun play. Look at my shopping guide recommendations for suggestions by age for a year-by-year breakdown.

If you’re shopping for upcoming holidays, please remember that these toys tend to sell out quickly and early, and there are not always restocks close to December.  I would always advise that if there’s something you know you’d like to buy and you see it in stock, buy it at the first opportunity.  These toys hold their value beautifully—almost certainly if you purchase and then change your mind, you’ll be able to resell right around RRP.  I’ve included some links if you’re looking for places to shop. Also an Amazon link, because sometimes thats handy, but note that their prices aren’t always the best for wooden toys.

Not mentioned by name in the post: “Eric and Albert” and “Dadakacraft” are two small makers who both make lovely small world figures. In the display above, Eric and Albert made the foxes, Dadakacraft made the Christmastree shaped fir tree. The other figures were made by Holztiger and Ostheimer.

Some of the links in this page are affiliate links. That means when you purchase through them, Building with Rainbows receives a small commission at no cost to you. Thank you for your support.

5 thoughts on “Open Ended Toys: Where To Start?”

  1. I love your site: all the care you put into demoing and explaining, and all the fun you clearly have building your ball runs and sculptural scenes — brava! A question for you…: I’m trying to start building a collection for my sweet, curious 17-month-old, but EVERYTHING seems to be sold out EVERYWHERE…. Do you have any insider tips, i.e. on what calendar/when restocks (tend to) happen, how to get in line for the basic sets, etc.? Thanks in advance. Cheers, mlh

    1. Hello! Right now is such a hard time to be starting a collection–supply is down and demand is up. Some shops do have wait lists, but otherwise the best thing i can suggest is to sign up for stock notifications and the shop mailing lists. Some shops do have private Facebook groups where they make announcements, and others make announcements on Instagram. Its a bit of a job to track them all, I totally get it. Alternatively, you can look at other brands. Bauspiel is beautiful, Gluckskafer has some great sets, and while I haven’t tried them yet, “just blocks” looks phenomenal too. Keep your eyes peeled! and best of luck!

  2. Pingback: Open Ended Toys: Picks for Bigger Kids – Building With Rainbows

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