Open-ended play can’t be assessed, so there’s no pressure to do something right. The child gets to access their own intrinsic motivation for what they want to do and why. Open-ended play gives them a chance to think: ‘What do I want? What do I need from this moment in what I’m doing?’ And that helps develop a habit of understanding that through life. When children are together, they get to invent rules and come up with them collectively, so it’s very collaborative, which is really different from doing what they are told or following instructions. Open-ended play meets the person where they are. So, if a child needs to be a little quieter that day and needs to have some contemplative play, there’s room to do that. With structured play, we are not always in touch with what we need, because there’s no space to ask ourselves.
In open-ended play, children are coming up with the rules together and asking, ‘what should we do and how should we do it?’ We have seven friends from the neighborhood, all different heights and ages, we have one ball, and we’ve got some sticks and a tree. What’s the game we’re going to invent with that? That anecdote is based on the story that a taxi driver once told me about his favorite type of play as a kid. There was a big field with a tree, and whatever the kids brought with them that day, they used to make a game. It wasn’t basketball or baseball; it was whatever game they could do with seven kids, ages six through twelve, and whatever combination of objects they had around to play with. Of course, there is conflict, and they resolve it together. There aren’t adults around to tell them how to, its just open-endedness that very heavily structured childhood does not afford.