Open-Ended Versus Single-Action Play in the Digital World

“… The very best kinds of playthings are open-ended … Children can make of them whatever they’re working on at that moment, and their play is then determined by their own needs. If most of their playthings are “single-action”: toys, their play tends to be limited, as if they’re following the “formula” of what the manufacturer determined.” -Fred Rogers

Was Fred Rogers right about single-action versus open-ended playthings? How do you make decisions about which toys or apps are likely to provide enjoyable and enriching play experiences? Michael Robb and Junlei Li, Fred Rogers Center research psychologists, and parents themselves, explore Fred’s messages on choosing playthings and what lessons can be applied to the digital world.

Junlei: The quote about “single-action” versus “open-ended” toys has stuck with me ever since I read it in the “Mister Rogers Parenting Resource Book” as a first-time parent. Like most parents, I didn’t have a “line in the sand” about what kind of toys I bought for my daughter, and I perhaps bought more single-action toys than those that offered open-ended exploration. The distinction sometimes became apparent only after my children played with the toys. I noticed how quickly my children got bored when they could not do more than the “one thing” dictated by the toy’s manufacturer.

In the last few years, I’ve tried to distinguish the single-action versus open-ended play experiences in digital media products. For example, my daughters and I played the Temple Run series of reaction-time games. I’d consider it a single-action game, which requires quickly swiping the screen to help your character avoid oncoming obstacles. It was good fun to compete with each other, particularly when we were all learning the game and trying to get better. But I also noticed that my children (and sometimes I too) continued to play for quite a while even though the game had became quite repetitive. Even as far as single-action toys go, the digital world seem to offer more alluring and “addicting” versions of their physical world counterparts.

We had different experiences with games like Minecraft, the elaborate version of building blocks in the digital world.  The way my daughter plays it, there is no scorekeeping or “leveling up.” She alone decides how much time, how fast, and how elaborate she wants to build something, and she is never done. She shares her work with her friends and is fascinated by how they built theirs–and what new tricks they used. I would consider that kind of play to be “open-ended.”

Michael: I certainly agree that looking for open-ended toys and experiences can be a useful rule of thumb for parents, even in hindsight. But it seems that a reasonable strategy is to find a balance between open-ended and single-action playthings.

I find the appropriateness of each still depends on understanding the child, the context of use, and the content (the 3-Cs). Different children will be drawn to different play experiences. That is true of physical and digital toys, where there is always likely to be some mix of open-ended and single-action play materials. My own 3-year-old could care less about cars or drawing, but he loves playdough, a great open-ended material. He is also at the age where he is starting to do more imaginative play that includes characters he has seen on television or in movies. Action figures are arguably single-action since they often confine players to a single universe or a limited set of actions (Buzz Lightyear from Toy Story only participates in Buzz Lightyear-related scenarios), but there is also value in recreating scenes he has seen elsewhere, or that allow him to explore things that are on his mind. Those interests may change with time, but for now I try to follow his cues.

Context plays a large role, and there are valid uses of single-action toys in certain circumstances. For example, my child enjoys Endless Alphabet, an app about letter recognition and letter sounds. It’s very focused, and very engaging, and it’s something that I play with him, helping him understand the sounds that letters make. But once he has learned the letters, the app will no longer be interesting. That didn’t make its brief time with us less valuable, just not as long-lasting.

Junlei: Is there any research to inform us about the relative merit of single-action versus open-ended playthings and play experiences in the digital age?

Mike: Research from Jeffrey Trawick-Smith has demonstrated that open-ended toys (blocks, paint easels, toy cars, doctor kits, etc.) lend themselves to developing thinking skills, social interaction, creativity, and verbalization more than complex or narrowly focused toys. However, there’s no research that I know of comparing single-use and open-ended digital playthings, but I suspect that in many cases you would find that children would have more imaginative and playful experiences with open-ended materials. Open-ended toys are good for children at different ages and developmental levels, so it makes sense that children would come back to them at different stages since they haven’t exhausted everything they could do with them.

And there are many types of open-ended digital resources. For example, you could have a program that allows children to create their own programs (like ScratchJr.), draw pictures using an almost unlimited supply of digital paints, markers, stickers, and pencils (like Drawing Pad), create audiovisual slideshows using pictures, video, and sound (like Shadow Puppet Edu), or create new and interesting music (like Toca Band). In each case, children make decisions that allow them to control the experience and what they produce, rather than be directed toward a preordained path.

Fred’s message about seeking open-ended play experiences and limiting single-action toys seems to apply even to the digital age. While it may be a little harder to discern which is which with digital games and apps, we can still have some sensible criteria.

Junlei: So Fred’s message about seeking open-ended play experiences and limiting single-action toys seems to apply even to the digital age. While it may be a little harder to discern which is which with digital games and apps, we can still have some sensible criteria.

Mike: Right. As with physical toys, we can look for digital experiences that are open-ended and that let children use them in multiple ways, and in ways that allow them to express their own ideas and thoughts. Art, music, building, photography, and other creative apps and games are great places to start. Single-action apps and games can provide entertainment and learning value, but may not be as effective in promoting thinking skills, social interaction, creativity, and verbalization. It also helps to look for apps that require active participation and sustained engagement, and that promote social interaction and meaningful connections.

Junlei: However, unlike single-action physical toys that are easy to ditch, single-action digital games may be just clever enough to keep a child “hooked” long past the game’s usefulness. The age-old criterion of “does my child still play with it” is no longer sufficient to discern the value of a toy. More than ever, we need to spend a little time joining our children and watching and understanding how they are interacting with the game, not just how often or for how long.

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