Play is one of the most natural human endeavors, and one of the first. The drive to play is preprogrammed into us, we are born ready to explore and learn, to poke and prod, to try and err, to experiment and observe the results. But our concept of play has become corrupted. Play has become associated with a narrow range of activities, usually involving preset boundaries, predefined rules, and artificially imposed objectives. Along with this, our ideas about playthings have also become corrupted. The shelves of most toy stores are full of toys which prescribe a very particular activity, and those which could potentially be used in more than one way usually come with instructions which tell us the "right way" to play with them; they provide us with the end goal, or perhaps a series of challenge cards. There is nothing wrong with learning to follow instructions, and certainly nothing wrong with seeking towards a goal.. but some of us feel a little bit easy when we see the doorway to open-ended activity closing. Play is meant to be part of the developmental path to the child's empowerment.. it is meant to lead towards increased understanding of the world around them, and towards self-efficacy and autonomy. There is something deeply troubling about a concept of play in which there needs to be a right way or a particular goal. There is something suffocating about a toy that can only be used for one purpose. What is really playing with whom?
If we care about the development of human potential, and human development in general, we need to consider the intangible things that are lost when children's play is something mandated and constrained, whether explicitly through instructions or implicitly through the nature of the playthings themselves. There is something terrifying about a child who has to ask "how do i play with that?" The best toys do provide some structure.. there are always affordances--aspects of the toys which suggest or hint how it can be played with.. perhaps one part is hinged, another part is slotted, or makes a sound, or the structure itself bears a resemblance to something else in the child's world.. but the point is that there is experimentation and imagination involved.
In truly open-ended play, the child learns how the toy can be used and what options it provides for them. They learn to make up their own activities, to cope with ambiguity, to make decisions, and to think for themselves. Children who are deprived of these opportunities are growing up with soft minds. The adults in their lives do them a disservice by trying to provide too much structure for them, by trying to make all of their activities educational or entertaining. This is not a sentimental plea about play for play's sake, although there is a good argument for that as well... but rather, this is about laying the right foundations for our next generation of citizens--citizens who are engaged with their world, who are able to think rationally and critically, citizens with common sense and who do not need to be told what to do at every step.
Aroundsquare's Goodwood Deconstruction Blocks are the kind of toy that provides just the right amount of structure for children. The shapes of the blocks are unusual and encourage curiosity, but they also suggest certain possibilities.. they are constructed in such a way that each shape can fit together with the others in a variety of interesting ways; they are geometrically abstract, but some of the pieces hint at familiar objects from the children's world.. and the abstraction and sizing encourage children to manipulate them, to turn them on end or piece them together to make something new. There are no instructions with the blocks, no activity cards or challenges, there are no pictures of the thing your supposed to make. The idea is to just dump them out on the floor and let the child figure out what to do with them.