What are open ended toys and why are they good for kids development?

As children, most of us will remember turning cardboard boxes into spaceships or holding tea parties without any actual tea. These sorts of activities didn’t require a comprehensive list of instructions, a handful of batteries, or an app to be downloaded before you could start. Imagination and creativity were the only tools you needed, and if you were short on either, this sort of open ended play was the chance to develop them. Recently we spoke to Alex Hochstrasser, founder of Swiss brand MOLUK and the man who invented our most popular open ended toy, the Bilibo, to get his take on the importance of imagination in toys and play in general.  

Watching children with a Bilibo for the first time is absolutely fascinating, how does a young man who specialised in lighting and furniture design come up with such a brilliant children’s toy at his first attempt?

I’m trained as an industrial designer and spent almost three years working for different design studios in Spain, the USA, and Japan before graduating from the University of Art and Design in Zürich. So I had a pretty broad background doing projects across different industries. When looking for interesting gifts for my three godchildren, I realised that there was an evident lack of innovative, well-designed play objects. I took this as an excellent challenge for my final project at university and went out to rethink what a toy can be. In the development process, I spent a lot of time studying how children use basic things like sticks, ropes or cardboard boxes in their games and tried to conceive new objects that tap into those natural play patterns. I also interviewed several child development specialists and OT professionals. Prof Remo Largo, the head of Zurich Children’s Hospital and author of several acclaimed books on child development, was particularly helpful. Bilibo grew out if this research project.

All of the MOLUK range is designed to inspire imagination and creativity, is that a key element missing from a lot of the toys we see today?

Most mainstream, commercial toys are highly age and gender specific. They are made to entertain or be collected rather than encourage real interaction. Even classic brands like Lego are now selling mostly license based toys for the latest Harry Potter or Star Wars movie and have introduced a range designed exclusively for girls. This obviously works from a corporate perspective as you can sell more stuff, but it clearly limits the children’s choices and leaves little room for their own imagination. MOLUK toys are more inclusive and invite children to play and have fun regardless of gender and age.

In your experience how important are open ended toys in assisting children to develop their imagination and creativity?

Children are creative and imaginative by nature. A good toy should further encourage this and leave room for kids to express themselves. Especially in the first few years, it is essential that babies and toddlers play with toys that stimulate all their senses. There are many studies from neuroscientists that underscore the importance of physical, open-ended play in the development of the child’s brain. Playing with simple blocks, building castles in the sandpit or spinning in a Bilibo isn’t just fun and good for the imagination, it also lays the foundation for the brain to deal with more complex tasks like reading, writing or maths later in life.

We often get asked about the colours, particularly of the Bilibo, where did they come from?

We started off with the classic primary colours red, yellow and blue when we launched Bilibo but kept expanding the range step by step adding new colours until we basically covered the whole rainbow. Kids love bright, happy colors, and so do I. The toys should have a universal appeal and work around the world, so we try to avoid any short-lived fashion trends. This also applies to the colours. The new black and white edition complements the rainbow and showcases the yin-yang side of the design.

While all the MOLUK products are very different, when you play with them together they all combine and make sense! Was this a happy coincidence or was it by design?

From the beginning, the goal with MOLUK was to create a family of play objects that all work together and complement each other. Rather than just taking Bilibo and doing variations of it, I wanted to expand the basic concept of a versatile, open-ended object and apply it to different categories of toys. I created Oogi as our version of the doll/action figure, or took the most universal toy, the ball, and added a twist to it with Mox. Each toy works on its own, but I think it’s great that children can discover new possibilities when they combine several MOLUK toys and everything fits together. It’s like a big organic construction set.

Finally, if there is one toy in history every family should have in their home, what is it?

A ball.

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Some children see a seat they can sit and spin in, others see a bucket to be filled with water or dirt. Some see the two holes and immediately tie things on, while others see a helmet for their head or a shell for their back… Bilibos are simply an amazing open ended toy and they’re available in every colour on our website. To check out the entire MOLUK range click here.