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Now, now, now, before you conjure up the picture of some fancy pedagogic approach that will get you scrambling for funds, let’s give you a heads-up, it’s nowhere near as complicated ( or expensive) as the name will have you think. Simply put, heuristic play is giving children the opportunity to play with real-life, everyday objects, without a helicoptering adult hovering over them.

And the idea behind the exercise? To allow children to engage in open-ended exploratory play that can stimulate their senses and kindle their imagination. When the concept was first introduced by educator, Elinor Goldschmied in the 1980s, part of her idea was to give young children - especially the urban children - a taste of the 'environment's natural treasures' that she enjoyed as a child, growing up in the countryside.

We will not venture into the benefits of heuristic play as we explored it in an earlier post. In this article, we will focus on how to implement heuristic play at your setting.


Treasure Basket

At the very core of the heuristic play concept is the treasure basket. Although treasure baskets are mainly seen as a tool for sensory play, the baskets for heuristic play vary slightly in their purpose. The play objects for heuristic play are not picked merely for their sensory interest, but also for their ability to open up prospects of endless play permutations.

As the very term heuristic implies (heurisko (Greek) - to discover), it’s all about giving the little ones the chance to discover and imagine new uses for the seemingly dull objects that (erm, the uninspired) grown-up would not choose to categorise as a 'toy'.

Egg cartons, curtain rings, door stoppers – you can start by hand-picking everyday objects and nick-nacks that you might have at your home or your setting.  Beef it up with little bits and bobs like driftwood, pinecones and shells you collect on your field trips and walks, and your treasure basket is ready for the little hands to dive into.


Implementing Heuristic Play at Your Setting

The Environment:

A clear space with no other toys or distractions.


Age Group:

Children in the age group of 2-3 years are found to benefit the most from heuristic play. However, treasure baskets can be introduced to children as young as seven months old, once they can sit upright.


Things You Will Need:

A low basket or container with smooth edges

20-30 natural / household objects of different material, size, colour and textures


Some of the Objects you Can Include:

Cardboard/ Paper-based: Kitchen roll/toilet roll tubes, egg cartons, books, empty tissue-boxes

Wooden: Spatulas, coasters, curtain rings, driftwood, clothes pegs

Natural objects: Whole fruits, pine cones, shells

Metal: Tins of different sizes, spoons, whisks, jam jar lids

Rubber /Fabric: Ribbons, strips of fabric, door-stoppers, rubber stamps, balls, placemats

Other objects: Hairbrush, paint brushes, corks, make-up brushes, small hand mirrors


Assemble the treasure baskets by putting in 20-30 objects into each basket. Make sure you have a good mix of elements with different size, shape and texture. As the treasure basket is not a static plaything,  you have the liberty to add in a few bits and bobs once in a while, replace a few or swap the entire lot with a new set of objects. This will help to sustain the children’s interest in the activity and give it an added element of excitement.

And, remember to give all the objects a good wash and before giving it to the children each time.


What Not to Use:

Plastic toys or objects with no sensory interest

Keys or metal objects containing lead or toxic paint

Objects made of pewter, as it can have high contents of lead

Small items that pose a choking hazard

Broken objects and those with sharp, jagged edges


How to Go About It:

Bring out the treasure basket for a 30-minute play session once or twice a week. Make sure you get the basket out when the baby or toddler is fed and feeling settled. Place the basket in an uncluttered place, away from other toys and distractions, and sit back while the little ones start to play on their own.

As an adult, your role should not be that of a supervisor, but that of an unobtrusive observer, who joins in only if invited. This is to ensure the children get an unfettered, stimulating experience, where they can explore at their own pace.

However, even though you do not participate in the activity, make sure you keep your eyes trained on them, especially when they put objects in their mouth and could be susceptible to choking.


What Not to Do:

Do not leave the basket out 24/7 for easy access.

Do not step in to guide them when they are exploring their basket. That is, no comments, suggestions, questions or intervening with your own play ideas. Allow their imagination to take flight and let them soak in their 'eureka moments' as the drab old kitchen-roll tubes transform into helicopters or snaking tunnels for the corks and clothes-peg commandos to hide in.


You Might Also Like:

What you Should Know about Heuristic Play

Forest Kindergartens: Beyond Logs, Leaves and Free Play

Circle Time Activity Ideas for Preschoolers


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