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Heuristic Play is a vital part of childhood, key to physical, mental, emotional and intellectual development. One of my favourite play approaches is heuristic, not least because it is non-gendered, non-stereotypical and inclusive. Heuristic is derived from the Greek word 'eurisko', meaning 'to discover or gain an understanding of'.

Heuristic play, rooted in young children’s inherent sense of curiosity, is where the child leads the exploration of a large number of different natural objects. The late Elinor Goldschmeid, a respected child psychologist, coined the term and pioneered the concept in the 1980s. It involves 'offering a group of children, for a defined period of time in a controlled environment, a large number of different kinds of objects and receptacles with which they play freely without adult intervention’.

For babies, it is about sensory motor development, exploring objects by handing and mouthing them to find out about their physical characteristics.  Toddlers begin to find out how they can use objects - to make a noise for example - and as language develops engage in representative play and story telling. What's more, heuristic play supports all seven areas of learning and development in the Early Years Foundation Stage statutory framework.


Heuristic play with sitting, but non-mobile, babies revolves around the use of the treasure basket. Filled with everyday items made from , treasure baskets offer babies an opportunity to explore, experiment and make choices at their own pace.

Choose items with contrasting shapes and patterns, textures, scents and sounds to stimulate all five senses. Include objects made from paper and cardboard, wood, leather, rubber, metal alongside fruit, scent bags, shells, pine cones, large pebbles, and everyday items such as bowls, hair rollers, mirrors...the list is limitless. Remember to regularly change and introduce new items or have more than one basket you can rotate.

The basket needs to be in a spot free from distractions which, in a childcare setting, may mean extra vigilance to prevent older children from trying to muscle in. Sit close, but take care not to 'guide' the exploration although remain attentive and responsive when required.


When babies become mobile, it's time to move on from treasure baskets to collections of objects.

Toddlers are great investigators, wanting to know what they can do with an item and how it interacts with other objects. Heuristic play enables them to freely experiment - rolling, filling, stacking, posting, threading, balancing, manipulating and making noise etc. Such play develops imagination, problem-solving, spatial awareness and builds on cognitive development, hand/eye coordination and fine and gross motor skills. Spread out the objects in a large clear floor space and, when two or more children are taking part, make sure there are large numbers of each item as we all know that toddlers are not inclined to share at this age. Just like treasure basket, older children should not be instructed or interrupted but observed and supported.

REMEMBER: Regularly wash or wipe clean objects in treasure baskets or for toddler heuristic play and carry out risk assessments for their suitability before, during and after use.  Dispose of anything that is damaged.