[Complete Guide] What Is Heuristic Play In Early Years?

[Complete Guide] What Is Heuristic Play In Early Years?

heuristic play with flowers pebbles pendant

The term “heuristic” is the open-ended process of allowing someone to discover or learn something for themselves. First introduced by English early childhhod educator Elinor Goldshmeid (1910-2009), “heuristic play” is a form of play-based learning centred around a child’s natural curiosity in objects (not toys) found in his environment. 

This type of play is very similar to the more widely known “Loose Parts Play“. In this article, we explore the principles, benefits and real examples of heuristic play to help you better understand how it can complement your child’s playtime.

Related: Reggio Emilia vs Montessori

Principles Of Heuristic Play

Heuristic play and treasure baskets

Heuristic play is synonymous with the concept of “treasure baskets”, so to understand heuristic play, we need to first look at what treasure baskets are.

The treasure basket is designed by Elinor Goldshmeid and it is originally a woven basket containing an assortment of household items and/or natural materials.

Treasure basket with household items and natural materials
A treasure basket | Image source: Grow and Develop

Today, the treasure basket has evolved into variations like the sensory bin and tuff tray activities.

The core idea is that the objects you gather in this basket or tray naturally pique the interest of babies and toddlers, and provide a sensory experience for them to explore. As they get older, they will start experimenting with these objects.

This process of playing and exploring with non-toy objects is known as heuristic play.

What age is heuristic play for?

Heuristic play usually forms naturally between the ages 1-2, when a child is able to crawl or walk and starts to freely explore his environment.

This is also the age when they start to have curiosity about everyday objects and want to shake, drop, throw, or interact with these objects in different ways.

There is no maximum age for heuristic play, as long as the child continues to show interest in tinkering with objects, they are engaged in heuristic play. 

However, by the age of around 5, most kids will have formed a solid understanding of the physics of this world and how things are “meant” to work, so they naturally lose interest in further exploration.

A pine cone will simply be a pine cone to them, so if you’ll like them to continue with heuristic play for a bit longer, you might need to guide them with using these materials in crafts or other activities (see Examples of Heuristic Play).


Carry-Play portable Montessori activity table
Carry-Play® is designed to complement early years play-based learning

Benefits of Heuristic Play

Aside from being a very economical way of entertaining your child (no need to spend lots of money on toys), heuristic play also has many advantages when it comes to early years development.

How does heuristic play help development?

1. Developing critical thinking

Critical thinking is the ability to make effective decisions based on objective analysis of facts. In other words, being able to rationalise and think through problems to devise solutions.

Heuristic play encourages exploration of choices, ideas and possibilities when kids are trying to figure out how to build, create or invent with the items provided.

Toddlers start by understanding simple physics, like how a bigger object will not fit into a smaller box, and they overcome these challenges by thinking critically.

2. Gaining independence and confidence

In the typical heuristic play, the child has 100% control over what they want to do with the selection of materials.

By allowing them to experiment and test out their own theories, we are building their confidence in forming their independent thinking and following through with their actions.

When they are successful in proving a hypothesis, e.g. stacking 10 cups into a tower, it strengthens their self-confidence and perseverance in using trial and error to achieve a goal.

3. Nurturing creativity

Unlike toys, which often have pre-designed ways of playing, heuristic play involves non-toy objects that have no real “play” function to them.

For example, how do you play with leaves, twigs and acorns? This is when it opens the doors of creativity and the child might decide to create a pattern with these materials. Or build a bird’s nest.

When started from young, heuristic play is a fantastic way to nurture creativity in kids as they learn to see ordinary, everyday objects as exciting possibilities.


Examples of Heuristic Play

Nature play

This is perhaps the oldest and most typical heuristic play, using natural materials to encourage creative thinking.

Natural materials are also free of toxins and chemicals, so it’s a great type of play if you have a mouthy baby or teething toddler who munches on everything. Just make sure there are no sap or poisonous plants in your basket.

Music play

A great sensory activity, a musical basket can provide lots of fun for curious little hands.

If you don’t have many instruments at home, you can instead use objects that make a lot of noise like biscuit tins, pots, salt shakers (make sure they are screwed tight!) etc.

Lifeskills play

This perfectly complements Montessori learning which encourages indepedence in everyday tasks by practising fine motor skills like cutting, gripping, and pinching.

Simply gather together all your safe baking tools like cookie cutters, tongs, rolling pins etc and a lump of play dough for them to practise on.

Lifeskills play is a great developmental activity that stimulates both the mind and body.

Thematic play

If you’re running out of play ideas, themes can be a great source of inspiration. Think about the season, festivities, celebrations, colours etc. Using themes as a foundation, it’s easier to plan and prepare heuristic baskets for play-based learning.

Combined play

Last but not least, combined play is when you use toys alongside heuristic play. Above is a great example of thematic combined play using natural materials as well as toys.

Combined play can be an effective way of utilising everything you have at hand, and kids actually respond really well to a seemingly random mixture of playthings.

Adding heuristic objects to toys can also add an extra dimension of realness to their playtime.


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