What is 'heuristic play'?

Heuristic play is an alternative to the plastic toys that dominate the shelves in toy shops, which offer the same textures, smells and sounds. It is an opportunity for children to explore and discover new materials, scents, sounds and shapes by delving into a basket of treasure. The best part? 'Treasure baskets' are easy to make - they can contain any objects from nature or around the home, as long as they offer something to stimulate the senses.

Heuristic play offers vast learning opportunities for children of all ages. Items used in heuristic play allow children to use their exploratory and imagination skills. Children will explore each item and use these to possibly represent another object. Many of the resources used are everyday objects, some of which may be recycled  or reclaimed materials. Children will spend a considerable amount of time exploring the items and incorporating them into their play.

In Early Years, heuristic play covers all aspects of the Early Years Foundation Stage. Practitioners watch and observe children during these play situations and build on from their interests. Heuristic play is one of the easiest types of play to implement into every day practice. Displaying the resources in an attractive manner will help engage children with the resources and begin the learning process.

Heuristic play can easily be introduced at home. Children will demonstrate many types of learning. Babies will begin to develop their Palmer grasp and later on develop more gross and fine motor skills. Older children will enjoy using the materials in a different way to the younger ones as they may introduce more creative and imaginative play ideas.

Have a look at the video below to find out more:

Treasure Basket Ideas:

1 Mixed basket

A mixed basket can contain any household or garden items as long as they have a stimulating texture, colour or shape. Toothbrushes, bath ducks, a soft ball, hair comb, an old remote control - the more objects and contrasting textures the better!

2 Kitchen basket

The kitchen is a delight for little eyes and ears so it's no surprise that these types of baskets are often the most popular. Good items to use include a pastry brush, soft spoon, ladel, old pan, wooden spatula, whisk and dish cloth. You can even include used margarine pots or clear jars containing dry spaghetti, raisins or beans - anything that makes an interesting noise or sight works wonders.

3 Nature basket

You can't beat a good walk around the countryside for some perfect treasure basket contents. Pine cones, bark, leaves (contrasting in colour and texture), grass, rocks, seashells, pebbles, logs, acorns and seed are all perfect additions. At first your little one will simply want to touch, smell and hold them but as they grow older the nature basket will become more of a teaching tool to increase their understanding of the world around them. These are popular in Montessori education and have broad appeal, spanning different age groups from as young as 4 months right up to 4 or 5 years+.

4 Food basket

Not only is this a great one for exploring different textures but it also allows them to experience new and interesting tastes that they might not have tried before. Fill different plastic pots with foods that they can touch, feel and taste. Not everything has to be in a pot - pieces of bread for example can simply sit in the basket, as can rice cakes, apples and grapes. Other good options include raisins, dried fruit, banana, citrus fruits, biscuits and pretzels. You can change it around (according to their age) and add new things each week - even older children will love to see what delights are on offer and its a great technique for tempting fussy eaters to try something new!

5 Soft basket

This is a lovely one for younger babies and can be utilised for older tots too, using different items. Classic objects to include are: a soft sponge, fluffy flannel, cotton wool, a soft toy, velvet powder puff, velour material, ball of wool and a soft baby brush. Let them feel the textures against their hands and skin and see how the different objects vary in their softness.

6 Play/action basket

A basket filled with objects that require your tot to do something is particularly exciting for toddlers - especially if they're at that 'mimmick mummy' stage and love the whole notion of pretending to cook and answer the phone. A plastic tea pot filled with water can be used to 'pour tea' into cups, plastic knives and forks can be used to 'set the table' whilst a mini saucepan and bowls can be used to 'make dinner'. This interesting mixture of items make great teaching tools for toddlers and if you mix the items up now and again, it will remain a firm favourite for months to come.

7 Noisy basket

Children love to hear and make noises - it's comforting to the senses and gives them a great deal of satisfaction when they experience a new or interesting noise - especially if it's made by them! You can fill the basket with a variety of items - a bunch of keys, jars with beads in, bells, an old battery operated toothbrush, rainmakers...anything that makes a pleasing sound is great to include.

Try adding new objects each week to create new sounds. Jars are ideal for filling with different objects such as hair grips, mini fridge magnets, lentils and badges whilst musical instruments like maracas, a triangle or xylophone will add lots of extra play value.

8 Stacking basket

Toddlers adore building things and a stacking basket can be utilised to make all sorts of weird and wonderful structures. Fill it with wooden toys, stacking rings, long tubes of old toilet rolls, used cardboard boxes - anything that has a sturdy base and can be used to build big towers with! As they get older they can start to play around with colour by painting some of the objects and glueing them together to make their own little piece of art - perfect for harnessing their creativity.

9 Colourful basket

Babies are mesmerised by colour and gain great enjoyment from contrasting objects. Younger babies will be happy with a basket full of red, black and white (these colours are supposedly the most appealing in those first few months) whilst older tots up to 2 years old will love a big rainbow collection of objects. Try mixing patterned materials and clothing with block coloured ribbons, card, toys and bags. Coloured hair rollers, satin scrunchie bands and mini bean bags are also lovely to include. Creating this type of basket is easy to do - just search the house and see what you can find, mixing the items up every now and again to give them something new to search for.