Heuristic play is one of those things we all know about but don’t really know much about. So I did some research and wrote it down for you from A to Z in a sweet and simple way.
A Beginner’s Guide to Heuristic Play
Most children love to explore. I know my little man is at his happiest when he can roam through the house, pottering around. It’s not unusual to find him tipping out my spices or trying to get into my office supplies.
It’s how children learn: they touch, inspect, move, smell, manipulate and taste to make sense of each object. Then they test this knowledge in a different situation with perhaps a different object. They remember, compare and learn some more.
In many cultures throughout time children were given safe (well, “safe”) mini versions of adult tools to explore and experiment with. They possibly had more freedom to independently explore their environment than children have now. And I’m sure they spent a considerable amount of time outside, exploring nature.
Things have changed a lot in a short amount of time in these modern days. In a very well meant effort to invent the most amazing educational toys for children, plastic and bright colours took over. Modern toys often look and feel the same.
In 1994 Elinor Goldschmied pioneered Heuristic Play. Heuristic play is about giving babies and young children the opportunity for self directed play by providing them materials that offer different sensory experiences.
The idea is to present babies with a number of natural materials that can be found in and around the house. Then the baby has the opportunity to explore all the items in the basket, while the adult simply observes.
Why is heuristic play so important? Because heuristic play allows for independent and self directed play. By providing children with open ended materials and give them the opportunity to explore at their own pace and follow their own interest, optimized learning is taking place right before your eyes!
And here comes the treasure basket
Treasure baskets are a heuristic play spin off: the definition of a treasure basket seems to be a lot broader than that of heuristic play. It comes down to the same thing though: a collection of items of interest to explore.
Treasure baskets can be anything, depending on the age of the children, their interests and your resources. You can organise treasure baskets by theme, colour, subject, season, holiday, and so on. There really is no right or wrong and the possibilities are literally endless.
Here’s an example of a treasure basket idea my kids used to LOVE.
How to engage in heuristic play
You don’t have to do anything to help your baby engage in heuristic play. There’s a good chance they’ll be happy to investigate the items presented all by themselves.
Allowing your baby to grow in independent play has so many benefits, for the both of you. I wrote an entire article about the benefits of independent play, which you can read here.
Having said that, you could also enjoy playing together. There’s a time and place for both independent play and quality time playing with your child.
POSTING THINGS THROUGH THE HOLE
Depending on the age of your baby you could play the posting game, by showing your baby how to post items through the hole and see where they went.
Around 9 months children develop object permanence, which is basically the understanding that something or someone is still there even when they can’t see it.
Games such as peekaboo are essential for helping your baby grow in confidence and resilience, knowing that you will always come back and that they can manage short periods of elevated stress.
The posting game gives young children the opportunity to experiment with object permanence, and gain that confidence in an environment they can control.
And it’s also great for practising those fine motor skills: grasping and purposefully releasing. It’s all crazy exciting for a 10 month old!
LEARNING ABOUT OBJECTS AND THEIR CHARACTERISTICS
I’ve noticed most parents will automatically do this: naming the different objects and talk about their colour, texture, smell, purpose, … you name it.
Children love to be a part of any conversation with you, no matter how small they are. Naming and discussing items is a great way to build language. I guess you can’t start early enough.
This might come naturally to you, but it didn’t to me. I like silence and didn’t always talk my way through the day with my small children. So when playing with my babies I grabbed the opportunity to purposefully make eye contact and talk about what we were doing.
HIDE AND SEEK
Toddlers will like taking this little game to the next level and go looking for a certain object.
I used to hide things in the mini sleeping bags and ask my little boy to find me the rabbit for example. He thought it was very funny that I tricked him. Then he’d insist on hiding the same object in the same bag and ask me the exact same question. Of course I’d struggle and act surprised, much to his delight. Toddlers. Got to love them!
Redefining Heuristic Play
As mentioned above heuristic play traditionally aimed to provide a variety of sensory experiences to children in a way that they could engage in self directed play. Over time the emphasis changed from “a variety of sensory experiences” to “non-toy sensory experiences”. I’m very happy with that BUT for the one thing that it is a bit exclusive. Not everyone feels comfortable with giving babies everyday items to play with, have time to observe or think themselves creative enough to set up a fancy heuristic play invitation.
What I’m aiming for is to open up the term heuristic play to the people, all people, and remind you that it is about the experience. You can totally set up a heuristic play basket using only toys. It will still be heuristic play in my book. It’s all about the intention and the experience, about giving babies opportunities to play and explore and about parents and children enjoying some ‘wants for nothing’ time together.
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