Heuristic Play: a simple guide

What is Heuristic play?

When babies start to walk and become more independent they need an environment of discovery and investigation – Heuristic comes from ‘eureka’. This is the time when children will spend 30 minutes or more concentrating on seemingly random play. They like to post, hide, slide, pour, fill, put on, in and under.

Kathy Sylva and Jerome Bruner associated this concentration of play with cognitive development and educational progress. As practitioners we need to provide the environment and materials for children to be able to do this.

The environment

A clear space should be used, with all other toys and distractions put away. About an hour is needed (including putting out and clearing away). At least one member of staff should be fully dedicated to looking after this group of children. This is a great time to take photos and make observations. The time should preferably clear of distraction for adults as well.

An additional benefit is that whilst the toddlers are occupied with their play, other practitioners are released to settle in new babies or catch up on paperwork.

The resources

The resources don’t need to cost a fortune. You may have most of the items already in the nursery. And be creative. For example, if you are lucky enough to live near the leather museum in Walsall, you can obtain scraps of leather for free (and have the museum tour!). The resources should be kept in draw string bags with wide mouths so children can easily help to put the resources away. They should be kept in a special place and only brought out a few times each week. Just as with treasure baskets, the resources are limitless, but below are some examples:

  • Woollen pompoms
  • Small bags
  • Bags of fresh herbs (thanks to Walsall Early Years practitioners for this great suggestion)
  • Range of boxes that will slot inside each other
  • Tubes which will slide inside each other (inside of foil tubes, kitchen rolls, cling films etc)
  • Strips of materials with different textures
  • Items with slots or holes (spatulas, rings)
  • Jar tops
  • Shells
  • Corks
  • Hair rollers of different sizes
  • Chains of various sizes and shapes
  • Variety of tins (with safe tops) such as golden syrup tins, biscuit tins

The items should be selected for their sensory properties, so natural materials are preferable. Smooth plastic, which gives very little sensory feedback, should be avoided.

A word on health and safety

Obviously as a practitioner you are not going to place your children in harm’s way. Some of these objects may be considered to be potentially dangerous, particularly for babies who are still putting things in their mouths. You know your children and what you would be happy for them to experience. You know which ones will always chew first, ask questions later, or see any object as a weapon! This is entirely at your discretion.

Items should be cleaned regularly and thrown away if broken or considered dangerous.


Goldschmeid, E and Jackson S, (1994) People Under Three young children in day care Routledge Oxon pages 128 to 141. This is the text on treasure baskets and Heuristic play, as well as key person and second year of life. Heuristic play is covered in much more detail with examples.

Hughes, A (2006) Developing Play for the Under 3s, treasure baskets and heuristic play, David Fulton Ltd Oxon. Just a small book, but practical with lots of ideas and a section on language on page 76. If you fancy buying just one, this would probably be your best value for money in terms of being immediately useful. The RRP is £14.99.

Nutbrown, C and Page, J (2008) Working with babies and children from birth to three SAGE London Page 155. This is a lovely section about heuristic play, with a great example of how it can work, and ideas for practice.

Get FREE Access to Early Years TV

Sign up for Early Years TV Email Updates and we'll email you with details of each new episode, along with our regular email tips and strategies.

Early Years TV signup
You may also like
The world of the newborn
What is an Enabling Environment?
  • Faryal Jun 24,2018 at 12:38 pm

    Thanks heaps for making life easier by sharing resources for heuristic play Kathy. These open-ended materials would definitely help children to develop creative, critical thinking and sparks imagination.

  • Tatiana Feb 22,2018 at 1:41 pm

    Dear Kathy,
    Many thanks for ideas!

    • Kathy Apr 14,2018 at 10:45 am

      You are most welcome Tatiana!

  • Alison Turner Jun 5,2017 at 4:27 pm

    Hi Kathy,
    Interesting that someone else commented about the possible link between heuristic play and loose parts play. I had made that same connection myself and considered “loose parts” a continuation of Heuristic play. I’m just wondering what your thoughts are on where that would lead to – is there a natural progression into another exploratory activity of this type?

    In my pre-school we have a fab metal themed Loose Parts (nuts, bolts, washers, metal beads etc.) which are great for those with transporting schema, (much to my dismay when I am sweeping up at the end of session!!) so is the progression simply according to their individual interests, their schema?

  • siobhan Mar 12,2017 at 11:14 am

    Would it be fair to say that play with loose parts is a natural progression as children develop or move on from heuristic play?

    • Kathy Mar 12,2017 at 11:21 am

      Hi Siobhan,
      An interesting observation, thank you.
      I think it is a natural progression, and that there is a lot of overlap between the two ideas. I particularly like the Loose Parts play document that the Scottish Govt brought out at in Sept 2016, including an action plan, role of the adult and risk-benefit analysis. Find out more here: http://www.inspiringscotland.org.uk/media/58451/Loose-Parts-Play-web.pdf

  • Lizzie Buick Nov 3,2016 at 8:16 am

    THank you Kathy super article much appreciated

    • Kathy Nov 5,2016 at 3:25 pm

      You are very welcome Lizzie!

  • Nanne Oct 19,2016 at 6:10 pm

    Hi Kathy,
    Great piece! Can I translate it and share for Dutch practitioners?

    • Kathy Oct 19,2016 at 6:36 pm

      Hi Nanne,
      Thanks for contacting me. Please do share, it would be a great honour!
      Very best regards – Kathy

  • Claire May 4,2016 at 1:23 pm

    Hi my currently doing a graded unit on heuristic play. it is aimed at mostly under two years but it has became a big part of the curriculum or excellence and building the ambition over the years. I was wondering what you think the benefits are for children and do you think the children benefit more from playing with natural materials rather than commercial toys? claire

    • Kathy May 5,2016 at 9:40 am

      Hi Claire,
      Big question! There are lots of benefits, including, but not restricted to:
      Discovery by themselves (rather than completing a toy ‘correctly’)
      Imagination (the objects can become anything)
      Concentration (often children will play for ages with the open ended materials)
      Sensory experiences (as the objects feel and look different)
      Natural materials most frequently give good sensory feedback. A smooth, single coloured plastic ball gives some feeling (smooth) and some colour (but all the same) whereas a pinecone gives many feelings (smooth in areas, rough in others) and many shades of colour, as well as smell. There are lots of commercial toys that are wooden or which have different textures, its just that natural materials do all this naturally!
      Finally, the biggest benefit of heuristic play is that it is fully child led and children are free to explore in their own ways, at their own speeds, using the resources as they want to.
      Best of luck with your graded unit!

  • kirsty Nov 30,2015 at 9:48 pm

    is treasure baskets just for babies? heuristic play for what age? just bit confussed

    • Kathy Nov 30,2015 at 10:09 pm

      Hi Kirsty,
      Treasure baskets are for babies who are largely immobile, ie they will sit near the basket and not get up and walk away.
      Heuristic play is for children once they are mobile and ready for exploring their environment, so basically toddlers.
      Hope that helps,

  • siti zulaiha May 31,2015 at 5:21 pm

    Hi Kathy
    I do have some question for you. I’m student from Malaysia but I take course from Teesside Univeristy. From my reading there is a lot of similarity between treasure basket and heuristic play and sometimes when i’m trying to find the information about heuristic play but the result that i get is about treasure basket. Do you mind to tell me what is the different between treasure basket and heuristic play and what kind of holistic development that involve in heuristic play?

    Best regards


    • Kathy May 31,2015 at 6:34 pm

      Hi Zulaiha,
      Thanks so much for your question.
      There is some overlap between heuristic play and treasure baskets. Basically, treasure baskets are used with young children who are not fully mobile yet. They sit with the baskets and reach in for their choice of thing to play with.

      Heuristic play is for older children who are mobile and investigating, but is a natural extension of treasure baskets. The children still have free choice of a range of open ended resources that are used to explore ideas. They are able to choose what they want and explore it however they want to.

      Heuristic play supports holistic development because it supports a variety of areas of learning and development. For example, size, shapes, how things fit together or how they feel.
      Hope that helps,
      Best regards


  • kelly Mar 18,2015 at 3:32 pm

    Hello i am doing a project on heuristic play. And i have a questions! How does heuristic play help a child development? if you could get back to me with an answer it would be much appriciated.
    kind regards

    • Kathy Mar 18,2015 at 10:39 pm

      Hi Kelly,
      Heuristic play is all about experiences and exploring. Experiential play is really good for child development because it is holistic – it involves all areas of learning and development. Do have a look at the references in the article as well. The Anita Hughes book would be a good starting point.
      Best regards


  • Shameeza Oct 29,2014 at 10:02 pm

    Thank you for this blog really helped to set up the play area in our new nursery

    • Kathy Nov 4,2014 at 8:11 pm

      You are very welcome!
      I hope the children are enjoying their new play area,

      Best regards


  • Joanne Mar 22,2014 at 1:43 pm

    Great article explaining the principles of Heuristic play and the importance of discovery play in young children.

  • Angela May 23,2013 at 7:23 pm

    Found this really helpful. I wondered what heuristic meant simple really. Many thanks

  • Orlando Mar 21,2012 at 6:53 pm

    I thought that this website was very intresting. This helped my learning my childcare homework. Thank you for making this website

    • Kathy Mar 22,2012 at 4:26 pm

      Many thanks for your comments, Orlando.

      Glad to be of help!


Leave Your Comment

Your Comment*

Your Name*
Your Webpage