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Heuristic Play: a simple guide

Heuristic Play: a simple guide

Introduction

Articles

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.

References

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.

Kathy Brodie

Kathy Brodie

https://www.kathybrodie.com

Kathy Brodie is an author, Early Years Professional and Trainer specialising in online training and courses. She is the founder and host of the Early Years Summit and Early Years TV, weekly Professional Development for Early Years practitioners and educators.

Comments
  • user

    AUTHOR Faryal

    Posted on 12:38 pm June 24, 2018.
    Reply

    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.

  • user

    AUTHOR Tatiana

    Posted on 1:41 pm February 22, 2018.
    Reply

    Dear Kathy,
    Many thanks for ideas!

    • user

      AUTHOR Kathy

      Posted on 10:45 am April 14, 2018.
      Reply

      You are most welcome Tatiana!

  • user

    AUTHOR Alison Turner

    Posted on 4:27 pm June 5, 2017.
    Reply

    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?

  • user

    AUTHOR siobhan

    Posted on 11:14 am March 12, 2017.
    Reply

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

    • user

      AUTHOR Kathy

      Posted on 11:21 am March 12, 2017.
      Reply

      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

  • user

    AUTHOR Lizzie Buick

    Posted on 8:16 am November 3, 2016.
    Reply

    THank you Kathy super article much appreciated

    • user

      AUTHOR Kathy

      Posted on 3:25 pm November 5, 2016.
      Reply

      You are very welcome Lizzie!

  • user

    AUTHOR Nanne

    Posted on 6:10 pm October 19, 2016.
    Reply

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

    • user

      AUTHOR Kathy

      Posted on 6:36 pm October 19, 2016.
      Reply

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

  • user

    AUTHOR Claire

    Posted on 1:23 pm May 4, 2016.
    Reply

    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

    • user

      AUTHOR Kathy

      Posted on 9:40 am May 5, 2016.
      Reply

      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!
      Kathy

  • user

    AUTHOR kirsty

    Posted on 9:48 pm November 30, 2015.
    Reply

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

    • user

      AUTHOR Kathy

      Posted on 10:09 pm November 30, 2015.
      Reply

      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,
      Kathy

  • user

    AUTHOR siti zulaiha

    Posted on 5:21 pm May 31, 2015.
    Reply

    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

    Zulaiha

    • user

      AUTHOR Kathy

      Posted on 6:34 pm May 31, 2015.
      Reply

      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

      Kathy

  • user

    AUTHOR kelly

    Posted on 3:32 pm March 18, 2015.
    Reply

    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
    kelly

    • user

      AUTHOR Kathy

      Posted on 10:39 pm March 18, 2015.
      Reply

      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

      Kathy

  • user

    AUTHOR Shameeza

    Posted on 10:02 pm October 29, 2014.
    Reply

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

    • user

      AUTHOR Kathy

      Posted on 8:11 pm November 4, 2014.
      Reply

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

      Best regards

      Kathy

  • user

    AUTHOR Joanne

    Posted on 1:43 pm March 22, 2014.
    Reply

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

  • user

    AUTHOR Angela

    Posted on 7:23 pm May 23, 2013.
    Reply

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

  • user

    AUTHOR Orlando

    Posted on 6:53 pm March 21, 2012.
    Reply

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

    • user

      AUTHOR Kathy

      Posted on 4:26 pm March 22, 2012.
      Reply

      Many thanks for your comments, Orlando.

      Glad to be of help!

      Kathy

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