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Toddlers have an urge to handle things: to gather, fill, dump, stack, knock down, select and manipulate in other ways. Household or kitchen utensils offer this kind of activity as every parent knows, and can occupy a child for surprising stretches of time. In their book, People under Three , Elinor Goldschmied and Sonia Jackson coined the term heuristic play, to explain how to provide a more structured opportunity for this kind of activity.

It is particularly useful for children in their second year who often seem unwilling to engage in any activity for more than a few minutes. Whilst the heuristic play session is in process, adults need to remain seated and quiet. This supports children in making their own choices and discoveries.

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Heuristic play with objects is not a novel idea. Heuristic play represents the same concept, but takes place with groups of children and large quantities of each item.


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Some are slightly sticky from the tape, so children enjoy attaching and detaching them. They are easier to pick up than curtain rings, are small enough to fit into other items, and have a centre through which fingers or objects can be poked. Between sessions staff maintain the supplies, checking for cleanliness and safety, discarding unsuitable items and collecting new ones. For the heuristic play session, a large floor area is freed for a specified period; an hour is good, allowing time for children to help pack up.

One staff member makes heaps of the objects for play and distributes tins at least three per child. Goldschmied and Jackson point out that it is premature to expect children to share at this age page An intriguing aspect of heuristic play is its social quality. Although each child is engrossed in his or her own investigation, they are very aware of each other.

Community Playthings | Heuristic play

In another session, I made three heaps of objects in three corners, although there were only four children. All four gravitated to one heap where they played harmoniously, although they were practically — and sometimes literally — on top of each other. The only squabble occurred over a jar lid: although there were many lids, only one had strawberries pictured on it!

Only after half an hour of playing in this close proximity did one, and then two, of the children wander off to other heaps. It is particularly useful for children in their second year who often seem unwilling to engage in any activity for more than a few minutes.

And here comes the treasure basket

Whilst the heuristic play session is in process, adults need to remain seated and quiet. This supports children in making their own choices and discoveries. Heuristic play with objects is not a novel idea. Heuristic play represents the same concept, but takes place with groups of children and large quantities of each item.

Treasure Baskets and Heuristic Play

Some are slightly sticky from the tape, so children enjoy attaching and detaching them. They are easier to pick up than curtain rings, are small enough to fit into other items, and have a centre through which fingers or objects can be poked. Between sessions staff maintain the supplies, checking for cleanliness and safety, discarding unsuitable items and collecting new ones. For the heuristic play session, a large floor area is freed for a specified period; an hour is good, allowing time for children to help pack up. One staff member makes heaps of the objects for play and distributes tins at least three per child.

Goldschmied and Jackson point out that it is premature to expect children to share at this age page An intriguing aspect of heuristic play is its social quality.

Although each child is engrossed in his or her own investigation, they are very aware of each other. In another session, I made three heaps of objects in three corners, although there were only four children. All four gravitated to one heap where they played harmoniously, although they were practically — and sometimes literally — on top of each other.

Treasure Baskets and Heuristic Play

The only squabble occurred over a jar lid: although there were many lids, only one had strawberries pictured on it! Only after half an hour of playing in this close proximity did one, and then two, of the children wander off to other heaps.

The heuristic play session offers staff an opportunity to observe. Carers sit quietly nearby, where children take assurance from their presence. So much can be learned about each child when one removes oneself slightly from the action!