The word heuristic derives from the Greek word eurisko meaning ‘I discover’. It is used to describe an intuitive way of meeting challenges and solving problems – exactly what young children do when they are engaged in heuristic play

Heuristic play for toddlers continues the theme developed in the last Early Years Update when we looked at using Treasure Baskets with babies. Treasure Baskets are suitable for use with non mobile babies while heuristic play is appropriate for toddlers from 12 months onwards.

Toddlers are fascinated by finding out not just what things are, but also what they do. Their natural inclination is to pick things up and explore what they feel like using their fingers, hands, feet or other parts of their body. They are interested in the texture, shape, colour, weight, flexibility and malleability of different objects. They wave things around to see how they move, drop them to see what they sound like and bang them on a hard surface to see if they change shape or even break. Using their manipulative skills they push and poke, squeeze and squash, pull and twist the different objects to see what they can do with them. They may be interested in finding out which parts of an object move and which stay still, whether objects will roll or bounce, whether things will stack on top of one another, which things will fit inside other things and how objects can be moved from place to place.

There is no right or wrong way to play with heuristic play resources, and the open ended nature of the resources means that all toddlers can explore and investigate in their own way, applying their own creative ideas and building on their own experiences.

Practical ideas
Different children will be interested in doing different things with the resources, so the key to creating a good heuristic play collection is to include as wide a variety of resources as possible.

These could include:

  • natural materials such as cones, bark, large seeds and seed pods, shells and pebbles
  • wooden clothes pegs, large corks, lids, lengths of sink plug chain, bunches of keys, lengths of fabric and ribbon, rubber door stop
  • a variety of reclaimed materials either collected yourself or sourced from a creative recycling centres
  • rolling things – balls made of different materials, hair rollers, small tubes, cotton reels
  • stacking things – sets of coasters, blocks, mug tree with bracelets and wooden rings, set of nesting boxes
  • posting things – shoe box with a hole or slot in the lid, coasters, CDs, wooden pegs, large buttons ( >50 mm diameter)
  • carrying things – small baskets, paper carrier bags, ice cube trays

A variety of containers are an essential part of a heuristic play collection as toddlers will want to explore ‘putting things in’ and ‘taking things out’. These could include:

  • tins with smooth rims
  • nesting baskets
  • cardboard tubes of different diameters
  • small bags and purses
  • thick walled glass containers
  • wooden, metal or card boxes
  • wide necked plastic bottles
  • plastic flower pots

Heuristic play sessions should be timetabled into the daily routine, ensuring that children have sufficient time to fully satisfy their curiosity about the resources. A typical session might last about an hour, including time for setting up and clearing away. Preparation for the session is best done in an empty room. All furniture should be cleared to the sides of the room to leave the floor space clear. Any storage furniture with open shelving should be covered over or turned around to keep the ‘everyday’ resources separate from the heuristic play resources. Arrange the resources so they look interesting and inviting, encouraging children to want to investigate them and see what they will do.

The role of the adult in the session is to observe closely, watching how different children interact with the resources. Occasionally a toddler might invite an adult to join in with a particular activity, but largely speaking the adult should not interfere in the session – remember there is no right or wrong way to do things when manipulating open-ended materials.

The last ten minutes of the session should be used to involve the toddlers in clearing up and storing the resources ready for use the following day. Store the smaller collections of objects which make up the heuristic play collection in drawstring bags, so they are easy to access when setting up the next session.

By observing closely: which things different children are interested in; how they manipulate the objects; how long they concentrate for, you will be building up your understanding of their individual interests, skills and attitudes. This will provide a wealth of information upon which to plan what experiences to offer children next in order to extend and deepen their learning.

  • Links with the EYPS Standards: S8, S10, S11, S12, S13, S14
  • Links with Ofsted SEF: 3, 4b, 4d, 5i

This e-bulletin issue was first published in March 2010

About the author: Linda Thornton and Pat Brunton are early years consultants, trainers and authors and edit Early Years Update.