Heuristic play is rooted in young children’s natural curiosity. As babies grow, they move beyond being content to simply feel and ponder objects, to wanting to find out what can be done with them. 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. When toddlers make an enjoyable discovery – for instance when one item fits into another, or an interesting sound is produced – they often repeat the action several times to test the result, which strengthens cognitive development as well as fine muscle control and hand/eye coordination.
Heuristic play ‘consists of offering a group of children, for a defined period of time in a controlled environment, a large number of different kinds of objects and receptacles with which they play freely without adult intervention’. 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. Consider children’s age-old fascination with mother’s sewing basket: while mum is mending, her child enjoys its contents in various combinations – reels of thread, bits of colourful tape, scraps of yarn and cloth, a pincushion full of pins, a measuring tape, small tins of snaps to shake (or match up and hitch together), and buttons in all shapes, sizes and colours to sort and arrange.
To provide for heuristic play, you just need to collect natural materials like cones, sticks, seashells, pebbles, ribbons, and ‘found’ objects like rings, lids, cardboard tubes, the circles from inside sellotape and empty cotton reels.
Discerning sound is part of heuristic play. Children often notice noises accidentally produced by some action (rubbing two rough items together, sliding a chain across a tin, banging the lids etc.,) and purposely repeat the action, sometimes over and over again. The adults need to resist the urge to move them on to something else.
At the end of the play, you can have your child help tidy up the objects. While a two-year-old may manage to put items in the correct box, younger children can help to put items into a box. Involve them in the clean-up process and make it fun– after all, dropping an item in a bag is as much fun as dropping it in a tin!
To learn more, read:
People under Three, Young Children in Day Care (2nd editon), Elinor Goldschmied & Sonia Jackson, Routledge, London & New York, 2004