Heuristic Play for Babies: What, Why & How?

Louise Zimmerman, Early Years Specialist and Busylizzy Epsom & Leatherhead Club Owner

Heuristic play involves sensory exploration of everyday items – anything from dry pasta, a wooden spoon, piece of string or sticks from the garden. Having an open-ended object to play with stimulates innovation, creativity and imagination as your child discovers the ways the object feels and can be used, which is essential to learning and development.

The word ‘heuristic’ comes from the word ‘eurisko’ which means to learn, discover or reach an understanding of something. The phrase ‘heuristic play’ was a term coined by child psychologist Elinor Goldschmeid in the 1980s to describe the activity of babies and children as they play with and explore the properties of objects from the real world.

Why is heuristic play good for our children?
1. It stimulates creativity and imagination.
2. It supports gross motor skills and brain development in infants and toddlers.
3. It stimulates multiple senses and critical thinking.
4. It promotes early mathematical conceptual learning.
5. It allows children to gain an understanding of the world around them and encourages independence.

How can I encourage heuristic play?
You can offer open-ended discovery opportunities at any time. For example when doing chores, let them play with the basket of pegs or pile of clean washing. Offer objects in the bath or a bowl of water while you’re in the kitchen or even let them bang saucepans with a wooden spoon to make their own musical instruments.

Treasure baskets are also a great way of providing heuristic play opportunities. Fill a box with household objects such as egg boxes, measuring spoons or shower puffs, and outdoor objects like leaves and pinecones. Obviously we should always keep a watchful eye on them as they explore, but it is essential that you allow them the freedom to choose and play with the objects without offering or showing them the items first.

Usually, 30 minutes a day is enough for the treasure basket heuristic play, so make sure that you clear a space for it with no other toys around. Turn the TV off and take the basket away once your child is satisfied so that they don’t tire of the objects. Rotate them fairly frequently to encourage new and different learning experiences.

If you’re out and about, pack a few items in your changing bag that might keep them entertained for a few moments. My children used to love taking everything out of my purse, so I found an old one and filled it with bits of card and bit buttons that they could play with – without the risk of me losing my bank card!

Being outside also provides a natural heuristic play area for babies, and toddlers too. They can grasp at grass, leaves and flowers in the garden or play with sand and seaweed at the beach.

There’s so much to discover in the world around us – especially for little ones! We often forget as adults with a million and one things on our mind just how interesting an everyday item could be to a baby who’s still learning absolutely everything about how the world works. Sometimes our natural protective instincts are to take things away from them but as long as you’re confident they can’t choke or hurt themselves, let them explore, play and learn.