Baby and Toddler Play – A parent’s guide to heuristic play and treasure baskets

Wednesday, November 4th, 2015

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Heuristic play and creating treasure baskets are a great way for babies and toddlers to learn about the world, writes our Director of Childcare, Dearbhala, in today’s Irish Independent.

What is Heuristic Play?

New mums often encounter the term Heuristic Play for the first time at a mother and toddlers group or when their child starts crèche. Heuristic Play actually sounds much grander than it really is but do not underestimate its value: it is a term coined by child psychologist (Elinor Goldschmeid) who developed treasure baskets for babies and the heuristic play approach for toddlers which describes the activity of babies and young children as they explore objects from the real world.

The thinking behind it is not new and is something that we are all familiar with. Give a young child a present and more than likely, he or she wants to spend time scrunching the wrapping paper or eating it instead of playing with the toy itself. Our parents and grandparents already knew about this without even realising it. We played with saucepans and wooden spoons in the kitchen which we banged together, we stirred and poured rice with a jug and a funnel and a highlight was to have a basin of water!

Heuristic is defined as enabling a person to discover or learn something for themselves. It 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. By using a treasure basket with children at this age you are providing them with rich mental stimulation, which not only activates the growth of the brain but also provides highly satisfying learning experiences. Household or kitchen utensils offer these opportunities and can occupy a child for surprising stretches of time as they concentrate on stacking pots, exploring the objects or sometimes just enjoying the new and interesting banging noise of a wooden spoon on a saucepan!

We live in a world where plastic toys dominate the shelves of toy shops, but plastic is dull and disappointing for babies, and whilst each rattle may look different each one smells, tastes and feels the same – it is unstimulating to their senses. Using heuristic play with babies stimulates all the senses, creating a rich learning experience as during this stage, a baby’s primal instinct is to explore objects by handling and sucking on them in order to find out about their physical characteristics.

Parents love watching their children discover and explore which is inherently what treasure baskets and heuristic play encourages. It is not a novel idea as children have been fascinated with exploring household items for generations. Nothing delights more than a child’s sense of wonder when they make a discovery and in turn it appeals to our sense of wonderment and delights as we observe children developing wonderment of their own! When a child makes a discovery or an interesting sound is produced, they often repeat the action again and again, to test the result which strengthens cognitive development as well as muscle control and hand/eye co-ordination.

What should go into the basket?

There should be a wide range of objects both natural and man-made that will stimulate all of the senses and that can be used as open-ended tools for exploration and imagination.

Include a good range of textures, shapes and materials and all should be non-toxic with no tiny pieces. Consider some of the following……an old CD, a sparkly glitter ball, keys, hand bells, a bracelet, a serving spoon, saucepan and a lid, various sizes and shaped wooden spoons and implements, homemade shakers (plastic bottles containing coloured rice), castanets or wooden object to tap together, felt, silky ribbon, shiny fabric, a lemon, bag of lavender (safely tied!) and other objects of wonder which are found in the home.

Don’t forget it is an approach, not a prescription so the content of the baskets is up to you but will probably discover that your child will favour a particular item such as silky piece of fabric or a bell which they will always seek out first.

Rotate the content of the basket regularly so that your child’s interest is sustained and remember, do not leave it out all day as it will no longer be exciting and interesting.(You need to use your own common sense about what may be dangerous and never leave your child unattended or with another child while playing with the basket).


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