Heuristic play

‘Heuristic, is derived from the Greek word eurisko, which means to discover or gain an understanding of’.

Heuristic play consists of offering groups of children, a large number of different types of objects to explore with or without adult intervention, for a defined period of time in a controlled environment.

The most wonderful element associated with heuristic play for toddlers and children that there is no right or wrong in terms of how to explore/play. Unlike many toys produced commercially, whose play value is limited, heuristic play objects are natural items from every day life that offer children the opportunity to test out their own theories and to problem solve.

At times of celebration, when small children are given gifts it is not unusual for the adult to be heard complaining that the child is more interested in the wrapping paper, ribbon or box than the bought item. This is because an empty box or a length of ribbon can provide endless possibilities to sustain a child’s natural curiosity.

Providing children with an array of natural materials such as different sized boxes, varying widths of ribbon, a length of chain, corks, bottles, wooden clothes pegs, curtain rings and so on helps children to sort, select, balance, fill, empty and test out the properties materials have to offer.

The learning opportunities are endless with heuristic play, which is why Choochoos choose to provide these experiences for our children within our routine. Parents/carers can be part of this experience by donating items to Choochoos for use or create their very own collection of natural materials to use at home with their child.

Heuristic play suggested items to use:


  • Tins, round, square, oval, with or without lids.
  • Cardboard boxes.
  • Wooden boxes.
  • Wide neck plastic bottles, of varying sizes.
  • Flower pots.
  • Baskets/buckets of varying sizes.
  • Yoghurt pots.
  • Objects that roll.
  • Various coloured pom poms.
  • Ping pong balls.
  • Cotton reels.
  • Hair rollers.
  • Empty electrical cable spools.
  • Empty industrial sewing spools.
  • Jewellery boxes of varying sizes.

Objects that stack:

  • Curtain rings.
  • Wooden bricks.
  • Wooden mug tree.
  • Nest of boxes.
  • Sets of coasters.
  • Rollers.

Posting and slotting objects:

  • Shoeboxes with slits in lid.
  • Boxes with holes and slits of various sizes.
  • Tins with holes and slots in lid.
  • Money boxes and large buttons.
  • Square coasters or cd cases with wooden/rubber, cd storage case.
  • Straws.

Objects which carry and contain:

  • Large measuring spoons.
  • Purses/bags wallets.
  • Baskets and rigid containers.
  • Ice cube trays.
  • Cutlery drainers with holes.
  • Colanders.
  • Saucepans of varying sizes.
  • Wooden laundry pegs.
  • Varying lengths and weights of chains.
  • Door knobs wooden/brass.
  • Rubber/wooden door stops.
  • Jar lids metal and plastic.
  • Curtain rings, brass, wooden or metal.
  • Cheap bangles/bracelets.
  • Assorted ribbon.
  • Collection of large seashells.
  • Corks.
  • Metal pots, tubes of various sizes.

For more information on heuristic play, read our Choochoos treasure basket & heuristic play leaflet.