Heuristic Play

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

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

The guidance within the revised Early Years Foundation Stage curriculum (2014) tells us that, ‘When children have the opportunity to play with ideas in different situations with a variety of resources, they discover connections and come to new and better understandings and ways of doing things’

The most wonderful element associated with heuristic play for toddlers and babies is that there is no right or wrong in terms of how to play. It supports inclusion and is considered to be therapeutic. 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.

Professor Ferre laevers (1997) uses well being and involvement indicators to determine quality. He suggests that when children can be observed in activities that promote high levels of well being then this supports involvement. The two together, he suggests are indicators that deep level learning is taking place and thus provides an indicator of high quality.

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.

Heuristic play experiences as well as treasure basket sessions (which is for non mobile babies, just as they can sit up but cannot crawl again with the use of natural materials), are carried out regularly in the Caterpillar room with toddlers at Choochoos.

Heuristic play – suggested items


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

Objects that stack

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

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

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 Other objects to collect
  • Wooden laudry (dolly) pegs
  • Varying lengths and weights of chains (wonderful sensory experience)
  • Door knobs wooden/brass
  • Rubber/wooden door stops
  • Jar lids metal and plastic
  • Curtain rings, brass, wooden or metal
  • Cheap bangles braclets
  • Assorted ribbon
  • Collection of large seashells
  • Corks
  • Metal pots, tubes of various sizes.