Allowing children to create play with everyday items forms the basis of heuristic play.
By playing with these items, children can access a new way to learn about the world around them. First introduced by Elinor Goldschmied to pre-school education, heuristic play is a child led activity with items that offer both intrigue and challenge but are also safe for children.
Heuristic play allows children to develop both cognitive and physical skills and is a great way to better understand a child’s preferences with play through observation.
What is heuristic play?
The word heuristic itself has originated from the Greek word ‘eurisko’ which means ‘I discover’. It is all about developing and learning the skills needed to take on challenges and to problem solve.
It is in the nature of young children to want to discover what things are and what they do in the world around them. By engaging in heuristic play, children are able to safely explore these items with their fingers, hands and even feet. They can explore texture, colour, shape, weight and flexibility of the different objects.
Every aspect of playing with the foreign objects is a physical and cognitive exploration for young children. Do they drop when they let go of them? Do they make a sound when they fall? Is it loud or quiet? Perhaps some objects fit inside other objects?
Using manipulative skills such as pulling, pushing, poking and twisting children will learn what they can and can’t do with different objects.
The items used in a heuristic play set are not what’s seen as ‘traditional’ toys, but that’s what makes the objects so valuable to the learning experience. There are no rules, no right and wrong way to play and any ideas for play opportunities are equally valuable. Similar to free play, it's the open-ended nature of heuristic play that allows for all toddlers to investigate in their own way, expressing their own creativity and to build on their own experiences.
If you’d like to find out more about heuristic play and the activities you can do with your children, why not download the FREE TickiT Guide below!
How heuristic play supports development
Heuristic play is a great way to support multiple areas of development in toddlers. It provides sensory exploration, develops self-efficacy, supports creativity and encourages fine motor and early maths skills.
Whilst children play, be sure to keep a close eye on them for safety.
These play sessions are a great time to observe children for key aspects of development, such as:
- Cognitive skills – how long can they concentrate for? What items do they find most intriguing to play with?
- Awareness of others – when children play together in a group, are they noticing each other? Do they try to imitate each other or interact through play?
- Co-ordination – Is there any hand preference that is evident through play? What objects seem to be easily manipulated?
All of these observations can help you understand the preferences of the child playing which can then be used to plan future play sessions. Where one child may enjoy making different noises, they will probably enjoy playing with musical instruments. Yet another child may want to use the items to build and would therefore benefit from more construction toys.
Allowing children to initiate how they play with these objects is the key to understanding their individual needs.
You can find out more about how to use heuristic play sets in the short video from Commotion below.
Approaches to play and the creative mindsets of children
Recent research by Barbara Bilewicz-Kuźnia has classified the behaviour of children during sessions of heuristic play. The research for the study took a qualitive approach with the objective of observations being to discern the creative mindsets and approaches of children.
The findings from this study were categorised under three headings, corresponding to three criteria. These were: the nature of the cognitive contact, the conceptual approach to playing and while playing, and the personality traits of the children playing.
The classifications found within these three criteria are briefly summarised as the following:
When considering the character of the child’s cognitive contact with the material while playing, four different types of experimental approaches can be distinguished:
- Master of structures
- Master of descriptions
When considering full-blown play, one can observe such conceptual types as:
- Creator of meanings
In terms of personality type, playing can reveal such types as:
The study broadly concludes that children can engage in explorative activities and assume various roles in heuristic play. Children can be passive observers, active participants or lone explorers. They can act in groups, initiate explorative interaction, and respond to the actions or invitations of others.
The specific type of exploration undertaken in heuristic play, coupled with the desire to present the obtained skills, such as counting, naming, creating classes, rhyming or making decors, makes it possible to get to know the cognitive possibilities, skills and fascinations of children.
Setting up your heuristic play session
It’s important to ensure that there’s enough time for children to feel fully satisfied that they’ve been able to explore all the resources at hand. Allowing for at least an hour for a heuristic play session should give them enough time for this, and for set up and tidy up afterwards.
It’s very important that when preparing for a session of heuristic play, the room is as clear as possible of other objects, and there’s a nice open space to group the heuristic play items in. Try to arrange the resources in different sections spaced out on the floor. Position these collections to intrigue and gain young children’s curiosity before allowing them in the room to investigate.
Your role as the adult in the heuristic play session is to observe. Watch how your child uses different items, how they manipulate them and express their very own creative ideas. It may be that during the play session the items may need to be rearranged slightly if they become too mixed up to be easily distinguished separately.
A great way to end each session is to invite children to help clear the resources away. This also gives a valuable opportunity to discuss the items with children, what they may be used for and what they do.
Don’t forget, you can find out more about heuristic play and the activities you can do with your children, by downloading the FREE TickiT Guide below!
Heuristic play is a great way to allow young children to explore through open-ended play. By using a variety of intriguingly shaped and sized objects, children can use their natural curiosity to explore and investigate. This encourages learning and development in young children, improving both physical and cognitive skills.
We’d love to hear about your experience with heuristic play. If you have a good activity or a question, please share it by leaving a comment below.
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- Barbara Bilewicz-Kuźnia, (2017). The experimental approaches and creative mindsets of children in heuristic play. Social Research, volume 8.
- TickiT Guide: Exploring Heuristic Play
- Nursery World: EYFS Activities - Birth to two… heuristic play, By Penny Tassoni