heuristic play

Heuristic Play and the Treasure Basket

When talking about early years education, the term “heuristic play” is often bandied about but what does it actually mean? How does it help young children develop? And how can you incorporate heuristic play in your setting environment?

What is Heuristic Play?

The term itself was coined by the child psychologist Elinor Goldschmeid in the early 1980s. It describes the activity of playing with and exploring real-life, everyday objects. The theory is, that children will use familiar everyday objects in a variety of different ways in order to discover and make sense of the world around them. Another term for this method is simply “treasure basket play”.

How Does Heuristic Play Help Young Children?

Heuristic play has a variety of benefits for children. First of all, the young child has to make a decision as to which object to choose first. They then have to reach for it and grab it. They then have control over how to handle it or move it.

Children are able to find out and discover through trial and error but always self-directed by their own process and not someone else telling them how to interact with the object(s). They are able to explore, experiment and make choices at their own pace and in a completely natural way.

Their natural curiosity to explore the objects helps to develop their hand-eye coordination, their fine motor skills and their muscle control, making heuristic play a multi-faceted approach to learning.

How Can I Incorporate Heuristic Play Into My Early Years Setting?

Heuristic play is easy to set up and costs very little (if anything). Essentially all that is needed are ordinary everyday items that are safe for young children to explore by using all of their senses. There is no right or wrong way to introduce heuristic play in your setting. There are different ways of setting up, interacting (or not) with the children, and a wide variety of materials that can be used. What is important is the provision of an opportunity for spontaneous exploratory play.

A recent spin-off from the original heuristic play idea is the dawn of the treasure basket, which is a staple in most early years settings of late. Depending on the age of the child, a treasure basket can contain anything. It can be based on a theme, a colour, an individual interest of the child, a season etc. or even no theme at all, just a random assortment of everyday objects – the possibilities are literally endless to give the child a multi-sensory play exploration.

To prepare for the introduction of heuristic play, staff need to collect together items which can be used. These can include naturally occurring objects such as shells, pebbles, fir cones, fruit or feathers. Baskets can also contain a whole range of other items such as clothes pegs (wooden or plastic), wooden and metal spoons, bean bags, ribbons, brushes (hairbrush, toothbrush, paint brush), or a mirror. Pretty much anything can be put into a treasure basket as long as it is safe for the age of the child who will be exploring it.

Beyond the exploration of the treasure basket itself, children can also gain development through spontaneous exploratory play by being involved in the tidy up process when treasure basket play needs to be packed away. Older children can help sort the items into the corresponding bag or basket, whilst younger children may not be able to sort independently but can take delight in dropping the items back into the bag or basket they are asked to place them in.

It has to be remembered that “heuristic play is an approach and not a prescription. There is no right way to do it and people in different settings will have their own ideas and collect their own materials” (People under Three). The importance is not in how it’s done but the provision of opportunity for independent, self-lead, open-ended discovery and play.


We stock a wide range of wicker baskets which can be used to make your own treasure baskets and take a look at our heuristic play starter set. To view our full range of baskets please click here.

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