Heuristic play is quite the buzzword of the moment. It’s usually a phrase scattered across the hashtags below a beautiful basket of wooden sensory items or ribbons, possibly even captioning an outdoor play scene. But what exactly does ‘heuristic play’ entail? Should we be pursuing it for our children? And is it just another fancy play trend without much substance? As someone who has a career peppered with educating young folk it’s something I’ve returned to frequently and something I’m determined to incorporate into our child’s early childhood experience and beyond. It’s valuable, it’s exciting, and it’s empowering. Read on to find out why.
What is heuristic play?
Heuristic play is a term first defined in the 1980s, by English born educator and social worker Eleanor Goldshmied. In her popular work ‘People Under Three’ she defined heuristic play as:
‘Put simply, it consists of offering a group of children, for a defined period of time in a controlled environment, a large number of objects and receptacles with which they can play freely without adult intervention’
Eleanor Goldshmied & Sonia Jackson People Under Three p. 128 via
Heuristic play, developing from this original definition, refers to the use of open-ended objects for children to independently explore and create with as they please. While it is most commonly used in reference to baby and toddler play I believe it is suitable for all ages (even adults!) to encourage deep problem solving, creativity, STEM and language development - alongside simply having a good time!
What’s so great about it?
Why do I love it so much? A real myriad of reasons. I’ll go into them now.
It works as a foundation for all play
If you have a basket of random objects that can be stacked, counted, narrated and more, you have the basic resources for any number of play opportunities. Just think of a wooden egg cup. Stack it on top of a table and knock it off to explore gravity. Serve teddy bears and fairies a cup of strawberry tea. Spin it on its head. Compare it to the feel of a cold metal spoon. Mouth it and see what give it has on your poor teething gums! Scoop and pour sand and mud. Whisper into it and see what echoes it makes. Sit it alongside wooden spoons and a cotton spool to practice counting and 1:1 object correspondence. See where I’m going with this? Heuristic play sets very few limits to imagination.
It offers agency and choice
Give a child a plastic toy kitchen (no judgement here- we have one ourselves!). What can they do with it? They can play kitchens, restaurants, maybe shops. That’s wonderful and valuable. However, it comes with its own narrative. Some of the imaginative process has already been completed by a well meaning adult. The child knows that if they are to use the kitchen, there’s a fairly set in stone scenario to get involved in. Again, there’s nothing wrong with this at all - but wouldn’t it be lovely if our children had the opportunity to use it for a while, then later in the day opt for open ended play materials to construct a narrative completely on their terms? Without adult intervention or prescripted play narratives, a bowl of Pom poms can be anything a child needs it to be. A sensory experience. Fine motor skill practice. Meatballs. snow, counters for a game, wedding confetti. The child leads on the object use.
It moves with a child’s developmental stage
Moving on from my previous point, if a resource is completely open ended, it can be adopted to be used for an array of developmental stages. A wooden spoon can be mouthed by a baby, used as a beater for a drum, or decorated as a fairy wand. As a child’s cognitive world opens up an open ended item can grow to have more and more uses. This also helps with value for money if the item is question is something you’ve bought. This again empowers the child: as the resource won’t be inaccessible, too easy or too challenging. It’s simply what they make of it.
It’s usually pretty cheap & easy to resource
While you can absolutely spend lots of money on lovely wooden loose parts, this is not the meaning of heuristic play. Heuristic play can be a bowl of shells or wooden beads, poms poms and more. As long as the resources don’t have a completely set narrative or purpose, they’re usually classifiable as heuristic. All the items we use in our house have been scavenged from our kitchen drawers, sewing basket and jewellery boxes! To that end, setting up a heuristic play invite can be pretty spontaneous and definitely cheap or even free. This means children can benefit from this type of play without the barriers of cost/affordability both in terms of time and finance.
It does not require adult support
While scaffolding from an adult has its place (in my opinion), heuristic resources do not require it whatsoever. As the items are entirely open ended a child can independently access them, order them, and narrate them. They therefore have full control over what their play can become.
If you’re after some ideas for heuristic play in the home, here are some ideas I’ve found on Pinterest over the years. They are to inspire but not to prescribe what you should do!
Heuristic play might sound daunting, but it really needn’t be! In its essence it’s about simplifying, trusting the child, and keeping things open ended. Above all, have fun and enjoy!