Heuristic Play

EYFS Activities - Birth to two… heuristic play | Nursery World

What is it?

How can my child experience it?

Most people have never heard of it and don’t know what the term ‘Heuristic Play’ means, but, almost everybody will have witnessed it. It is something that children all over the world have always done. It is a form of natural play that every child does and that has always existed, regardless of where they live in the world, regardless of culture.

So, what exactly is heuristic play?

Heuristic play is what children do when they explore a range of everyday objects in different ways, whilst moving around with them in a safe environment. 

It normally starts in children between the ages of 1 and 2 years, but it can healthily linger for much longer in children with special needs.

Heuristic play is based around children’s natural curiosity of the world around them and children’s developing ability to experiment and find out for themselves.

So that’s heuristic play in a nutshell.

It’s playing with the empty boxes after the toys have been taken out.

It’s playing with pots and pans.

It’s playing with the clothes in the laundry basket.

It’s any simple play with objects, whilst moving around with them in different ways.

But there’s so much more to it than that…

Who invented it?

When was it invented?

What does it look like?

What benefits does it have?

How do you go about setting it up?

What resources do you need?

Who invented heuristic play and when?

The term heuristic play was first coined the child psychologist Elinor Goldschmeid. She developed her theory in the 1980’s.

Heuristic play has a few principles:

Heuristic play will look slightly different in different parts of the world, because children will be using and having access to the objects that are commonly found in that country. It’s not the particular objects that matter, it’s that the children have the freedom to access them independently.

Heuristic play is a very child-led form of learning. Adults are mainly there to supervise safety.

Heuristic play can be done alone by one child, or more than one child can access it together.

Sometimes children will share their experiences, and sometimes they won’t.

Heuristic play normally has a start and a finish time.

Heuristic play is movement. Children move with the objects as they get involved with them.

The child selects an object and moves it around in space. For example:

A cardboard tube…

The child picks up a cardboard tube, waves it around, puts it to their mouth, drops it, it rolls away, so the child reaches out for it again, the child bashes it on the floor, holds it up high, smells it, etc. The child is discovering what cardboard feels like, what it looks like, what it tastes like, what it smells like, what physical properties it has, how it behaves, what can be done with it. As an adult, we know what a cardboard tube is and what it does, but we had to find these out for ourselves, when we were children.

Heuristic Play - YouTube

What does heuristic play look like?

Heuristic play in its simplest form, will be a basket of everyday objects or loose parts, in a place where the child has enough space to be able to move around, freely and safely. Children will be able to practice some of the following skills:
















Tipping out!

They will also be able to use their Learning Schemas / fascinations, to explore the resources, such as:


Deconstructing / disconnecting




Enclosing / enveloping

Dynamic vertical

Dynamic horizontal

Going through a boundary

Going around a boundary

Positioning / ordering


Orientation / perspective

Aggregating / cumulative 


Children will be led by their own curiosity, ideas and interests.

What are the benefits of heuristic play?

1. Independence

Heuristic play allows children to be completely in charge of what they do and how they do it. They are able to:

Select what they do

Decide how to use it

Construct and deconstruct ideas

Share or not share!

This level of independence is brilliant for many things. It develops children’s thinking. It boosts engagement. It bolsters children’s self-esteem, and their awareness that they are able to think and act for themselves.

2. Concentration

This one is massive!

At a young age, children often have quite a short attention span. They flit between objects, places and ideas.

Heuristic play is excellent at lengthening attention span. Because children are curious about the objects involved, they become fully engaged in manipulating them.

Some children will engage with an object for as long as ten minutes. This continuous flow of thinking is brilliant for brain development.

They will often achieve a sense of ‘flow’. This is the state where you become completely involved in what you are doing. It is basically the same as the sporting concept of ‘getting into the zone.’ When children are in this state, their learning is heightened, and their potential for concentration increases.

3. Creativity

Children will be trying out all sort of imaginative ideas!

They might try to stack some boxes.

They may wrap a wooden spoon in a scarf.

They may roll a round piece of wood across the floor.

These are all ideas they have invented themselves and the children are spontaneously testing each new idea as it arrives.

4. Problem solving

Things will go wrong in heuristic play and also children will find new things out.

They might try to post something into a box that is simply too big.

They might try to make something roll that simply can’t.

They will learn about the physical properties of objects and also learn how to formulate ideas when things don’t go to plan.

5. Gross motor skills

There will be a huge amount of physical development going on in this type of play. Children are continuously moving in different ways. They will be bending, leaning, crawling, walking, rolling, and exploring the objects at the same time.

Gross motor skills are large movements of muscles in the arms, legs and torso, and all of those will be getting a workout in this style of play!

Some crucial gross motor skills involve:

Transporting and carrying objects

Picking things up

Wrapping things up

Posting things

Stacking and rolling things

Bouncing and dropping

6. The adult’s role in heuristic play

Adult’s can very much take a back-seat in heuristic play.

It is a child-centred form of learning whilst it is actually happening.

However, adults have a crucial role is designing the experience and setting up the play so that it can be as successful and as effective as possible.

Here are the key roles of the adult in heuristic play:

  • Selecting Materials

This is probably the most important bit!

Select a range of materials that children can explore. 

Select things based on their unusual properties, such as their texture, or their shape.

There is a lot more about the sorts of items you can pick in the next section below.

  • Designing the Environment

Crafting a space where heuristic play can happen is pretty simple. However, it’s good to know a few key pointers.

Think about safety!

Children are going to be moving around with numerous objects, so avoid sharp corners, trip hazards, or anything else like that.

It is best to have a good wide space in the room but somewhere that is reasonably contained.

Have heuristic objects in simple baskets that you can put on the floor, so the children are able to look into them and select whatever they like out of them.

  • Supervising for Safety

The main role of the adult when heuristic play is actually happening, is supervising for safety.

You may have to sort out some minor squabbles if there’s more than one child. Also, there may be the odd injury that happens by mistake (or you may be able to stop it before it happens).

  • Observing What Happens

Observe whilst it is going on!

What are the children interested in? How are they using things?

What are their favourite objects? These are the things to use again and again.

What are they not interested in? Watching will help you understand the children more, and also help you plan heuristic play sessions in the future.

  • Helping Everyone Tidy Away

This is no easy task! But trying to encourage everyone to tidy away at the end is a key role of the adult.

What does a heuristic play session look like?

A heuristic play session should be kept simple and ideally have a start and a finish time. It’s not necessarily the sort of play that you want going on all the time. 

Simply… bring out the heuristic play baskets and let the children explore.

It is up to you to judge when a session is coming to an end. Give the children time to explore everything, but if they appear bored or restless (or just starting to go that way), then it is definitely time to stop.

Often, when you repeat heuristic play regularly, the attention span of the children will lengthen.

At the end of the session, make it clear to the children that the session has ended and everyone help each other put the stuff away!

Then put the heuristic boxes away ready for next time. 

It’s that simple!

What materials can I use for Heuristic Play?

You really can be very imaginative and original in sourcing objects for heuristic play but here are a few ideas to get you going:

Measuring spoons


Egg boxes

Cardboard tubes

Small gutters and pipes

Greaseproof paper

Bubble wrap

Rubber door stops

Curtain rings


Napkin rings

Keys on a ring



Coloured ribbons

Tea strainers

Fruit and veg

Pots and pans

Paper and cardboard

Lids and bottle tops

Material offcuts.

The other thing that you do require are some baskets. These should be heavy enough not to collapse or fall over when the children get things out of them.

They should also be reasonably low so that the children can look in and take things out. Other than that, pretty much any type of basket will do the trick!

Learning & Development: Elinor Goldschmied - A life revisited | Nursery  World

Themed Baskets for Heuristic Play

Often it is a good idea to have a theme for the basket of items that you provide. This is when everything in the basket shares the same kind of property.

Some great ideas for themed baskets include:

Wooden Basket

This is as easy as it sounds. Just select loads of wooden items. Ideas could be wooden spoons, pegs, sticks, wooden blocks.

Things That Smell

The more multisensory the objects are the better. This really deepens the curiosity of the children, and their sense of excitement when interacting with the objects.

Some great ‘smelly’ objects include things like lemons, limes, grapefruit, herbs, or scented bags.


Children find the contrast between black and white really stimulating.

Having a heuristic basket containing objects of just these two colours, can really spark their interest and be really visually exciting.

Some black and/or white things could be material, objects, clothes – anything you can find!

Metal Basket

Raiding the kitchen in particular is a brilliant source of objects for a treasure basket!

Some great metal items include things like ladles, spoons, forks, pots, pans, bowls and any other pieces of metal you can think of.

Soft Items

Soft materials can be manipulated in many different ways, that hard objects cannot.

For example, you can wrap them around things. You can wear them. You can put them over your head so you can’t see!

Some great ideas for soft things could be velvet, wool (either a ball or knitted), scarves, handkerchiefs, baby clothes, socks.

Noisy Items!

Things that make a noise are great for exploring, as well as being excellent for developing the children’s senses of listening and attention.

This leads into their communication and is also laying the foundations for early literacy and phonic development later on.

Some good noisy items include dog toys, crinkly paper, foil, space blankets and bubble wrap.

Top Tips for Heuristic Play

Keep it cheap or even free

Select a variety of interesting materials that have unusual properties

If children enjoy a specific object, then use it again

Rotate the objects used to keep it fresh

Have a specific start and end time to the session

Let the children interact independently. 

Try to take a back seat!

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