Heuristic play is the activity of babies and children as they play with and explore the properties and functions of everyday objects. These 'objects' are things we would find in our homes and in nature.
The modern world is dominated by plastic toys but plastic is dull and eventually disappointing for babies and toddlers, and while each rattle or teether may look different, each one smells, tastes and feels the same. This is un-stimulating for your baby or toddlers senses. Using heuristic play with young children stimulates all the senses, creating a rich learning experience.
Heuristic play with children often revolves around the use of a 'Treasure Basket'. A Treasure Basket can be used with little ones from the time that they can sit unaided to around 2 years old. During this developmental phase, the primary question a baby would ask if they could talk would be 'What is the object like?'.
A Treasure Basket is usually a low sided basket filled with everyday objects from the real world these objects and things are made from any material but plastic, and come from a variety of sources in nature and the around the house. It is through handling and exploring these objects that your little one develops contact with the outside world, and begins to make their own choices and decisions.
The predominant way that babies under the age of 1 discover and learn about their world is through sensory-motor development and during this stage a baby's instinct is to explore objects by handling and mouthing them in order to discover their physical characteristics. By using a treasure basket you are providing your little one with rich mental stimulation, which not only activates the growth of their brain but also provides richly satisfying experiences for them.
A 'Treasure Basket' is not a static plaything, over time objects can be added, taken out and replaced, every time you go somewhere new, you can collect objects to go into the treasure basket (e.g shells from a trip to the beach or pine cones from a visit to the gardens) so that the basket grows, reinforces learning experiences and becomes a catalogue of memories. Every treasure basket will be a unique collection of objects. Aim to establish a collection of 20-30 objects, which comprise a variety of textures and materials. Once you have built up this 'base' of objects to go in your treasure basket, you can add more to it over time, which will keep your baby interested with a new object to explore every now and then.
Here is a list of objects or things you may collect for your treasure basket:
Paper / cardboard objects: Egg cartons, cardboard tubes, baking paper, corrugated cardboard, small boxes.
Wooden objects: Door wedge, wooden pegs, egg cup, wooden eggs, spoons, coasters, bangles, blocks, napkin rings, empty salt and pepper shakers.
Leather, textile, rubber, or fur objects: Small knitted or crocheted toy, piece of flannel, velvet powder puff, bags of herbs, a bag of lavender, leather keyring, coloured ribbons, leather purse, possum fur, sheepskin.
Metal objects: Honey drizzler, an egg cup, measuring spoons, tea strainer, whisk, compact mirror, bells, lemon squeezer, small bowl.
Natural objects: A lemon or orange, coconut shell, grass rope, sheepskin, pumice stone, loofah, shells, pine/fir cones, driftwood, avocado stone, large pebbles or stones.
Brushes: Scrubbing brush, pastry brush, baby's hairbrush, nail brush, makeup brush, paintbrush, shaving brush.
Other objects: small vanilla essence or food colouring bottles, hair rollers, small mirror, scent bags, bone shoehorn, ceramic bowl etc.
Navy Baby is a great New Zealand website to order loose parts and heuristic play sets off. Or head down to your nearest Salvation Army store to pick up all sorts of interesting and unique treasures.
A note on safety - Be mindful of the size of objects you choose and that they are not a choking hazard. Avoid keys, as these frequently have lead and other heavy metals in them which can be ingested if mouthed - also ensure that you do not have any objects in your treasure basket made of pewter as this is also high in lead. If you use objects made from leather in your treasure basket, make sure they are genuine leather, and not imitation (which is made of PVC, and is very toxic for babies to be mouthing). Give everything a good wash and rinse before offering it to your little one to play with and check the treasure basket regularly for broken objects.