When you spend a lot of time around children, you’ll see that they would often rather play with the box, paper and ribbon a present came in than the toy itself. This is completely normal and critical to a young child’s development. It is known as heuristic play.
Heuristic play is when you give a group of children a range of different objects and receptacles in a controlled environment and allow them to play without adult intervention. The term was first coined by Sonia Jackson and Elinor Goldschmied in the book People Under Three. Heuristic means “to find out or discover; proceeding by trial and error” by the Oxford dictionary definition. The aim is to let them play, explore, and experiment with everyday objects rather than toys.
So why is heuristic play so important for young children?
Many toys and puzzles on the market guide children toward a predefined objective and definitive success. While of course, early success is never a bad thing, it doesn’t leave much room for creativity. When children are allowed to engage in heuristic play, they are free to imagine and play in whatever ways they desire.
Unlike toys and puzzles that guide young children to learn about certain outcomes, for example, what shape fits in which hole or that pressing a button creates a noise, heuristic play allows them to define their own outcomes and figure out how to reach them.
Heuristic play allows children to move themselves, objects, and receptacles freely, allowing for greater development of gross motor skills.
Children are able to move themselves and the objects around them to feel, see and hear the results of their actions, free of adult guidance. The toys aren’t showing them why something is happening, it’s up to the children to figure it out for themselves and decide whether or not it’s something that they want to do again, whether it’s useful for them, or whether they can do something similar to create a similar result.
Children are free to consider an object’s weight, size, shape, texture, and how those differences affect their world and what they’re trying to do. While there are toys that encourage this, none offer the same level of freedom that children experience in heuristic play.
The best way to encourage heuristic play in your nursery is to give children supervised free time to wander, touch, and play in whatever way they desire. Provide children with boxes full of safe objects and receptacles and allow them to look through the boxes, pull things out, touch them, move them, and experiment.
Include everyday objects, such as:
Try to remove other distractions that may prevent heuristic play. Turn off televisions, remove loud toys, and avoid doing any activities within view that may be of more interest to the children. Simply sit by and watch what the children choose to do. It’s a great opportunity to learn more about what interests them and how they prefer to interact with the world around them.
At the end of the session (30 minutes is usually enough), ask the children to help you collect the objects. This is often just as interesting for them as looking through the boxes in the first place.
There is no one way to use heuristic play in your nursery, so experiment with your own ideas and see what the children respond to best.