I've been looking at lots of different nurseries (day care) for my one year old child.

Most of them are proud to offer something they call "heuristic play".

What is heuristic play? Why is it so popular in the UK at the moment? What research supports the use of heuristic play?

8 Answers 8


According to this primary school's website, heuristic play is defined as the following:

Heuristic play actively encourages exploration by using and developing children's senses. Children instinctively investigate objects that interest them, making discoveries through taste, touch, smell, sound and how they look. During the activity children explore different materials and objects without adult interference. The role of the adult is to support the children, collect objects, set out the activity and to observe.

Another site defines heuristic play based on the seminal work that gave this philosophy its name:

In their book, People Under Three, Elinor Goldschmied and Sonia Jackson coined the term heuristic play, to explain how to provide a more structured opportunity for this kind of activity. Heuristic play ‘consists of offering a group of children, for a defined period of time in a controlled environment, a large number of different kinds of objects and receptacles with which they play freely without adult intervention’. It is particularly useful for children in their second year who often seem unwilling to engage in any activity for more than a few minutes. According to the Oxford Dictionary, ‘heuristic’ means helping to find out or discover; proceeding by trial and error. It stems from the same root as Eureka – ‘I found it!’ Clare Crowther of Bridgwater College describes heuristic play as ‘an activity we use with one-year-olds, two-year-olds, and young threes, giving them the opportunity to experiment spontaneously with a wide range of non-commercial objects. Whilst the heuristic play session is in process, adults need to remain seated and quiet. This supports children in making their own choices and discoveries.’

Finally, this early childhood expert wrote an article that BabyCentre.co.uk linked to. Actually, BabyCentre.co.uk has a ton of results from parents (read: moms) who've tried this and really enjoyed it, as well as felt their kids love it a lot.

As for why it's so popular: probably a combination of two things.

  1. Engaging in heuristic play is fairly inexpensive. Basically, you use household items in creative ways. Given the last five or so years' economic performances, a back-to-basics approach is unsurprising. Parents also have more control over the "toys," as they can have natural wood or plastics that are food-grade rather than potentially sketchy toys made in countries with less stringent health and safety guidelines for children's clothes/toys or the paint/sealants that go on said objects.

  2. This is probably the more important: parents love watching their children discover, which is inherently what heuristic play / treasure baskets encourage. No parent I know doesn't completely light up when they tell stories about their babies first stacking blocks or using pots and pans and stirring spoons for an impromptu drumming jam session. It appeals to our (read: adults') own sense of wonderment that their kids have such wonderment of their own. But that's just my humble opinion.

  • 1
    Since you mentioned you were in the UK, I tried to use UK-specific resources. Hope that helps! :D
    – Aarthi
    Commented Aug 20, 2011 at 14:09

Heuristic play is a method of play helping young children to learn and develop. Children are offered natural and household objects to play with, discover and explore. Heuristic play is always child led but under adult supervision. Natural objects or objects made from natural materials are more varied compared to plastic toys, which give children the opportunity to use their five senses while exploring. The approach also improves children's creativity, flexibility and their ability to concentrate and focus. Furthermore it encourages children to make choices and explore by trial an error. Heuristic play can work with children from 6 months and even adults can benefit from it.

Research has shown the importance of sensory experiences for children. Jean Piaget (1896-1980). described the first stages in a child's developnment including sensory and motor abilities. According to Piaget children's interactions with the environment create learning. Maria Montessori (1870- 1952) also believed that children learn best through senses and that children have sensitive periods when their senses are more ready to learn new ideas. Moreover she underlined the importance of providing appropriate materials to children and givinng them enough time and space to experiment.

This benefits of this method are some of the reasons for why Heuristic play has become so popular in th UK.


Heuristic play is an excellent method to foster your child's creativity and support their cognitive and physical development by providing a range of objects that stimulate their senses of taste, smell and touch. While engaged in heuristic play children learn about colours, shapes, sizes and weights of household objects that they can handle in many different ways. They can explore independently since these objects have a variety of uses. Because heuristic play is so engaging children can focus for long periods of time. The term heuristic play was coined by Elinor Goldschmied whose research suggests that a non prescriptive approach to learning is much more beneficial for a child's development than prescriptive play with plastic toys that have limited uses and flawed design.


Heuristic play objects offer multi-sensory play exploration. The child gets to decide which object to choose first, then the act of reaching out and grabbing, handling and moving around the various objects will help develop hand to eye co-ordination, fine motor skills and muscle control


To put it simply Heuristic Play offers the child an uninterrupted space to explore carefully chosen 'real' objects. It allows the child to use all 5 senses to explore and learn. It's so popular because the benefits of Heuristic Play are obvious. It's clearly supportive of the child's development as proven by Elinor Goldschmied's research. Have a look at her film 'I don't need Toys'.


Heuristic Play is an amazing way to help the children's development offering the opportunity to play with every day/common objects allowing them to discover and explore on their own and at their own pace. This type of play sets the perfect environment for children to give their own meaning to objects. Heuristic Play happens in a controlled and safe environment that enables them to investigate and experience from a large range of different objects and play freely feeling safe and secure to make decisions. This expands their senses as well as their creativity, imagination, focus, cause-and-effect, concentration. The benefits of Heuristic Play are numerous; they take on new challenges, develop perception, identify differences and similarities, make mathematical discoveries, amongst many others.


The term heuristic play was coined by Elinor Goldschmied in the 1980s and became a term in the book People Under Three. Heuristic play describes the activity of children as they play with and explore the properties of objects which are things from the real world. Heuristic play "consists of offering a group of children, for a defined period of time in a controlled environment, a large number of different kinds of objects and receptacles with which they play freely without adult intervention". It is popular because this method perform great goals, for example: stimulates creativity and imagination; supports motor skills and brain development in infants and toddlers; stimulates multiple senses and critical thinking; promotes early mathematical learning and allows children to gain an understanding of the world around them. The research conducted by Morris I. Stein (1953, 1986), Joy P. Guilford (1960), Victor Lowenfeld (1967) and Carl Jung (1923) constituted the theoretical reference point to the attempt at describing the behaviour, approaches and types of creative mindsets observed during the heuristic play sessions. (more details here https://www.researchgate.net/publication/322204349_The_experimental_approaches_and_creative_mindsets_of_children_in_heuristic_play)

  • Hi Kristina, welcome to the site. It looks like your answer contains one or more quotations from other sites in it - could you link to them (it does not look like the one source you did link was the source of the quotation). Thanks!!
    – Joe
    Commented Nov 13, 2019 at 18:21

Heuristic play is a method of multi-sensory play using daily objects instead of store bought toys. It helps expand their imagination, encourages independence, and uses their five senses to explore. All of this is clearly supported in Elinor Goldschmeid's film "I Don't Need Toys".

You must log in to answer this question.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged .