Heuristic Play

Policy and statement of intent

This approach to children’s learning around the age of two has been developed and practised by Elinor Goldschmied in collaboration with childcare workers in England, Scotland, Italy and Spain.

A favourable book review in “Nursery World” on “People Under Three – Young Children in Daycare” by Elinor Goldschmied and Sonia Jackson, prompted us to buy the book and as a result, decide that Heuristic Play would indeed be something worthwhile to include in our Babies’ and Tots’ play experience at Bumbles Day Care.

What follows therefore, is a brief definition of Heuristic Play and a description of the benefits to the children that can be gained from its introduction in the nursery.


Heuristic Learning is defined in the Oxford Dictionary as, “a system of education under which, the pupil is trained to find out things for themselves”. Heuristic play with objects therefore consists of offering a group of children, (for a defined period of time and in a controlled environment), a large number of different objects and receptacles with which, they play freely without direct adult intervention.

The adult’s role is principally to prepare the environment, observe the children’s play and manage the clearing up process. It is not the adult’s role to directly intervene in the children’s spontaneous, exploratory activity.


Materials and containers are placed in groups around the room before the children enter and once they then begin to explore the materials, the children move items in and out of spaces and fill the empty receptacles. From the objects available, they select, discriminate, compare, place in series, slot and pile, roll and balance with concentration, growing manipulative skill and evident satisfaction

Below are examples of materials used in Heuristic Play, this list is not exhaustive and items will be interchanged as available:-

  • Woollen Pompoms
  • Spoons
  • Cardboard Cylinders
  • Old Keys
  • Bottle Corks & Tops
  • Curtain Rings
  • Velcro
  • Hair Rollers
  • Chains
  • Small Boxes Bags
  • Ribbons
  • Large Chestnuts
  • Pine Cones
  • Various Lids
  • Clothes Pegs
  • Ping Pong Balls
  • Cotton Reels
  • Plastic Bottles
  • Door Stops

Many of these items are similar to those found singly in the ‘Treasure Basket’, providing a variety of size, weight, colour and texture.

The items are stored in drawstring bags (approx. 50 – 60 objects per bag) and about 20 containers are provided for a group of 8 children.

A Heuristic Play session lasts between 45 – 60 minutes with approximately 15 minutes allocated to the children tidying up. It is very important that the children tidy up after themselves as in doing so they benefit in the following ways:

  • They are practising selection and discrimination between different categories of objects, i.e., the first stage in sorting.
  • Their language development is being expanded as they follow adults’ instructions and identify by name each item, which they bring to put in the bag.

Heuristic Play is a special activity – it is not offered every day and as such it maintains the feeling of a special treat for the tots and babies.

Benefits of Heuristic Play

This kind of play might have a major role in developing the ability to concentrate, which in turn is strongly associated with cognitive development and educational progress, as research by psychologists such as Jerome Bruner and Kathy Sylva have shown. In Bumbles, we have observed our children play intensely with a group of objects for 30 minutes or more, such concentration rarely being evident during their play with more conventional materials.

As a result of the concentration, children who are engrossed in their own discoveries rarely come into conflict with others in the group, a situation which also results from the fact that there are so many objects available that they do not have to share, something, children of this age find nearly impossible to cope with.

Heuristic Play materials provide young children with the experience that their possibilities are endless. They are learning from an early age that, ‘there is always another way of doing it’. This is the basis of all future problem solving.

Heuristic Play is very enjoyable in itself for adults and children alike. For staff these sessions provide a calm interval in what is otherwise a hectic day normally and for the children, play without conflict makes them happy and content, so producing feelings of well being all round.

Without a doubt, Heuristic Play has proved very beneficial indeed in Bumbles Day Care, to staff and children alike, promoting the type of play experience with which we want to provide our children; having worthwhile content and being concentrated and conflict free.

If you have any more queries about Heuristic Play or are interested in reading a more detailed explanation of the theory behind it, then feel free to request further information from Bumbles staff.