Guide To Heuristic Play


Create a treasure basket with everyday items to encourage your baby’s natural instinct for discovery.

Education’s full of jargon and ‘heuristic play’ is one of those complex descriptions of something very simple. The word ‘heuristic’ comes from the Greek word for ‘discover.’
It’s what babies do naturally – reaching out to grab keys or sunglasses and putting them straight into those gorgeous dribbly little mouths. Heuristic play is about working with this instinct to give babies lots of sensory experiences. As a baby handles and mouths an object, he or she learns about it – experiencing for example the ridges on a seashell, or the pliability of a sponge.

How to

Auckland mum of three, Vicki Milham, facilitates workshops on playing with babies and recommends introducing your baby to heuristic play through a simple and cost-effective treasure basket. “This is where you put together a basket of household and natural items that your baby can sit in front of and reach for, exploring each one in their own time,” she explains.
A basic treasure basket might include a sponge, some pumice, a smooth rock, a large shell, some driftwood, a feather, a cotton reel, a piece of fluffy sheepskin, a metal teaspoon, a wooden spoon, some sparkly or silky fabric, a rubber doorstop, a pine cone and a mini kitchen-whisk. Keep plastic to a minimum, as this tends to feel the same no matter what it is. Aim for 20-30 items; keeping in mind that babies should not have access to anything which is small enough to fit into a film canister, as these pose a choking risk.


Dollar shops can be good places to find objects; although the idea is not to spend money, but to source items primarily from around the house or the beach and garden. Vicki explains that a treasure basket should be used sparingly: “Put it in front of your baby for about half an hour once every couple of days and keep it in the cupboard for the rest of the time. If it’s out too often, they’ll soon get bored of the contents. Try changing what’s in it too, to provide variety.”

A calm environment

UK website emphasises that adults should provide a calm environment as a baby explores their treasure basket. They suggest taking a background role, letting the baby make choices about what to pick up and how long to handle it for. Babies will often pass objects from hand to hand and bang them together; as they become older, they will benefit from hearing you describe the objects, allowing them to begin to attach words to their experiences.

Day to day objects

Beyond treasure baskets, day to day life can become a platform for heuristic play, which can be as simple as playing with a container and the clothes pegs while you hang out the washing, or sitting with a bowl of water and a few objects to dunk and pour with. Large empty tins, such as formula tins, are ideal for banging and filling with objects.

The outdoors

Outdoor heuristic play can be particularly rewarding, as the natural surroundings offer a relaxing atmosphere and additional layers of sensory information. There is the breeze, the play of light, the sound of rustling leaves and birdsong. Babies can grasp fallen leaves and pull at daisies, and on the sand there are shells and stones and seaweed and driftwood and twigs. A small amount of ingested sand and dirt is par for the course – it’s often suggested that today’s babies don’t eat the ‘peck of dirt’ that they should (although you should always prevent your child from handling potting mix from the garden centre as it can contain toxic spores).

As we so often live at a fast pace, chances are, you’ll enjoy the benefits of heuristic play as much as your baby.

Stephanie Chamberlin taught English in NZ and the UK for 12 years before becoming a mum. Now, she combines motherhood with freelance writing.

Scroll to Top