Exploring and playing with objects - treasure baskets and heuristic play

You might have heard people talking about heuristic play or have seen adverts for various different treasure baskets and wondered what exactly these people were talking about. In this blog, we will explore some of the ideas that underpin treasure baskets and heuristic play, and offer some suggestions about how you could use some of these ideas at home.  


What is a treasure basket? 

The idea of a treasure basket is that it will provide babies who were able to sit but not move independently with the opportunity to select and explore a variety of objects using all their senses. They will look at, touch, move, smell, taste and listen to objects and connect the information from their senses to develop their understanding of different objects.  

When thinking about objects to include in your treasure basket, remember that all these objects need to be safe for your baby to put into their mouth as this is an important aspect of their exploration. The idea of a treasure basket is that it gives babies the opportunity to explore objects made from natural materials and to make choices about what to explore and how. A treasure basket should be filled with interesting objects that are the right size for a baby to hold and manipulate, so not too big and, according to Elinor Goldschmied, definitely not made from plastic. Elinor Goldschmied, who developed the idea of treasure baskets, felt that babies experienced enough plastic and needed natural materials, which offer a wider range of textures, weights, and smells, to capture their interest. [1] 

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According to Goldschmid, the ideal basket for your collection of objects would have a diameter of at least 35 cm, be around 10-12 cm deep, and be strong enough for your baby to lean on without it tipping over. 

When a baby is exploring a treasure basket, the adult’s role is to be close by and offer reassurance but not to talk or make suggestions. The idea is that your baby is not only having the chance to explore objects but also to make choices and to concentrate, so this is one time when you might not chat to your baby about what they are doing as you give them time to explore without interruption. It also gives you a chance to notice just how much your baby can concentrate as they choose and explore objects from their treasure basket.  


What is heuristic play?  

The word heuristic is defined as ‘enabling discovery or problem solving,  esp. through relatively unstructured methods such as experimentation, evaluation, trial and error. etc.’ [2] If you have a baby, toddler or young child at home that description probably sounds like lots of what they spend their time doing as they explore what happens when they do certain things or how things work. However, there will be things that they cannot explore or combinations that you need to stop them from making; in heuristic play, you aim to create a space where they can choose any of the objects around them and explore and combine them in different ways.  

The idea of heuristic play with objects is that as children begin to move more confidently this gives them more opportunities to explore, they can move towards objects and bring one object to another to combine them as they play. In heuristic play, children can choose from a wide selection of objects and find ways to use and combine them. When they were exploring treasure baskets, they were finding out about the properties of objects, now they are exploring what they can do with objects and what happens as they combine and move objects. 

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When thinking about items that might be interesting for your toddler to explore, you could include a variety of objects that they can collect and move, as well as containers, fabric and items that they can put objects on, such as mug tress or cones.  

In the same way as when a baby is exploring a treasure basket, in heuristic play your role is more one of reassurance than anything else, you are close by and notice if your toddler needs help or a break. In this type of play, your toddler takes the lead and you might not talk as much as you give them time to think and concentrate on their discoveries. Your role is also to help them to tidy, so give them plenty of time when it is time to stop playing so that you can tidy together. 


Why heuristic play?  

Treasure baskets and heuristic play with objects give your baby and toddler quiet time to explore and become involved in what they are doing. They will be able to learn about objects and then learn about how they can combine objects. Exploring in this way does not have a right or wrong answer. They can find different ways of using objects which will help them to develop their cognitive skills as they develop their understanding of objects, and then begin to think about how they can use objects to achieve a particular goal. Having time to explore will support your child’s creativity as they create their own ideas and try these out in their exploration and combination of objects. [3] 

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Gross and Fine Motor Skill Development 

As children who engage in heuristic play are exploring a wide range of objects, this is the perfect opportunity for them to develop their fine and gross motor skills. During heuristic play, children and babies will be manipulating objects of different shapes, sizes and textures. They may grab, bang, squeeze, and even try and change the objects that they are given.  

Your baby will bring objects to their mouth to explore using their tongue and lips, this movement towards their mouth is a sign of babies developing their hand-eye coordination. [4] 


Resources for treasure baskets and heuristic play 

Gathering resources can be as simple as raiding the kitchen cupboards! When gathering resources, consider your child's interests. Do they like looking at their reflection? If so, objects with a reflective surface can be great for exploring this, such as chrome pots and pans, and even spatulas to bash them with to make new sounds.   

Including different textures is a fantastic way to enable children to get some sensory exploration into their play. Think about different fabrics you can find in your home, such as tea towels, scarves, cloths and even old items of clothing or household sponges which are great for squeezing – again, building up those hand muscles to support fine motor skills. 

What if I don’t have a basket or time and space for heuristic play with objects?  

Even if you decide not to set up a treasure basket, or make a selection of objects and containers for heuristic play, you could think about how the principles that underpin treasure baskets and heuristic play might apply to your baby or toddler at home. You could think about:  

  • Offering your baby a variety of objects to play with, and including objects made from natural materials for them to explore.  
  • Giving your baby lots of time to hold, move and explore objects. 
  • Sometimes being close by but quiet. At My First Five Years, we talk a lot about talking to your child and talking about the things that interest them. But sometimes being quiet and giving them time to really concentrate and become involved in what they are doing can support their learning too!  

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  • Let your toddler combine and explore objects and use things in different ways, perhaps pause before making a suggestion and see what they are going to do with an object.  
  • Watch your baby or toddler and notice how involved they can become when exploring something new, even if your toddler seems to be moving from one thing to another watch and you might notice that they are following an idea about how to use objects together.  



[1] Elinor Goldschmied, Sonia Jackson (2004). People under three: Young children in day care, 2nd edition 

[2] "heuristic, n. and adj." OED Online, Oxford University Press, September 2021, www.oed.com/view/Entry/86554. Accessed 15 November 2021 

[3] Durham University. (2021). Durham Commission on Creativity and Education Report. Available: https://www.dur.ac.uk/resources/creativitycommission/DurhamReport.pdf. 

[4] Oxhill. (2015). Treasure Basket and Heuristic Play as a context for development and learning in the EYFS. Available: https://www.oxhill.durham.sch.uk/wp-content/uploads/sites/92/2015/05/EYFS-Heuristic-play.pdf.