What Is Heuristic Play in Early Childhood Education?

Defining Heuristic Play and Implementation Ideas

The term heuristic play was coined by Elinor Goldschmied (1910-2009) in the 1980s and became a formal term in the book People Under Three: Young Children in Daycare.  In a book she co-authored with Sonia Jackson they explain heuristic play is for children in their 2nd year.heuristic play

In the New Shoots preschool room children relish the opportunity to engage, imagine and collaborate with these open-ended every day items.

Defining Heuristic Play

“Put simply, it consists of offering a group of children, for a defined period of time in a controlled environment, a large number of objects and receptacles with which they play freely without adult intervention” p. 128

Goldschmied saw heuristic play as a non prescriptive approach to learning. With no single way to do it.  The collections of objects and receptacles used are an expression of creativity by the adults. Geography may well determine some of the objects.

Heuristic play is about curiosity and exploration.  As children select, manipulate, explore, compare items they discover what the object can and can’t do.  This sometimes includes sharing. Although sharing is spontaneous. If there are enough items sharing isn’t required.

Space to move around with the objects is part of the sessions described by Goldschmied. Also allow time to fully explore the objects before children help collect the items and return them to the receptacles.

Items That Could Help Heuristic Play

A list of suggested items could include:
(bear in mind mouths may explore many of these items)

  • Paper / cardboard objects: Egg boxes, notebook, sturdy cardboard tubes, grease-proof paper.
  • Wooden objects: Door wedge, small turned bowl, dolly pegs, egg cup, wooden egg, spoons, curtain rings, coaster, bracelet, block, napkin rings, dowel, empty salt and pepper cellars.
  • Leather, textile, rubber, or fur objects: Small knitted toy, bean bag, piece of flannel, velvet powder puff, bags of herbs, bag of lavender, leather key ring, coloured ribbons, leather purse.
  • Rubber objects: Ball, bath plug with chain, soap holder, door stop, coaster.
  • Metal objects: Honey drizzler, an egg cup, curtain ring, egg poacher, measuring spoons, tea strainer, whisk, powder compact, bells, lemon squeezer, small bowl,
  • Natural objects: A lemon or orange, coconut shell, grass rope, sheepskin, pumice stone, loofah, shells, pine/fir cones, driftwood, avocado stone, large pebbles.
  • Brushes: Scrubbing brush, pastry brush, baby’s hair brush, nail brush, makeup brush, paint brush, shaving brush, wooden toothbrush.
  • Other objects: small vanilla essence or food colouring bottle, hair rollers, small mirror, scent bags, bone shoe horn, ceramic bowl
    List from M Masters – Little Acorns to Mighty Oaks

For more information on heuristic play see Helen Huleatt’s article at Community Playthings

See also Strand 5: Exploration  – to demonstrate how heuristic play fits with the holistic  New Zealand curriculum.

Reference: Latest Edition
People under Three, Young Children in Day Care (revised 3rd edition), Elinor Goldschmied, Ruth Forbes Sonia Jackson, Routledge, London & New York, 2004

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