Young explorers - exploratory play

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The nature of children does not change between generations, although our social world has changed in many ways. This generation of parents, just like any other, has watched young sons and daughters fascinated by a collection of saucepans, keen to play with the contents of the vegetable rack and just as interested in the large cardboard box as in the toy it contained.

The nature of children does not change between generations, although our social world has changed in many ways. This generation of parents, just like any other, has watched young sons and daughters fascinated by a collection of saucepans, keen to play with the contents of the vegetable rack and just as interested in the large cardboard box as in the toy it contained.

Babies and toddlers do not make the distinction between 'official' toys and anything else. They base their decisions on whether something looks interesting and has potential for exploration. They are also, not surprisingly, very interested in everyday objects that are used by, and so have meaning for, the adults and older children around them.

Exploratory play

Elinor Goldschmied observed the exploratory play of some babies and toddlers in their own homes and others in English and Italian day nurseries. She noticed how children's learning was supported by a wide range of play materials and the opportunity to explore in the child's preferred way. She called this kind of play 'heuristic', from the Greek word eurisko, meaning 'serves to discover' or 'gain an understanding of'. In order to encourage adults to let young children play in this way, she then developed two kinds of resource:

  • the treasure basket for babies and young toddlers (see 'Little treasures', Nursery World, 13 January).
  • the special heuristic play session for older toddlers and young children in day nurseries and children's centres.


The objectives of these resource ideas are that:

  • Under-threes are allowed and encouraged to explore a wide range of everyday objects and recycled materials that are safe for them, but are not conventional toys.
  • Children are enabled to explore and act on these materials in any way they want, within the bounds of safety for themselves and other children.
  • Adults watch and listen in a relaxed way. You share the children's pleasure and fascination with the materials at hand. In a day nursery or centre, the heuristic play session can be a good opportunity to make observations of the children's spontaneous play.
  • Adults need to resist the rush to comment, name or ask questions. Young children will learn better through hands-on experience than being driven by what the adults believe the children should notice or learn about. (This cautionary note is even more important now that the anxieties felt by parents and carers of three- to five-year-olds seem to be sliding down the age range!)
  • You remain close by and focus on the children's play; you are definitely not sitting around doing nothing. You are ready to respond when young children wish to show you something or indicate they would like some help. However, you neither direct the play nor plan it in line with a list of adult-led learning objectives.
  • Tidying up is part of the exploration and learning. You need to plan the timing so that toddlers and young children are not rushed to help you put all the materials back into the bags for the next play session or to gather materials back into the treasure basket.

Development of exploratory play

All under-threes enjoy exploratory play, but their physical skills, thinking power and imagination mean that the way they play and learn changes steadily over the months.

Under 12 months

Very young babies explore through mouthing and grasping as best they can. But by the time they can sit up independently, babies have practised a range of ways to explore objects of interest and they will use their favourite method regardless of the object. From about six to 12 months babies will:

  • still put many objects in their mouths feeling, sucking, chewing and teething.
  • grasp and wave something around, or grasp and pull or jerk.
  • hold the object and look intently at it.
  • poke something with an inquiring finger.
  • experiment by either turning the object itself or re-orienting themselves in order to explore from different angles.
  • touch gently, stroke or rub an interesting object against their face.
  • explore by dropping something or throwing it.
  • try tearing or scrunching materials.

Babies apply their current favourite methods of physical exploration regardless of the object. Their actions are powered by curiosity and the delight of physical sensations. They have no sense of danger, nor of what are 'baby toys' and what are not. It is your job as a helpful adult to watch carefully and to make the situation safe by your friendly involvement in the playful exploration. In a family home, you might need gently to remove objects that are unsafe or move the baby away from temptation. In a nursery, babies are less likely to encounter common home hazards. So your task is to ensure that this different way of organising care has not removed babies from interesting contact with ordinary events and routines.

One to two years old

There is no sudden shift at the first birthday; toddlers still use many of the exploratory methods favoured by older babies. But they steadily add some new methods and approaches:

  • Toddlers relate two or more objects together in creative as well as imitative ways. They have a growing understanding that some objects have special uses but toddlers remain very flexible to follow their own interests regardless of the common usage.
  • In my observations of toddlers, they are interested in 'piling and filing'. They delight in putting one object into or on top of another, sorting out an array of objects in ways that make sense to them and quite often 'posting' small objects into larger containers.
  • You will observe regular, deliberate patterns in how individual toddlers act upon interesting objects (see Chris Athey's development of the idea of schemas). For example, very young children explore in detail enclosing or transporting objects in different ways or finding out how objects could be physically connected together. Toddlers' exploratory play can look like 'making a mess', until adults stand back and really watch the experimental nature of some play.

Two to three years old

Young children still follow patterns of interest and enjoy the sheer sensation of some materials. From observation you will also note some other characteristics:

  • Children in this age group explore in a more deliberate, experimental way to see 'what happens if...' and persevere sometimes in relatively long sequences of working out what can be done with the given materials.
  • Toddlers sometimes work together, but you will notice that two- to three-year-olds tend to explore together more, perhaps dividing up the tasks in how they work on the materials.
  • Use of a rich array of recycled materials which link into young children's growing construction and craft skills and are integrated into pretend play sequences.
  • Young children have a greater understanding of the more common uses of objects.
  • Consequently, their exploratory play may lead into visual jokes based on deliberate yet safe misuse of an object.

What adults can learn from play

Of course, exploratory play is not restricted to special time with a treasure basket or a heuristic play session. There are valuable practice points to your time with young children as a whole:

  • Try to extend the relaxed approach and willingness to watch and learn from children into other areas of your day.
  • Avoid feeling pressured only to offer 'proper toys' or play materials marketed as 'educational'. There is some excellent bought material available, but children's interests go beyond these limits. 
  • Reflect on your own outlook: do you have assumptions about what is 'real play' and what is 'just messing about'? 
  • Watch the children. Their behaviour and communication will tell you what is genuinely interesting for under-threes and what is limited or boring. 
  • Further informal observation will show you what under-threes have learned. Then let your own learning guide you in forward planning. Avoid the risks of over-directing very young children with 'well-planned play' that they may experience as anything but playful.                                                                   l
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