A Unique Child: Practice in pictures, Sensory Play - In a nutshell

Anne O'Connor
Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Collections of natural objects offer children rich sensory experiences and are a great way to nourish their brains, says Anne O'Connor.

Skye is two years six months and is well settled at nursery. She is often observed collecting and transporting things, particularly out in the garden and likes moving objects in and out of containers. She sits on the grass with Nicola and together they play with items in a basket. Nicola knows Skye well and is tuned into her interests. She responds to Skye's lead and doesn't dominate or direct the play.

A conversation develops naturally between the two of them. Skye already knows the word 'treasure' and uses it confidently. They look at a pretty stone and Nicola provides the word 'jewel'. Together they fill one item with other smaller objects. Skye accurately predicts that a large stone won't fit and queries whether a smaller one will. Nicola encourages her to experiment to find out. They exclaim with pleasure when they have filled it and Skye invites another child to look. Skye then uses some of the 'treasure' to make a face image on a slice of tree trunk.


1. Skye is obviously familiar with 'treasure baskets' and probably experienced them at nursery when she was much younger and before she was mobile, but what Nicola and Skye are doing here is not treasure basket play.

As Anita Hughes describes in 'Learning & Development: Treasure baskets and heuristic play - First choice' (Nursery World, 8 April 2009), 'While collections of interesting objects will delight and intrigue those in all age groups, the integrity of the treasure basket's practical approach will be distorted and diluted if we forget that it was developed for babies'.

Ideally, regular treasure basket sessions as a baby (and before she was mobile) will have provided Skye with lots of rich sensory experiences and periods of intense concentration. This 'neural activity' will have played an important part in building and nourishing her brain.

Later, as a toddler, Skye will have benefited from 'heuristic play' sessions, where she could explore and manipulate collections of natural materials and household items, allowing her to build on these experiences and increase her concentration skills even more.

The urge to discover and understand more about objects through action - pushing and pulling, filling and emptying, banging things together - is what heuristic play is all about, along with the vital element of 'making choices'.

As a two-and-a-half-year-old, Skye is now making lots of active choices in her play. She is also displaying a very keen interest in the world around her and in investigating how it all works.

2. The practitioners at Skye's nursery know that she loves to forage for things - collecting and transporting them around the place and filling and emptying containers of all kinds. Their observations of these self-chosen tasks provide lots of information about the schematic interests of Skye.

In Playing and Learning Outdoors (2008), Jan White describes how well natural materials and the outdoors support children's schemas - their patterns of repeated behaviour: 'Schemas help us to make sense of the grand structure of the physical world and children work like scientists, building their own theories and understandings.'

It is as though Skye is 'driven' to explore this particular theme of collecting things and is drawn to objects and containers that fit with her ideas and allow her to investigate them further. Her nursery garden provides her with lots of stimulating things to collect, the means to gather and transport them and responsive adults who are enthusiastic about investigating them with her.

3. Exploring the contents of the basket gives Nicola and Skye a natural context for conversation and provides the practitioner with a wealth of information about Skye's language use and communication skills. Also evident is Skye's developing conceptual awareness and the mathematical language that goes with it.

Skye isn't yet using full sentences, but she is well able to convey her understanding of the mathematical concepts involved. 'Find some more,' she says, as she rummages around in the basket.

Her interest in containment and enclosure has provided her with lots of experience of 'putting things into other things', which has helped her to build a concept of size and appropriate fit. 'Put inside,' she suggests to Nicola and they begin to fill the nutshell with the stones.

Skye predicts that a larger one won't go in. 'Not fit,' she says, as she shakes her head. She finds a small one and questions 'that fit?' She looks for a response to Nicola, who allows Skye the opportunity to experiment and to test out her 'theory' for herself, rather than just giving her the answer. Skye exclaims 'wow' when the nutshell is filled and Nicola mirrors her enthusiasm by repeating her word and adding - 'Fantastic!'

4. Skye's imagination is also stimulated by the materials in the basket and she wants to create a face using a tree trunk slice as a base.

Nicola gently encourages her creativity by offering suitable shells and stones to symbolise the eyes and nose, but not directing in any way or challenging Skye's interpretation. Collections of natural items such as these should be available both indoors and outdoors for children's self-initiated play, but have particular relevance in outdoor play. Jan White highlights the value and versatility of natural materials as open-ended, multi- sensory play resources: 'They allow children to make sense of the world around them - first through direct contact with its elements and then as play materials for following their own interests and creative ideas.'

She suggests including the following natural materials as part of outdoor provision and offers essential advice for ensuring safety:

Wood: logs, tree trunk slices, selections of branches, sticks and twigs

Stone: cobbles, pebbles, slate, gravel

Plants: flowers, petals, herbs, leaves and grass

Seeds: conkers, acorns, sycamore and other seeds

Shells, feathers and minerals.

As with any other resource, it is important to assess for risk and any health and safety issues. Look out for sharp edges and splinters and sand them down carefully. Check materials regularly and encourage children to do the same, teaching them what risks to look out for.

Go on regular 'collecting' trips to parks and countryside with the children. Encourage staff and families to bring in things from home and garden. Provide enough storage containers and role model sorting as a fun part of the activity when things inevitably get muddled and mixed up.

Providing relaxed, unhurried time for clearing up and tidying away is an essential part of good practice at the end of treasure basket and heuristic play sessions with babies. This is just as important as children get older. For many children - and adults - sorting is an enjoyable and satisfying activity linked to their schemas.



  • Hughes, Anita 'Learning and Development: Treasure baskets and heuristic play - First choice' (Nursery World, 8 April 2009)
  • Goldschmied, E and Jackson, S (1994), People Under Three: Young children in day care, Routledge.
  • Hughes, AM (2006), Developing Play for the Under Threes: The treasure basket and heuristic play, David Fulton.
  • White, Jan (2008), Playing and Learning Outdoors - Making provision for high quality experiences in the outdoor environment, Routledge.
  • Louis, S, Beswick, C, Magraw, L, Hayes, L (ed Featherstone, S) (2008), Again, Again! Understanding schemas in young children, Featherstone Education


The stills are taken from Siren Films' 'The Two Year Old Outdoors - Play, Learning & Development'. For more information, visit Siren Films at www.sirenfilms.co.uk or call 0191 232 7900

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