EYFS Activities - Birth to two… heuristic play

Everyday items brought into a play environment are attractive to toddlers and help their learning and development. By Penny Tassoni

Who would ever imagine how much concentration toddlers can show when playing with a pile of junk? Heuristic play is, in effect, a collection of everyday items that when carefully put together can be an amazing activity to support toddlers’ learning and development.


Heuristic play is useful for children who are now walking and so have a reasonable level of co-ordination. This means it is usually ideal for toddlers from 15 months up until they become interested in role play. The starting point for heuristic play is to build a large collection of objects that while being safe will prove challenging and fascinating.

A combination of container-type objects such as tins, mug trees, boxes, bottles and tubes works well alongside smaller items such as corks, hair curlers, shells, bracelets and clothes pegs.

A good tip is to provide several of identical smaller items. This allows children to repeatedly drop, push or hang them into or onto the larger objects. Unlike treasure basket play, you can use items made from plastic, although aim to have plenty of natural materials too.

When sharing the resources with the children:

  • group the objects together into piles. If you have several children, you will need more objects and then create separate piles
  • make sure that there is plenty of possibilities for children to explore by having a wide range of materials. A common mistake is not to put sufficient out or not to have enough of the smaller items
  • sit down and encourage the child to explore by smiling or nodding as they first handle items
  • be vigilant always to ensure safety
  • observe how objects are handled and different combinations tried
  • be ready to help children, but only if they indicate that they need you.


Heuristic play is a classic play activity as it supports many aspects of toddlers’ development. Principally it:

  • encourages fine motor movements as children attempt to pick up and manipulate objects (physical development)
  • supports children’s creativity as they explore what they can do with the items (creativity)
  • develops toddlers’ sense of self-efficacy as they learn that they can do things for themselves (emotional development)
  • provides toddlers with first-hand opportunities to explore space, measures and quantity (early mathematics).


The next steps will depend very much on individual children and what you have observed them doing. The great thing about heuristic play is that it generates many possibilities and so can help us to open doors for children. For example, a child who is fascinated by the sounds items make benefit from having access to more musical instruments, while a child who has found building towers with tins and boxes intriguing might enjoy construction toys.


There are several aspects of development that are worth observing when providing heuristic play.

  • Cognitive skills How long does a child remain focused and able to concentrate? Are there any particular movements or objects that the child finds fascinating?
  • Awareness of others If the children are in a small group, look out for signs that children are noticing what others are doing. Does the child copy what other children are doing? Is there any interaction between children?
  • Co-ordination See how easily the toddler manages to manipulate the objects. Can you see any hand preference developing?


Heuristic play is easy for parents to provide at home. It is a good idea to show parents clips of their child engaged in this type of play to show them how it helps children to concentrate, explore and also develop their physical skills.

Parents are often unsure what to provide, so a list of suitable items that are likely to be readily found at home is often welcome. This might include metal saucepans, cake tins as well as teaspoons and curtain rings. It is important also to stress that this type of play is child-led and the role of the adult is to be an encouraging observer. Make sure that you also tell parents to stay with their children during this play to ensure safety.


Heuristic play may encourage some children to see how things such as tins and boxes once stacked can fall down. There are a few rhymes that look at building and falling down including the traditional rhyme ‘London Bridge is falling down’:

London Bridge is falling down,

Falling down, falling down,

London Bridge is falling down, my fair lady.


Build it up with iron bars,

Iron bars, iron bars,

Build it up with iron bars, my fair lady


Iron bars will bend and break,

Bend and break, bend and break,

Iron bars will bend and break, my fair lady.

To see and hear all the verses of this rhyme, visit https://kidsongs.com/lyrics/london-bridge.html


Look out for simple books about exploring everyday items. An interesting book to look at is Bruno’s Box by Nicola Pontin (Meadowside Children’s Books) as the plot is about a child whose imagination is sparked off by a box.


‘A parent’s guide to…treasure basket and heuristic play’ by Penny Tassoni, ‘All about…heuristic play’ by Jools Page, and ‘Treasure basket and heuristic play: first choice’ by Anita Hughes are all at www.nurseryworld.co.uk


Look out for Penny Tassoni’s new series on ‘essential learning experiences’ for young children, especially those from disadvantaged families, starting in January 2017. A scene-setting article (Nursery World, 11 January) will look at the importance of particular learning experiences in closing the learning gap for disadvantaged children, and Part 1 of the series will be published inNursery World, 23 January.

All 12 parts of the current series on play activities for children from birth to two can be accessed at www.nurseryworld.co.uk


Penny Tassoni is among the top early years experts delivering the masterclass and seminar programme at the Nursery World Show in London on 3 and 4 February.

As well as talking on subjects including mathematical thinking and transitions for two-year-olds, Penny will be taking part in our Saturday masterclass: Closing the Gap, Birth to Three. It will focus on communication and language development and be led by Dr Danielle Matthews, of Sheffield University, who will look at the importance of ‘contingent talk’ as a strategy for boosting the language skills and vocabulary of young children, particularly those from disadvantaged families.

Returning to speak at our Friday masterclass, Closing the Gap, Three to Five is Professor Clancy Blair, who is an expert in self-regulation and will be joined by Prof C Cybele Raver – both of New York University.

Other subjects in the seminar programme include making the most of photography and woodwork to deliver rich and challenging cross-curricular learning for young children, and boosting quality of EYFS practice and provision by learning from Froebelian, Reggio Emilia and Montessori approaches to early years pedagogy. Other topics include safeguarding, British Values and behaviour.

To find out more, view the whole seminar and masterclass programme or register for the show, visit: www.nurseryworldshow.com

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