Learning & Development Heuristic Play: Outdoor treasures

It's not just babies who gain from heuristic play - and better still if it takes place outdoors, as Sara Davies found in her research.

Everton Early Childhood Centre is a forward thinking children's centre, offering opportunities for pioneering research, which can be undertaken by all staff and which benefits the children and their families.

As a senior childhood education qualified teacher in a children's centre, part of my role was to co-ordinate the children's creative development, which was nurtured through daily opportunities to explore appropriate resources.

Igniting young children's creativity is vital because it:

- is nurturing

- enables children to become socially competent

- focuses on collaborative learning

- encourages enquiring and curious minds.

During my initial audit of resources, through talking to other members of staff and general observations, it emerged that staff felt there was a need to develop purposeful, planned activities outdoors.

Such planned activities were already available for children aged four months to two years in the form of heuristic play, using treasure baskets and heuristic play bags. However, there were no such planned activities for three- and four-year-olds. So, I decided to undertake research into developing a heuristic type of play for older children outdoors.

Heuristic play is a system of education under which the child is trained to find out and explore for themselves. It is usually restricted to children under the age of two.

Bilton (2004) recognises that the outdoor area provides the four essential vehicles for a child to learn effectively. These are: movement, play, talk and sensory experiences.

For this area to be effective, the 'rules' of heuristic play still needed to be in place. For example:

- the play should be led by an adult

- adults should feed the children's interests

- there should be sufficient objects for the children and these should be presented in an attractive way

- the children should be given a warning when the session is ending and be involved in tidying up - an essential part of the session.

We started by buying resources from a local hardware store, including carpet rolls, bamboo, shelves and drainpipes with connectors. We also had access to large blocks from Community Playthings.

We planned to introduce all these resources to groups of children on a weekly basis using heuristic play conditions, starting with the three- and four-year-olds and then moving on to the two- and three-year-olds.

The planning incorporated objectives from the Birth to Three Matters framework and the Curriculum Guidance for the Foundation Stage, though we were mindful of Bilton's observation that 'creativity is an interesting area to plan for, as the adult is unaware of how the children will show it'.


Initially, I led the group sessions and liaised with other staff about planning and evaluations of the sessions. Staff then assisted during the group activities. The sessions for the three- and four-year-olds olds were all child-led. However, evaluations from the session using drainpipes found that it had failed to inspire children's imagination or co-operative learning.

I responded by challenging the children to transport water from one area to another. This had the desired results and also led to the children creating sub-plots of stories once the pipes were all connected.

On completing the input sessions with the three- and four-year-olds, I examined all the observations and evaluations and found that generally:

- The girls introduced storylines into their play

- The boys were more interested in the construction aspect of play

- The amount of space that was on offer to the children was very important

- The amount of resources was a major factor in how smoothly the sessions ran and how much adult intervention was needed

- Too much adult intervention ruined the flow of the children's play.

The sessions for the two- and three-year-olds produced similar results. However, adult intervention was greater for health and safety reasons, due to the sheer size of the equipment. Here, we were mindful of Bruce's (2004) observations that 'the adult has to allow the child to form the idea, as often the adult snatches the idea and unintentionally transforms it into their idea and the creativity in the child is destroyed rather than cultivated'.


Following this research, we introduced weekly whole-class heuristic play for three- and four-year-olds, using the whole outdoor areas. Plans are afoot to develop these further by:

- adding other resources, such as wheels, tyres, steering wheels, different sized tubing and various sized containers

- training other practitioners

- maintaining the quality of these sessions.

Building on the research so far, an early years educator will develop input sessions for the two- and three-year-olds, as a preparation for a weekly outdoor heuristic play session similar to that for the older children.


This research has had a great impact on me as a practitioner. It made me aware of:

- the importance of observing children and then following their lead

- how we may sometimes have preconceived ideas about how children will deal with certain situations, without even realising this.

Children never fail to surprise me. In this kind of outdoor play, they display strengths and talents sometimes unseen in regular situations and activities.

Given space, time and a safe, secure and stimulating environment, children can manage their own learning and are able to achieve a common goal collaboratively.


Within the observations carried out during the sessions, I undertook a study of one particular child, called Lewis.

Displaying both low emotional well-being and low scales of involvement, Lewis struggled to play with or alongside other children and often caused conflict among them as they were playing.

During the input sessions, he displayed great motivation in independent play. He communicated with others by negotiating and developing ideas, and he remained involved during the input sessions, which continued in the heuristic play sessions outdoors.

I measured Lewis's involvement against Ferre Laevers' scales of involvement before the input sessions, during sessions and in subsequent heuristic play sessions.

He measured 1.5 before the sessions, 4.5 during the input sessions and 4 in subsequent sessions in terms of involvement. He also measured 1.5 before the sessions, 3 during the input sessions and 3 in the subsequent sessions in emotional well-being.

Bilton concurs with these findings; she found that boys tend to concentrate more outdoors. Goldstein (2004) also believes that the outdoor area develops a child's social skills.


- Bilton, H (2004) Playing Outside. London: David Fulton

- Bruce, T (2004) Developing Learning in Early Childhood. Hodder and Stoughton

- Goldstein, J (2004) 'New Playground Scheme Promotes the Benefits of Outdoor Play' (online) Available from www.rbs.com - go to Media Centre, Press Release archive, 16 September 2004

- EE 3.1 Observation, Assessment and Planning
- EE 3.2 Supporting Every Child
- EE 3.3 The Learning Environment
- L&D 4.1 Play and Exploration
- L&D 4.2 Active Learning
- L&D 4.3 Creativity and Critical Thinking

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