Nursery Equipment: Babies & Toddlers - Makes sense

Jean Evans
Monday, May 19, 2014

Meeting the play needs of babies and toddlers helps them explore the world, writes Jean Evans.

When planning any play space, practitioners must consider the holistic needs of the child - and creating 'enabling environments' for under-threes is no exception.

Ann Langston, director of the Early Years Matters consultancy, summed up what practitioners should aspire to for this age group: 'The more variety we can offer, together with the words and the warm interaction we provide, helps children to play and explore and to maintain a curiosity about the world they are trying to make sense of' ('Please touch', Nursery World, 24 February-9 March 2014).

Two areas of play provision that merit particular attention for this age group are sensory play and promoting children's communication and language skills. Under-threes have an innate curiosity to make sense of the world and a real desire to communicate with those around them. The right mix of resources, adult support and due attention to planning the environment can help the nursery's youngest in their quest for knowledge and understanding.


Under-threes are naturally driven to make excellent use of their senses to explore and learn. Considering how they employ each sense in their explorations can create a scaffold on which to plan effective play provision.

Babies begin by exploring everything with their mouths, and gradually their senses become more refined as they grow older. A child in your setting should be given the opportunity to experience a wealth of different sights, sounds, smells, textures and tastes, and this can only be achieved through detailed planning and resourcing.


For babies, there is nothing better than lying on the floor exploring, and there is now a variety of mats to make the experience all the more interesting. There's the Texture Reflector Mat (£53.50) from, the Flower Meadow Mat (£74.40) from, and check out the range of Early Learning Mats at; this range includes Bambinos Children of the World, with its tactile and sound effects (£71.40), Bambinos Friends (£71.40) and Apple 3D Activity Mat (£64.90).

Treasure baskets

Treasure baskets were pioneered by Elinor Goldschmied after she observed children's natural interest in collections of household objects. These round, low-sided baskets, full to the brim with household, recycled or natural objects, are a specialist resource for babies who cannot crawl but can reach out to explore the exciting items on offer.

When using treasure baskets, it is important to:

  • change contents frequently to ensure that sensory opportunities to lick, suck, smell, bang, drop and pick up are available
  • use baskets for short sessions and not have them available as part of continuous provision
  • follow the interests of individual babies, for example, with a selection of items to smell or a basket full of brushes.


You can make up your own baskets, using easily obtained household and natural objects, or choose from the wide range on offer. These include:

  • Treasure Basket Starter Set (£89.99),
  • The Baby Basket (£45) and large Toddler Basket (£54) for young toddlers,
  • Treasure Basket (£75),
  • Play to Z's EN71-approved Large Value Sensory Collection (£246), Playscope Starter Set (£117.60) or the large Treasure Traveller Collection (£33.60) - visit
  • The Little Book of Treasure Baskets by Sally Featherstone and Ann Roberts (A&C Black), which provides excellent ideas for home-made baskets
  • A good range of treasure baskets can also be obtained from Cosy Direct on 01332 370152.

Heuristic play

Heuristic play is a natural progression from treasure baskets, as babies become mobile toddlers eager to investigate, explore and make sense of their environment. Goldschmied promoted heuristic play as a way of presenting opportunities for these children to explore their ideas without adult intervention in order to make their own connections and conclusions, and so control and direct their own learning. She suggested that settings 'should decide on which materials to gather to form a series of collections, building on the creative thinking of the practitioners and according to the interests of the children' ('All about ... heuristic play, Nursery World, 6-19 June 2007).

Heuristic play objects are natural items from everyday life rather than commercially produced toys and, as such, they are easy to source. Develop a large variety of small objects and different-sized containers (see list below for ideas). Involve parents in this by displaying a list of suitable items they might like to contribute.

Range of resources

(Adapted from Goldschmied and Hughes (1992) and Hughes (2006))

Everyday objects that could be incorporated into treasure baskets include:

  • Containers - tins, card and wooden boxes, plastic bottles, flower pots, baskets, yoghurt pots, bags and purses, ice-cube trays, pans, drawstring bags
  • Objects that roll - pom-poms, small balls, tubes, cotton reels, spools for cable and thread
  • Hanging items - kitchen roll holders, mug trees
  • Stacking items - beakers, wooden bricks and blocks
  • Objects for posting - coasters, thick card rectangles, shoe boxes with slots, post and money boxes, boxes and tins with holes and slots
  • Small objects - door knobs, lids, curtain rings, cheap bracelets, ribbon, shells.

You could make up your own themed collections for heuristic play sessions from natural or household objects stored in bags or baskets, for example, ribbons, scarves, chains, shells, pom-poms and pine cones.

Off the shelf

Commercially available heuristic play resources include:

  • TTS Group has a Set of 3 Baskets (£49.95); Indian fabric (£24.95 for six lengths); Wooden Treasure Basket (£38.95); Fruits of the Sea Basket (£8.99); Wonderful Wood Basket (£39.95); Fascinating Foliage Basket (£29.95); Big Naturals Collection (£46.95); and a Wooden Reels set (£99.95),
  • Early Excellence has 36 collections of wooden objects to stack, line up, thread, move or hide, ranging from a set of pegs (£5) to eight large cubes (£14.50), as well as a bag of small logs (£19.95), www.early
  • A Heuristic Play Starter Set Pack (£57.95); Large Fruit and Vegetable Basket Pack (£32.25); Sensory Bags Pack (£13.95) - ten drawstring bags each filled with different scented materials, including lemon chippings, rose petals and bay leaves; all available from
  • Play to Z supplies Mini Stacking Hoops (£33.60) in a range of exciting textures, The Hide and Seek Collection (£60), The Ball and Hoop Collection (£60) and Metal, Wooden and Natural Top Up Sets (£43.20 each),
  • Cosy offers a Heuristic Play Starter Set - call 01332 370152.

Provide large baskets, or cosy dens made from cushions or colourful fabrics, that positively invite children to climb inside and explore the contents. Try filling them with colourful balls such as The Multi-Sensory Ball Pack (£29.99) from

In action

Once you have sufficient resources:

  • Provide a clear area that is free from distraction and has enough space for a group of children aged 12-20 months
  • Space containers around the area and drape them with some interesting objects from drawstring bags you have filled
  • Allow the children as much time to explore as their interest and concentration determines, so they can examine the objects before you start putting them back into the bags, using sorting and classifying language as you encourage them to help
  • As with treasure baskets, heuristic play should be offered in time slots defined by children's interest, rather than continuously.

Messy play

Along with opportunities to explore solid objects, under-threes should be encouraged to discover new and exciting textures by playing with gooey, slippery, drippy and splashy mixtures in easily accessible trays and bowls. Try using the set of three Giant Bowls (£8.99), the White Circular Tray (£14.99) or the Low Messy Station (£59.99) from Cosy with slime, jelly, sloppy sand or gloop. Mini Trays (£24.75 for six) are available from

There is an ever-growing range of messy play materials, but remember to check the age group that the products are aimed at. Cornflour (£9.50), Soap Flakes (£7.50), Rainbow Sparkles (£21.95) and Jelly Crystals (£14.99) are all available from

Making music

Under-threes love to engage with music, and provision for this is relatively cheap. Your own voice, home-made shakers, drums and a few scarves provide an excellent basis for engaging them. Encourage free movement to favourite music played on a CD.

Demonstrate the fun of adding body sounds, such as clapping, stamping or humming. Children will love pulling a piece of stretchy Lycra into a circle and lifting and lowering it while singing or chanting. This resource is ideal for making up short songs and rhymes, for example, while a soft toy is bounced up and down.

Among the many commercially produced resources available are:

  • An exciting Little Hands Multicultural Set (£79.95), Stretchy Cloth (£18.99), solid beech Coloured Claves (£2.99 for a pair or £18.99 for eight pairs) and Wooden Egg Shakers (£17 for eight), all from A Multi-cultural Percussion Set (£159), complete with basket and MES DVD, is also available from
  • Lycra fabric (from £7.50) from
  • Early Years Ocean Drum (£7.50) and patterned bamboo Rainsticks (£7.99) are available from
  • The Baby Music range from includes Maracas (£13), Rolling Shapes (£12) and Rolling Bells (£12)
  • Playsong's range of action songs and rhymes books for babies and toddlers, available at, and other major suppliers.


Such sensory explorations need to be seen in the context of a communication-friendly and communication-rich environment that promotes all three aspects of the EYFS Communication and Language area: Listening and Attention, Understanding, and Speaking. Up to the age of three, the ability to communicate through language develops at an extremely rapid pace. Practitioners can support this by capturing children's individual interests in a way they understand and can respond to.

Key points to remember

  • Make sure there are calm, cosy areas, or dens, where children can engage in conversation with an adult without distraction.
  • Divide larger spaces into smaller areas where children can enjoy one-to-one or small-group time.
  • Group themed objects in one place so children can make links between them and extend their vocabulary as they learn their names, for example, a basket of wooden fruit, a bag of small-world farm animals or a collection of small bags to fill and empty.
  • Encourage listening with games such as 'Simon says' and Peek-a-boo!, go for listening walks and identify sound effects on CDs. Sing lots of action songs and encourage children to join in with repeated choruses and phrases.
  • Encourage children to bring in home objects, such as photograph albums, and encourage them to talk about them. Make home-made books linked to children's interests.
  • Ensure access to a wide range of books that are appropriate to each age group, and use hand puppets often, along with small-world figures, to capture interest and bring stories and rhymes to life. Also, provide story bags and baskets to accompany favourite picture books.


Though an essential part of any under-threes environment, choosing books for this age group can be tricky, as high-quality titles can seem in short supply.

Aim to build up a 'library' of: rhyme and song books; storybooks with rhyming text; storybooks with narrative text; information books; home-made books; as well as dual-language books.

  • For babies, in particular, go for formats that will withstand wear and tear, such as board and cloth books, and with interactive features such as buttons, flaps, sound effects and mirrors.
  • Toddlers will want to explore books on familiar themes such as home, animals and children, and will be drawn in by clear, bold and eye-catching illustrations.
  • Texts - story or information - should have few words; and, in particular, look for books with strong rhyming text and encourage children to join in either by making sounds or with refrains.

Publishers to consider include:

  • - has some lovely under-threes books, though titles listed within age groups seem to be very broad.
  • - see the baby books section and look out too for the Bunny and Bee series, and for Piggy, Bunny, Lambkin and Ducky, who face the 'big moments' in a toddler's life such as potty training.
  • - has 'Baby', 'Bath books' and 'Baby activity' sections. Its wide variety of baby books includes Annie Kubler's award-winning rhymes series.
  • - offers books, apps and advice on choosing texts for the very young.
  • - a US site, but you can click through to Amazon to buy from its 0-3 section, which is definitely worth browsing.
  • - this newcomer was voted IPG Children's Publisher of the Year in 2012 and 2013 and has built up a catalogue of some 70 0-3 titles. Look out for the Pip and Posy, Noddle, and Bizzy Bear series.
  • - offers an array of some of the boldest and brightest under-threes titles around.
  • - continues to do what he does best: make books for babies and toddlers.

See also:


Visit our archive at: for a wide variety of under-threes articles to help you plan other aspects of the under-threes environment. See, for example:

  • for our Collections series, which includes 'Fine by me!', looking at resources for developing fine motor control in under-threes, and 'Please touch' about sensory resources for the under-threes
  • Articles on treasure baskets and heuristic play such as 'First choice' and 'All about ... heuristic play'
  • Past Nursery Equipment articles, such as 'Right on cue' and 'Level best' and 'Natural discovery'
  • EYFS Best Practice series on the Prime areas and under-threes is at:
  • Penny Tassoni's series on working with two-year-olds, which ran through 2013 and started with 'Settling in'
  • Our Pen Green series on schemas, at:
  • Our complete guide to supporting funded two-year-olds is at:

Download the pdf

Nursery World Print & Website

  • Latest print issues
  • Latest online articles
  • Archive of more than 35,000 articles
  • Free monthly activity poster
  • Themed supplements

From £11 / month


Nursery World Digital Membership

  • Latest digital issues
  • Latest online articles
  • Archive of more than 35,000 articles
  • Themed supplements

From £11 / month


© MA Education 2021. Published by MA Education Limited, St Jude's Church, Dulwich Road, Herne Hill, London SE24 0PB, a company registered in England and Wales no. 04002826. MA Education is part of the Mark Allen Group. – All Rights Reserved