Nursery Equipment: Treasure baskets & heuristic play - Natural discovery

Babies and toddlers learn from experience and love to explore all sorts of shapes, sizes and textures of even the most basic household items. Nicole Weinstein explains the joy of treasure baskets and heuristic play

[asset_library_tag 1776,Download the PDF of this article]

In a small area of a nursery room in north London, a seven-month-old is engrossed in play with a set of natural, household objects. He reaches for a loofah, sucks it, waves it around to test how heavy it is and then tosses it aside for the next item in the basket: a lemon.

In another corner of the room, an 18-month-old reaches for a silk scarf that hangs into a basket filled with brightly-coloured fabric. The scarf floats down into her hands and she places it over her face to feel its soft texture.

Children at The Gower School Nursery in Islington are offered this sensory experience during hour-long treasure basket and heuristic play sessions each day. Kelly Shawyer, nursery head, says, 'This form of play provides children with the opportunity to explore and investigate real objects and the way they work. Treasure baskets and heuristic play are integral to everything we do.'

These tried and tested concepts provide endless fascination for babies and toddlers. They were pioneered by Elinor Goldschmied, who died last year, in the 1940s when she observed children's natural interest in collections of household objects.


A treasure basket is a round, low-sided basket containing household, recycled and natural objects. It is full to the brim so that babies who can sit up but not yet crawl can delve in, select what appeals to them and explore the texture, weight, shape, size and smell of the objects.

Goldschmied recommended a round basket not less than 35cm (14 inches) in diameter and 10-13cm (4-5 inches) deep. The contents of each basket are unique and should be changing constantly. For example, a lemon could be replaced with a bag of herbs or if the child showed a particular fascination for brushes, more could be added.

Babies learn through their senses. With a collection of objects that they can suck, lick, smell, bang, pick up and drop, they are being offered experiences that will help develop their brains.

What's on the market?

Many practitioners create their own treasure baskets, sourcing items from hardware shops and market stalls and often inviting parents to bring in things from their homes and holidays. The majority of suppliers, listed below, are often small businesses that are keen to educate people to the benefits of true treasure basket play for babies. The product often comes with advice on how to use it and why.

Samantha Hyde, a mother with a passion for natural toys, set up Contented Child ( in 2005 after educating herself on the benefits of sensory and child-led play. She now sells treasure baskets to children's centres, nurseries, and parents in the UK and abroad. The wicker basket comes with a cotton drawstring bag to make transportation easier.

Natasha MacEwan, a mother and Montessori teacher, sells hand-made willow treasure baskets for £18.50 from her company at The empty basket comes with a 16-page booklet.

Other suppliers have veered off the traditional formula and come up with variations - for example, different sized or shaped baskets or collections for older age groups. But Jools Page, lecturer and programme director for the MA in Early Childhood Education at the University of Sheffield, says the 'very essence' of Goldschmied's philosophy has 'at times been lost or become diluted' as baskets of treasure and play with everyday household objects have become part of the continuous provision in many settings.

She warns, 'It's fundamental (for practitioners) to understand the philosophy and principles that Goldschmied held so dear regarding the way in which the treasure basket is offered.'


  • Heritage Treasure Baskets - custom-made willow baskets in two sizes (25cm and 30cm) to suit three different markets - nurseries, childminders and parents, priced at between £29 and £55. 'Top-up' treasure bags available from
  • Early Excellence Treasure Basket - a round, British-made willow basket (35cm x 13cm) containing 24 objects, priced at £75 (plus £8.75 for guidance notes). Extra treasure basket collections of wood and metal also available from
  • Play to Z - Playscope Complete Set, a natural hessian and fleece Sensac containing organic British willow treasure basket (32cm x 13cm), 50 natural objects, two sets of 20 age-appropriate activity cards and guidance notes, priced at £165. Starter sets and top-up bags available from
  • Early Years Planning - three types of treasure basket - Enclosure, Colour and Light and Deluxe - based around schemas aimed at children from 15 to 36 months. Round or oval baskets with handles (28cm x 25cm x 10cm), priced at £68, from
  • TTS Group - oval wooden treasure basket (38cm x 28cm x 9cm), priced at £33.95; a range of resources for treasure baskets, including willow balls (£5.24 for four) and Indian bangles (£14.95 for six) from
  • - empty treasure basket, priced at £28.50; a range of resources for treasure baskets, including a wooden ball (£2.95) and shiny ball (£6.95)


Heuristic play for toddlers is the next step on from treasure basket play. The same underlying principles apply: children should be offered an abundance of natural materials to support their innate desire to investigate, explore and make sense of the world around them. But a child in its second year, who is more mobile, has an urge to explore the properties of the material on offer and how it behaves in space as they manipulate it.

The Gower School Nursery uses baskets from Ikea to store its collections of wooden curtain rings, dolly pegs, ribbons and others. Each day, an area of the room is cleared and the boxes are taken out for a 45-minute heuristic play session.

Ms Shawyer says, 'The children love to fill empty containers with all kinds of shapes - for example, putting woollen pom-poms into a cylinder. There's lots of piling and pairing, matching and grading. The question of success or failure does not enter into it. It is all new discovery, and there is no right or wrong.'

As with treasure baskets, the role of the adult is to observe and assist unobtrusively where required, not to interrupt or lead play. When the session is set up in the way Goldschmied intended, primarily for young children aged between 12 to 20 months, Dr Page says that the 'opportunities for children to test out their developing problem-solving are endless'.

What to offer

Collections of different natural or household objects, which can be stored in baskets or drawstring bags and taken out during heuristic play sessions, should include: ribbons, scarves, chains, shells, pom-poms, pine cones, cotton reels, corks, jar lids, large pebbles

Alongside the objects, there should be a large number of containers for children to fill and empty with objects, slot objects into, stack and open and close. For example: cardboard household tubes, boxes, safe rimmed tins, plastic bottles, bags and wallets


  • - TTS Group - range of baskets and collections for heuristic play, including set of three baskets, priced at £40; Indian fabric, six lengths, priced at £19.95; Fabric Treasure Basket (£17.31) and Fruits of the Sea Basket (£7.55). Visit
  • Early Excellence - 36 collections of wooden objects manufactured from natural, untreated wood in a variety of shapes that children can use to stack, line up, thread through, place on or in, move or hide. Prices range from £5 for a set of pegs to £14.50 for eight large cubes. Collections can be stored in the Heuristic Play Bag, £2.95 each. Visit
  • - basket containing an assortment of shells, priced at £4.95; cotton drawstring bags (£1.95); woven balls (£1.85).


Process of discovery

Both treasure baskets and heuristic play give the child an opportunity to exercise choice about what object to play with and how to play with it. Ms Shawyer concludes, 'In placing and piling, pairing and matching, selecting and discarding, and noting differences and similarities, there is a notable degree of concentration and of mental activity generated by the child himself/herself in the secure presence of a trusted adult, as he/she acquires those vital tools for learning.'


  • People Under Three: Young Children in Day Care by E Goldschmied and S Jackson (1994), London: Routledge
  • Developing Play for the Under Threes: The Treasure Basket and Heuristic Play by AM Hughes (2006), London: David Fulton
  • Problem Solving, Reasoning and Numeracy in the Early Years Foundation Stage by AM Hughes (2009), London: Routledge
  • 'A Real Treasure' by Sonia Jackson (Nursery World, 21 July 2005)
  • 'All about ... Heuristic Play' by Jools Page (Nursery World, 7 June 2007)

Nursery World Print & Website

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

From £119 per year


Nursery World Digital Membership

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

From £119 per year


© MA Education 2020. 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