As babies become more mobile, they are increasingly curious about their environment. They gradually move away from simply handling objects to actually investigating how different objects, such as kitchen utensils, work by putting them together, knocking them down and stacking them up. Parents and caregivers can encourage babies' curiosity by engaging in heuristic play, or play that encourages discovery.
Child psychologists Elinor Goldschmied and Sonia Jackson coined the term "heuristic play" in their book "People Under Three" as a name for a structured version of babies' natural behavior. During heuristic play, parents and caregivers set aside a time and place for babies to freely investigate a wide variety of objects. When several children are involved in the play session, parents and caregivers should put out enough objects to prevent disputes. Babies and toddlers are too young to grasp the concept of sharing.
Parents and caregivers should choose objects for heuristic play that stimulate all of the babies' senses. Natural objects suitable for heuristic play include large feathers, pine cones, pumice stones, large shells and large pebbles. Shiny objects such as old CDs, spoons, shiny napkin rings and jar lids will work, as will wooden objects like old corks, wooden toys and wooden kitchen utensils. Paper and cardboard items such as boxes, toilet paper tubes and foil tubes are good for heuristic play, as are hair rollers, lengths of chain, scraps of knitted or crocheted material, netting and bits of sponge. Babies and toddlers will put things in their mouth, so all objects should be too large to swallow and free of sharp edges and small parts. The objects should be cleaned and checked for safety hazards on a regular basis.
Heuristic play is ideal for children between 1 and 3 years old. A heuristic play session, including setup and cleanup, should last about an hour. The play session should take place in a relatively large area free of distractions such as other toys. Parents or caregivers should make sure that all of the children are safe and comfortable and have access to all of the items. Adults should sit quietly and observe the children as they play, taking note as the children develop their thought processes and skills. Adults should only intervene if safety becomes an issue. At the end of play time, adults and children should work together to pick up.
A treasure basket is a tool for engaging in heuristic play with children up to 18 months old who are able to sit up. Parents or caregivers fill a basket with objects that have a wide range of textures and produce different sensations, such as cold, wooden and heavy. The babies are placed in a circle around the basket and are given 45 minutes to an hour to explore the objects. The adults sit close enough to support any babies who have trouble sitting and intervene if safety becomes an issue. The adults should refrain from speaking, using this time to quietly observe the children's behavior.
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