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Article: What is Heuristic Play?

What is Heuristic Play?

What is Heuristic Play?

“enabling a person to discover or learn something for themselves.”

Have you ever experienced a specific moment with your child where they’d rather play with the box that a new toy has come in rather than the toy itself? Or even another everyday object over a new toy? If you have, this is what is known as heuristic play.

What is heuristic play?

The term “Heuristic Play” was coined to describe the interaction of babies and children with everyday objects.

Today, children are surrounded by loud, colourful toys that tend to be made out of plastic, and while these might be good at stimulating some of the senses, they tend to lack the sensory and heuristic properties critical for supporting creative thinking and problem-solving skills.

With heuristic play, this involves the sensory exploration of ‘everyday items,’ anything from some rice or pasta or a spools and spoons to a piece of string or sticks from the garden. The difference between this and playing with toys is that toys are often limiting in what they can do while heuristic play with any natural, loose parts, sensory objects allows your child’s creativity to take over. Having an open-ended object to play with stimulates innovation, creativity and imagination as your child discovers the ways the object can be used, all characteristics of which are essential to learning and development.

For instance a wooden peg could become a person, a car, an animal, a mixer, the options are endless.

With heuristic play the child's imagination leads their play with heuristic objects, rather than muscle memory taking over when a child knows that a noise happens when they push a button. With heuristic play, open-ended play opportunities allow children to explore, learn and develop in a completely natural way. Infants and toddlers, in particular, require a variety of sensory exploration to support their cognitive growth and development. With heuristic play, they are able to do this on a much wider scale than with toys that may limit their abilities to develop.

For instance when a child pushes a button on a book and it makes a sound, they learn that this action makes that sound and that sound corresponds to whatever context is on that particular page. With heuristic play, children can make sounds from banging different objects together or knocking them against another surface. However, unlike the toy, this leads them to figure out the context for themselves – why did that make this sound? What would happen if I banged this item with a different item? All of these questions only come about by exploring and they are far more valuable later in life when our children need to develop certain skills such as innovation and critical thinking.

When a child is exposed to a variety of items that range in size, shape, weight and texture, the time they spend exploring also aids their mathematical conceptual learning. This doesn’t tend to happen with typical toys as the need to explore is lessened when they know what the toy is meant to do.

The mantra that “toys that do less, actually do more” is very relevant to heuristic play. It means that basic, natural, sensory items actually offer a world of possibilities to learn for our children. While they learn to play they also start to gain an understanding of the world around them, and more importantly, especially with children today, they learn that they don’t need much to self-entertain. It is through handling and exploring these objects that babies and toddlers begin to make their own choices and decisions and start to develop as people.

-Nicole Smith

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