Heuristic Play and Treasure Baskets

Heuristic play and treasure baskets have become a popular part of the infant and toddler curriculum in Aotearoa, New Zealand. The ideas and principles of heuristic play and treasure baskets appear to sit comfortably alongside the New Zealand Early Childhood Curriculum, Te Whāriki.  The major principle of this concept is about providing opportunity for open-ended discovery

What does heuristic mean?

“Encouraging a person to learn, discover, understand, or solve problems on his or her own, as by experimenting, evaluating possible answers or solutions, or by trial and error.” Definition of heuristic from dictionary.com

The word ‘heuristic’ is also derived from the Greek word ‘eurisko’ which means ‘serve to discover’ or ‘reach an understanding of’ (Goldschmied & Jackson, 1994).  Heurstic play is the term that Elinor Goldschmied used in the early 1980s as a way to describe the activity of a toddler playing with objects.

A treasure basket

Is an approach developed by Elinor Goldschmied that offers an infant who is able to sit comfortably, the opportunity for independent exploration.  (Goldschmied & Jackson, 1994).  SPACE@Cedar Saplings make a Treasure Basket for each child which mothers participate in collecting the items during the first few weeks of the programme.

In the New Zealand early childhood context, heuristic play and treasure baskets:

provide an opportunity for children to experience a curriculum that encompasses the principles of Te Whāriki

  • provide links to a homelike setting, empowering children to explore and discover for themselves
  • create opportunities for children to experiment, theorise, and make discoveries in open-ended ways.
  • By providing a range of everyday real life items and objects (wooden, metal, natural, plastic, and glass), representative of diverse cultural settings, for infants and toddlers to explore and manipulate, we are supporting them to make sense of the world around them.

Infants and toddlers use all their senses to explore these ‘everyday objects’ and form their own ideas about what they discover. Time, space and opportunity for them to concentrate and focus without interruption, but with the presence of a supportive unobtrusive adult, are important aspects of heuristic play. This contributes to infants and toddlers developing a sense of identity as competent, capable, confident learners.

Reflective questions

  • Take a moment to look at your environment through an infant or toddlers’ eyes, do you see a range of textures and objects from a variety of sources that infants and toddlers can explore in open-ended ways?
  • Where are the opportunities in your setting for infants and toddlers to explore their ideas and theories?
  • When do you see infants and toddlers manipulating, sorting, transferring, matching and grouping objects independently?

More information about heuristic play and treasure baskets:
ECE Educate: Heuristic play photostory
Five key principles of heuristic play (PDF 1.96MB)
Goldschmied, E. & Jackson, S. (1994). People Under Three: Young Children in Daycare. London: Routledge.
Hughes, A. (2007). Developing play for the under threes: The Treasure Basket and Heuristic Play. Oxfordshire: Routledge.