What Is Heuristic Play and Why Is it Good for My Child?


A child rubbing two wooden blocks together

If you’ve ever seen your child play with an everyday item as if it were a toy, then you’ve witnessed something known as heuristic play.

Heuristic play is a very useful technique for practitioners to use throughout the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) for children up to five years old. Giving little ones the freedom to pick up objects and play with them is known to strengthen their creative thinking and problem-solving skills.

This enriching type of play has various benefits, as you can imagine. It also comes with its own set of precautions that need to be considered in advance. After all, not every object they pick up will be safe to play with.

Read on to learn more about heuristic play and why it’s so important in the development of your child. To help in your understanding of this subject, we’ve split this blog up into multiple sections:

  • What is Heuristic Play?
  • How Does Heuristic Play Work?
  • Why is Heuristic Play Good for Your Child?
  • Items Your Child Can Play With

It’s important that you understand this term fully before we proceed. Which is why the first section is dedicated to answering the popular ‘what is heuristic play’ question.

What is Heuristic Play?

In the modern day, children are surrounded by a range of loud, colourful toys that tend to be made of out materials such as plastic and wood. While enjoyable, these items tend to lack the sensory and heuristic properties needed to support certain skills.

Which is where heuristic play enters the picture.

Heuristic play is an enriching type of play where babies and young children interact with various everyday options instead of toys, the goal being: to encourage children to stimulate their creativity and imagination without restrictions.

The great thing about heuristic play is that it works in a variety of settings – including your own home. Simply give them something like an empty egg carton and watch them go!

A child's hand covered in blue paint

How Does Heuristic Play Work?

The process usually involves giving children a large number of objects for them to play with freely.

Unlike other processes, heuristic play should be allowed to go ahead without adult intervention. Allowing them to play unattended allows them to develop their own thought processes and express themselves as much as possible, independently.

How many objects are offered to children will depend entirely on the size of the classroom and the number of little ones in attendance. Usually, 60 to 80 different objects are offered up in heuristic play, giving children plenty of options when it comes to what they interact with.

Heuristic Play Tip: This method works best when the environment you’re children play in is free from distractions. Turning off the TV and clearing the space of other toys will help them focus more.

The objects themselves can be placed into treasure chests, or treasure baskets. Placing them here allows them to pick up whatever they like the look of and go from there.

How long children play with these objects will vary too. Some nurseries let them play for up to 30 minutes, others, an hour. Duration shouldn’t matter too much – just as long as play is supervised by an adult.

Why Is Heuristic Play Good for Your Child?

There are countless benefits to heuristic play. For example, did you know that heuristic play can help deepen a child’s concentration and thus strengthen their thinking skills?

That was but one of the benefits of heuristic play. Continue reading below to discover more benefits of this teaching method.

Exercises Creative Thinking and Imagination

Heuristic play allows children to train and develop creative thinking skills. This, again, goes back to what we were saying earlier about toys being just toys. A miniature car can only roll backwards and forwards; playing with one is a very unimaginative activity.

A standard kitchen object like a colander can be picked up, put down, wrapped up, spun round, all to stimulate a child’s imagination.

Giving that child an everyday household object, on the other hand, opens them up to a world of unique possibilities in their own minds. By playing with these objects, children actively create their own entertainment.

Thanks to heuristic play, children will start to understand and develop their own strategies for interacting with things around them. For example, through playing with a large brush, they know that it won’t fit in a small box but it will fit in a bigger one. This is rather self-explanatory for an adult, but for a child, is incredibly insightful!

Improves Sensory Motor Development and Growth

Another great thing about heuristic play is it is also a form of sensory play, whereby children leverage multiple senses to fully explore the objects they choose to interact with.

Sight, smell, sound, touch, and taste, a child can engage with these objects in all kinds of ways. Again, there are no limitations to what they can do (within reason).

Gross motor skills are also strengthened thanks to this method. With children continually moving their arms, legs, and torso to bend and twist around these objects. This form of play is fantastic for teaching children how to:

  • Pick up objects
  • Transport objects
  • Wrap things up
  • Post things
  • Stack and roll

What’s more, heuristic play is also great at beginning to turn your child’s fine motor skills too. Performing actions like pulling scarves with their fingers, posting objects into holes, and handling objects with thin handles are all great for this.

Builds Confidence and Concentration

Research shows that there is a direct link between heuristic play and brain development. Anyone who watches children engaged in deep heuristic play will see this first hand. The high levels of concentration they display is more than important for stimulating positive development.

Heuristic play also gives children confidence through the independence they’re given. By giving little one’s the ability to test their own theories using trial and error is confidence building, not to mention, character building.

Your children are essentially constructing and deconstructing reality when they take part in heuristic play, which inputs valuable information that they can remember the next time they interact with certain objects. Again, this builds confidence.

A child crawling around the floor

Items Your Child Can Play With

It goes without saying that not every household object can be played with by children, as we mentioned earlier in the post.

You need to think about safety, and not include any objects that could be considered a choking hazard – or is something that they could wrap around their own neck. Or something that is far too sharp and could hurt them.

Try to ensure that you offer a wide selection of objects for children to play with. The more textures, sizes, and materials you can offer, the better. Wondering what items work best in heuristic play?

We have a few ideas – feel free to take them:

Household Objects

  • Hair rollers
  • Dolly pegs
  • Door stops
  • Massagers
  • Shoe brush

These objects are those you’d find lying around any household. The various textures of these items make them very interesting for children to interact with.


  • Egg cups
  • Bowls
  • Plastic cups
  • Measuring cups
  • Plastic containers

Containers are great for making sounds with. Children can whack these objects with things like brushes and spoons and take great enjoyment from it.


  • Egg cartons
  • Cereal boxes
  • Toilet roll tubes

Children can pick up and fold cardboard in all kinds of positions. They can also roll around on top of them to get a better feel for how durable they are.

Furry Items

  • Fuzzy socks
  • Pompoms
  • Small pillows
  • Cuddly bears

Furry items are great for squeezing and rolling around on, similar to the cardboard objects we’ve just mentioned, only a lot more comfortable in comparison.

Scented Items

  • Herbs
  • Empty bottles
  • Scented paper

Smell is but one of the senses that children will activate when taking part in heuristic play. Scented items play on that sense directly.

Natural Objects

  • Conkers
  • Seashells
  • Pebbles
  • Leaves

What better way to have children understand the greater world around them than by letting them interact with pebbles and things like that.

Soft Items

  • Brushes
  • Cloths
  • Cotton

Like furry objects, soft items are very interesting items for your little one’s to pick up and interact with. If you’re going to give them brushes, make sure they’re in a range of different sizes to provide some variety.

Rubbery Items

  • Bathtub items
  • Hot water bottles
  • Raincoats
  • Hoses

The texture and temperature of rubbery items make for great heuristic play items for children. With hoses, just be careful that children don’t wrap themselves around them too much. Remember, adult supervision is still required with this method.

A child chewing a spoon on a bed covered in toys

Heuristic Play Safety Tips

Understand that some of the items we’ve just mentioned can’t just be given to children. You will need to ensure that certain precautions are taken, and that adult supervision is still in place. After all, children do use their mouths to explore these objects too.

Adult supervision is important, but here are some other safety tips to consider:

  • Give all items a good wash to rid them of bacteria and dirt beforehand
  • Avoid including small objects that could be swallowed or choked on
  • Don’t give children anything too sharp to avoid them hurting themselves
  • Don’t offer liquids, or edible materials as children will drink and eat them

Do keep in mind that these are but a few safety precautions to take into consideration. What steps you take beforehand will depend entirely on the objects you give children to interact with.

What Is Heuristic Play and Why Is it Good for My Child?

We’ve covered a lot today, from answering the popular ‘what is heuristic play’ question, to the benefits of this teaching practice, to a rough idea of what objects your child can play with. All of it being incredibly important to know.

We also looked at what safety precautions you need to consider beforehand, which are very important for obvious reasons. It keeps parents, guardians, and nursery practitioners constantly on the ball.

Observing is a big part of heuristic play. It’s also a big part of what we’re hoping to achieve at Learning Journals. Our online platform is built to monitor and track each stage of your child’s progress all in one place, giving you a complete view of your child’s development.

Request a free trial of Learning Journals to see the benefits for yourself!

Heuristic Play FAQs

What is heuristic play?

Heuristic play is a method whereby children interact with a variety of items as if they were toys. It allows children to explore the properties of everyday objects in a safe, supported, open-ended manner. It can be utilised by everyone, from parents to nursery practitioners.

What benefits are there to heuristic play?

The great thing about heuristic play is that there are more than one benefit. By participating in heuristic play, children can exercise their creative thinking and concentration skills, be more confident, and improve their own sensory motor development.

What items can be used for heuristic play?

You can use practically anything for heuristic play, as long as the objects you let children interact with don’t pose a hazard to them. Pine cones, ribbons, corks, combs, spoons, pots, and hair rollers are all great examples (items you’ll find either in your home or close to it).

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