52. Heuristic play

We’ve all watched as a baby or toddler makes a happy discovery, learning that one thing fits inside another or that a ball dropped into a tube appears again at the other end. This is known as discovery or heuristic (pronounced hyoo-ristic) play. The pleasing action is repeated many times until the new concept is understood.

This kind of play can last for long periods and is a great introduction to independent play for younger children. In effect, it is an extension of the treasure basket activity we recommend for the under ones.

Young children experiment with any materials they have to hand, pushing and pulling, rolling and dropping, squeezing and hammering to see what happens. This is the most interesting work a toddler can undertake.

When you find a toy that your under-three likes, it’s probably because it taps in to their desire to investigate.

There is no right or wrong with heuristic play, only discovery. Children have schemas, mental models of how the world works. Through experimentation they test those models and adjust them accordingly if new information comes to light:

Drop something and it falls to the ground. That’s an early schema about gravity. But you’ll have to modify your theory when you encounter your first bouncy ball or helium-filled balloon.

But rather than leaving these discoveries to chance, we can offer materials that encourage investigation. Try the following, to begin with. You’ll soon get the hang of it and come up with ideas of your own.

Balls, cotton reels, boxes, corks, wooden spoons, pots that can be nested, wooden rings, strips of fabric, mirrors.

You’ll learn so much about your child’s development simply by observing how they play.

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