When infants start to interact with toys, the question they are asking in their play is ‘What is it?’ They are intrinsically motivated to explore their surroundings and develop their understanding of the world using their senses. Toddlers have better developed motor skills and spend less time on the sensory exploration of new objects. They now have a more pressing question-  ‘What can I do with this object?’ In this way, toddlers are like little scientists- experimenting, creating working theories and testing them, repeating the same action many times to find the result.

Toddlers are naturally curious and inquisitive and love to experiment with different ways that objects work and interact with other objects. A toddler will investigate all the physical possibilities of an object- Can it be rolled, stacked, inserted, balanced, or manipulated in different ways? Through this experimentation, they are able to make satisfying discoveries about their world. They may explore mathematical and scientific concepts such as gravity, density, physics, size, weight and spatial awareness. This develops their cognitive awareness as well as hand eye coordination, gross and fine motor skills.

Toddlers should be offered opportunities to engage in heuristic play without instruction or interference. The role of the adult in this type of play is to supply inviting and intriguing resources, ensure the environment is set appropriately and observe children during their play. For toddlers to explore the question ‘what can I do with this object?’ a variety of resources are necessary that can be used together in different ways. You could make up a variety of different kits of resources with different purposes in mind but allow the children to explore and engage with them how they please. Toddlers may be developing their understanding of different concepts or using their imagination in a different way than you anticipated as they explore the materials. The great thing about heuristic play is that there is no right or wrong way to do it.

Here are some ideas of items you could include to promote exploration of different concepts:

Stacking
Boxes, cotton reels or large plastic reels, containers with lids, coasters, pieces of wood, flat stones, etc.

Stacking

Collecting
Bags, baskets, large jars, buckets, containers of different sizes.

Collecting

Posting
A box with a small slit in the top and a variety of loose parts (natural and recycled objects are great for this).

Posting

Matching
Containers with lids, pairs of objects, loose parts that are different colours.

Matching

Threading
Mug tree, bangles, curtain rings, paper towel holder, beads, thick rope, etc.

Threading

Rolling
Balls of different sizes and textures, a ramp, cardboard or PVC tubes, pompoms, cone shaped shells etc.

Rolling

Making noise
Metal objects, wooden objects, plastic objects, a wooden stick for banging etc. Containers that can be filled with loose parts.

Making Noise

Pattern making
Natural loose parts, recycled materials such as bottle caps.

Pattern Making

Nesting
Objects that fit inside one another.

Nesting

The great thing about adding heuristic play to your room is that it is a cheap and sustainable way to add resources. Many of these items can be found in your around home or bought cheaply from op-shops. Natural items can be collected from your backyard, local park or beach and you can ask families to save recycled items like cardboard tubes and bottlecaps.

Toddlers and older children may use these materials in many different ways. Here are just a few of the thousands of ideas and concepts they may discover as they explore:

  • Spheres roll in all directions
  • Flat objects can be stacked up
  • Bigger does not always mean heavier
  • Objects may float or sink
  • Objects made of different materials make different sounds
  • Cone shaped items roll in circles

Cognitive development occurs as children sequence, manipulate, anticipate and rearrange objects, exploring through trial and error. They are able to develop positive dispositions for learning including imagination, curiosity, problem solving abilities, resilience, concentration, and persistence.

Give the children plenty of opportunities to interact with the same resources, exploring them in different ways. As you observe their exploration, you may think of other objects to add that will extend their understanding of certain concepts. E.g. a child rolling a variety of balls down a ramp could be offered some objects that are not round to extend their understanding.

Sit back and observe how the children interact with the environment. You will be amazed at the concentration, exploration and discoveries that occur.

Author:  Michelle Marais       4th June 2021