Hi, I'm Rachel.

I work with parents and teachers of children aged 0-14 around New Zealand.

BLOG: Heuristic play

BLOG: Heuristic play

There seems to be no end to the lists of things we need for our babies. Start with the clothes, the pram, the bed, the nappies, and then more onto the toys, the games and the activities that will give our littlies a great start in life.

However a growing number of parents in New Zealand have found using items collected from around their home, at the beach and in the bush is enough to keep their babies and toddlers engaged, finding that using this equipment has created focused, curious and confident children. This type of play is called Heuristic play,  named in the early 1980's by Elinor Goldschmeid, a child psychologist.

The basic premise is that using mainly plastic toys gives children a very small taste of the world around them. They may be pretty colours, and easy to clean and pack away, but they feel, taste and smell the same, really only addressing two of your baby's senses. The other benefit is that it's a low cost way to bring pleasure to your child with everything we need for our baby's stimulation right on hand in our homes already, or easy to find.

Instead of having a pile of new sparkly toys, parents are encouraged to create a collection of wooden, metal, paper, fabric and found items and place them in a treasure box. (such as a wicker basket or box with a low side on it so babies can reach inside it.) The box is placed in an open area, allowing children to explore the objects, and the area around them. As they grow, you can place the treasure box next to the sofa ready for them to pull out, or use it as a settling box that is brought as a treat.

Katherine McKenzie credits the treasure box used during heuristic play with helping her become a more relaxed first time mother with daughter Jessica (now 3) “I learnt to let her explore without always needing my help. I found I enjoyed just watching her, when before I felt I had to interact with her all the time, or watch her to make sure she was safe.” She also enjoyed the ease of it. “We were down to one income, so I was on a tight budget. I used things around the home, including a knitted octopus Jessica had received as a gift, and a little felt ball which is still one of her favourite possessions. Even on her back she could reach into the basket and explore and later on when sitting she really focussed. I really saw her develop her concentration skills through the play.”

The SPACE programme, which works with parents nationwide through mother's groups, introduced the concept to Kathryn and other mothers in the Lower Hutt area. Leanne Dawson, development leader for the Hutt Space National Office, says thatusing Heuristic play was a solution to “trying to find a resource collection that was supportive to all that could introduce a basic concept that everyone would find helpful.” With a range of people from low income families to professionals attending the groups, the focus was on something everyone would be able to do and find useful. It was also looking back to what we as children most enjoyed. “The focus was on what we did as kids. We looked at what we enjoyed playing with and took it back to a level suitable for babies.”

Michelle Reynolds, mother to Joshua (3) and Annaleise (1) says it was easier to use with her first born than with the second “as Josh tends to take things away from her when she's playing” but says the biggest impact was definitely on her as a mother “I was an anxious first time mum, and it helped me to see I didn't need to entertain him all the time. I could put him down, let him explore and he would stay happy for quite a long time.” While many of the mums put their treasures in a wooden basket, Michelle had a plastic wicker basket, “which served the same purpose”

Both Michelle and Katherine say they believe this type of early play has made their children more curious about the world around them, and confident when trying new things.. Katherine says “Jessica still loves texture and boxes and containers, and we've found she loves to hide her treasures away, when she's not getting into the utensil drawer in the kitchen!”

What you might put in a treasure box
Natural Objects: a pine cone (for young babies choose the more closed off ones), shells, drift wood, pumice stones, river stones, avocado stone, a loofah, sheepskin,

Wooden finds: wooden pegs, spoons, a small wooden bowl, blocks, coasters.

Paper objects such as empty egg cartons, lunch wrap tubes, a notebook.

Rubber pieces: a rubber spatula, silicon bakeware, bath plug with a chain attached, a bouncing ball.

Natural fabrics: a knitted doll, scarves, a scented satin pillow, a bag with herbs or crinkly paper stitched inside, felt squares, a ball made of wool, lengths of pretty ribbon, a leather purse (make sure it's real leather as PVC is not safe for babies), a leather or fabric belt.

Metal pieces: A tin with nails inside, glued shut for safety, measuring spoons or cups, a curtain ring, a tea strainer, a bell.

Brushes: shaving brushes, a small hair brush, paint brush, wooden toothbrush, pastry brush.

Other possible finds: velcro hair rollers, a small mirror, a small pottery bowl.

NOTE: If you are worried about the size of any of the objects, if it's small enough to fit into a film canister it's not safe for babies and toddlers. It's a good idea to leave out old keys as they may have high levels of lead in them, and make sure you give everything a good wash before placing it in the basket.

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BLOG: Daycare warning signs

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