Montessori at Home, Montessori Babies
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Montessori for Infants: Heuristic play and Treasure Baskets

Recently, treasure baskets have been really all over the places and I am sure you have crossed them or at least heard these words somewhere. They are selling as a set or you can buy parts to make your own. This is how you might have heard about them. But at the end, what is it all about? Where does it come from? And what does it stand for?

Treasure Baskets are an extension of a concept developed in the early 1980’s by Elinor Goldschmied and Sonia Jackson in their book, People under Three, called HEURISTIC PLAY.

What does Heuristic play means?

Heuristic play is rooted in young children’s natural curiosity. As babies grow, they move beyond being content to simply feel and ponder objects, to wanting to find out what can be done with them. Toddlers have an urge to handle things: to gather, fill, dump, stack, knock down, select and manipulate in other ways. Household or kitchen utensils offer this kind of activity as every parent knows, and can occupy a child for surprising stretches of time. When toddlers make an enjoyable discovery – for instance when one item fits into another, or an interesting sound is produced – they often repeat the action several times to test the result, which strengthens cognitive development as well as fine muscle control and hand/eye coordination.

Heuristic play “consists of offering a group of children, for a defined period of time in a controlled environment, a large number of different kinds of objects and receptacles with which they play freely without adult intervention”. It is particularly useful for children in their second year who often seem unwilling to engage in any activity for more than a few minutes.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, “HEURISTIC” means helping to find out or discover; proceeding by trial and error. It stems from the same root as “Eureka” from Ancient Greek  meaning “I found it!”


Heuristic play can be used as an activity with 6 months old baby when the baby can sit up unassisted to young threes, giving them the opportunity to experiment spontaneously with a wide range of natural objects. During this kind of activities, like for any Montessori work, the adults need to remain seated and quiet. This supports children in making their own choices and discoveries.’

Heuristic play with objects is not a new. From all the time, children have always been fascinated with kitchen utensils and mother’s sewing basket: while mum is busy, her child enjoys playing with her “toys”. Personnaly, everytime I am in the kitchen, cooking, my daughters take some pans and other things and it keeps them busy playing for ages! Banging things together or trying to stack, or just pretend play…

How to provide for heuristic play?

You just have to collect natural materials like for example fir cones, conkers, seashells, and pebbles, as well as ribbons, short lengths of chain, and ‘found’ objects like curtain rings, jar lids, sturdy cardboard tubes, the circles from inside sellotape, and empty cotton reels and gather them in a basket. This is the famous “TREASURE BASKET“.

The treasure basket comprises of a ridged side round basket and 60-80 different objects. The treasure basket is not a static plaything, over time objects can be added, taken out and replaced, every time you go some where new, you can collect objects to go into the treasure basket (e.g shells from a trip to the beach or pine cones from a visit to the gardens) so that the basket grows, reinforces learning experiences and becomes a catalogue of memories. Every treasure basket will be a unique collection of objects.  Aim to establish a collection of 20-30 objects, which comprise a variety of textures and materials. So treasure baskets are all about exploring daily items. You do not need to buy anything specific and this is what is marvellous! Just gather what you have at home and change frequently.

The predominant way that babies under the age of one discover and learn about their world is through sensory motor development, during this stage a baby’s primal instinct is to explore objects by handling and mouthing them in order to find out about their physical characteristics. By using a treasure basket with children at this age you are providing them with rich mental stimulation, which not only activates the growth of the brain but also provides richly satisfying experiences for the baby.

Here you can find a non exhaustive lists of items you can gather from your house for your heuristic play , you can also make themed treasure baskets. For example:

  • Paper / cardboard objects: Egg boxes, notebook, sturdy cardboard tubes,greaseproof paper.
  • Wooden objects: Door wedge, small turned bowl, dolly pegs, egg cup, wooden egg, spoons, curtain rings, coaster, bracelet, block, napkin rings, dowel, empty salt and pepper cellars.
  • Leather, textile, rubber, or fur objects: Small knitted toy, bean bag, piece of flannel, velvet powder puff, bags of herbs, bag of lavender, leather key ring, coloured ribbons, leather purse.
  • Rubber objects: Ball, bath plug with chain, soap holder, door stop, coaster.
  • Metal objects: Honey drizzler, an egg cup, curtain ring, egg poacher, measuring spoons, tea strainer, whisk, powder compact, bells, lemon squeezer, small bowl,
  • Natural objects: A lemon or orange, coconut shell, grass rope, sheepskin, pumice stone, loofah, shells, pine/fir cones, driftwood, avocado stone, large pebbles.
  • Brushes: Scrubbing brush, pastry brush, baby’s hair brush, nail brush, makeup brush, paint brush, shaving brush, wooden toothbrush.
  • Other objects: small vanilla essence or food colouring bottle, hair rollers, small mirror, scent bags, bone shoe horn, ceramic bowl
  • Balls: all kind of balls in a basket

To finish, the treasure basket should never be left out 24/7 for your baby to play with, as they will soon bore of the objects and become uninterested in them.

“Heuristic play is an approach and not a prescription. There is no right way to do it and people in different settings will have their own ideas and collect their own materials” {People under three, page 130}

Enjoy it!

If you want to know more about Heuristic play, you can read: People under Three, Young Children in Day Care (2nd edition), Elinor Goldschmied & Sonia Jackson, Routledge, London & New York, 2004

Note: Please be careful with small items, never forget that they can be shocking hazards!

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