Category Archives: sensory play

Heuristic Play: Activities for Toddlers

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I am often asked to suggest art and craft ideas for toddlers. A toddler is not interested in making a product, they enjoy exploratory activities, where they can move around.  I suggest sensory experience where they can use their whole bodies. This might be using art materials like clay or paint but can just as easily be other sensory materials, like ice, water, bubbles, goop, sand or natural materials. I have a sensory play Pinterest board if you are interested in more ideas (I’m happy to have new contributors too, post a comment if you would like to be added).

Another great activity to encourage toddler exploration is heuristic play.

Treasure Baskets (Heuristic Play for Babies)

Treasure baskets are sturdy baskets filled with safe, natural and household objects, which stimulate a baby’s natural curiosity, through their senses.  They are presented to babies to explore from the time they are able to sit. The baby removes things from the basket to investigate the properties of the objects using their hands, mouths and eyes and ears .  The adult’s role is to sit near the baby to offer comfort or support when needed.  Treasure baskets could follow a theme like metal objects, wooden objects or black and white objects. You could choose things your baby is naturally curious about or try new objects.  Always check the safety of the items, make sure they are not small enough to be swallowed, can’t trap little fingers and look out for parts that could break off. Also choose things that can be easily cleaned or replaced at little cost

Suggestions for objects to place in treasure baskets

  • a lemon, lime or orange
  • natural sponges
  • wooden spoons
  • tins with lids or tape the lid down and put something inside to make a sound.
  • empty crisp packets
  • wooden or metal egg cups
  • napkin rings
  • a soft blanket, cloth or scarf
  • large shells
  • A string of large beads
  • laminated photographs
  • a pumice stone
  • large corks
  • wooden nail brush
  • shaving brush
  • small boxes
  • wooden bowls
  • bunch of keys
  • powder puff
  • lavender bags (or fill with other herbs).

What is Heuristic Play?

When young children begin to walk and gain independence they are driven by a natural curiosity and urge to handle things and find out what objects can do.  How often do we find ourselves asking them not to touch, finding that they have pulled things out of cupboards, emptied containers or posted raisins into the DVD player? Heuristic play allows toddlers to freely discover how things work, exploring concepts like posting, stacking and sequencing.

Heuristic Play offers children an opportunity to play freely with a large number of different objects and receptacles in a controlled environment without adult intervention (unless the child requests it). The term was coined by Elinor Goldschmeid and Sonia Jackson – heuristic coming from the Greek word ‘eurisko’ meaning to discover or gain an understanding of.

During a toddler session a variety of multi sensory materials (not toys)  are spread around an otherwise empty room, free from all other distractions. Each child is given a selection of containers with which to explore.

heuristic play

The Adults Role

The adults sit quietly around the outside of the room so as not to distract the child’s natural exploration,  they do not direct the play in any way and only support the child if they come to them for help, are distressed or they sense that their child has had enough.

At the end of the session children help to sort the materials putting them back in their correct bags with the support of the teacher. Objects are stored in labelled drawstring bags, for easy storage.

playing with loose parts
filling eggs with stones and glass beads.

We do not call this ‘tidy up time’ as this is an abstract concept; instead it is merged into part of the experience.

How Do the Children Benefit?

There are many benefits to play of this kind :-

  • Children will be engaged in self-discovery and test hypotheses
  • Cognitive development is strengthened by working out how things work and fit together
  • Develops fine muscle control
  • Develops hand/eye co-ordination
  • Encourages children to make choices
  • There is no right or wrong way to do things therefore it is therapeutic and fully inclusive
  • It sustains children’s natural curiosity
  • Children modify and change what they already know to gain new knowledge
  • Children become absorbed for long periods learning to explore without adult direction.
  • It supports children’s natural ways of learning through schemas.

toddler play activities

Materials I have used during heuristic play sessions

  • shells
  • pinecones
  • conkers
  • tins and boxes
  • poster tubes
  • curtain rings
  • poker chips
  • kitchen roll holders
  • the insides from sticky tape
  • scarves
  • handbags
  • ladles and large spoons
  • plastic fillable eggs
  • baskets
  • cd’s
  • socks
  • strings of beads
  • wooden blocks
  • jam jar lids
  • cotton reels
  • pegs
  • ribbon
  • bunches of keys
  • corks
  • ping-pong balls

 Is Heuristic Play the Same as Loose Parts?

Not really, although they are clearly related.  The main difference is heuristic play is a deliberate attempt to engage children in exploratory play by putting the materials in a room free from all other distractions.  Also the goal is for the children to explore without adult intervention.  In loose parts play the objects are usually part of the pre-school environment and can be used in any way to enhance all aspects of play, the adults normally engage with the children to develop sustained shared thinking.  Children engaged in loose parts play will often explore many of the characteristics of heuristic play and vice versa but they are similar, not the same. Heuristic play will naturally evolve into loose parts play as the children become older.

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Mud,Mud, Glorious Mud: Why you Should Embrace Mud Play.

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I’ve never been able to avoid playing in dirt with my kids, nor have I ever wanted to. From the youngest age the girls would pick up small stones from the ground or carry sticks.  I would walk the dogs at the local park and my daughter would gravitate towards a dirt patch and spend the whole time absorbed with the dusty dry mud. At other times, she would stop at every mole hill in the meadow, exploring it with her fingers.

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As for muddy puddles – regardless of footwear they are just too tempting to resist.

puddles

muddy

I was very lucky to find a preschool for my youngest that embraces mud play.

ducklings

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The swamp

 

playing in mud
The mud patch – building rivers and streams

 

If you can’t enjoy getting dirty when you are a child then when can you?

planting

international mud day
I want it to have hair like mine.
dr mazes farm
digging for worms

footprints in mudWP_000447mud kitchens

Mud play isn’t just fun, it is also great for children’s health and development. Check out my article in Parentmap to find out more.

Absract Painting to Music

 

WP_20160318_003One way to ensure that you don’t end up with a wall of identical paintings is to introduce children to abstract art.  We used the book The Noisy Paint Box: The Colors and Sounds of Kandinsky’s Abstract Art as a starting point.  The book tells the story of Kandinsky’s ability to ‘see music’ and ‘hear paintings’.

I explained that abstract art is not about creating a particular thing but is about expressing how you feel.

Each child had a pallet of acrylic paints, 2 different sized paintbrushes, a canvas, a pot of water and paper towel to wash and dry  the brushes.  I showed them how to clean their brushes by washing it in the water and drying it with the paper towel.

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The children began when I played the music – I chose a quiet piece to add focus, Dvorak’s Largo from Symphony no. 9.

Some children were engrossed in colour mixing, while others enjoyed layering colours one on top of the other.  Some concentrated on texture and others focused on shape and colour.

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The strong focus on process lead to an interesting discussion with the teacher after class.  We lamented the lack of time children in Kindergarten and beyond, to experiment with paint and the impact this has on their motor development. I always feel my lessons should be in at least 2 parts, one for discovery and process and the another to create a product. I wish there was time for the children to practice skills and develop.  My eldest daughter attends a school where the whole curriculum is taught through the medium of visual and performing arts – are there any creative elementary teachers out there doing the same?

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I Finally Made Play Dough that Isn’t Sticky

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I am terrible at making play dough.  For years I have experimented with all kinds of recipes, cold, cooked and microwaved but all of them turn out in a sticky mess within 24 hours.  That is until a pre school teacher shared this simple formula with me.  Mix 2 cups of corn starch/ corn flour with 1 cup of hair conditioner. Finally a recipe that works!

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Feel your skin, it’s really nice and smooth.

 

The texture is slightly less firm and more crumbly than standard play dough but it has a lovely silky texture and led to some interesting creations.

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I made a face

 

 

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Me too
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The first time I made a snowman, it was really good and then I noticed that it kept going down all the time. It’s like a melting snowman.

 

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I added some silly putty to it to make this design

Hallowe’en Activities: Spells and Witches Brew

spells and witches brew

One of my favourite Hallowe’en activities as a teacher was creating spells and dancing around the cauldron. The children were transfixed by the iron cauldron that emerged from the kitchen and wondered if it might belong to a real witch. Dressed in witches hats and cloaks, we would imagine fantastical ingredients and create spells that would transform us into dragons, frogs or birds, that would make us fly, shrink or become invisible. It was a fun way to explore rhyme, share ideas and use our imaginations. We left ‘spell books’ in the mark making area and the home corner became a witches cave complete with potion bottles, spell books and jars of bugs, bats and frogs.

My girls love to make potions, so when I told them about it, they loved the idea but wanted to make a real witches brew.

tin foil wand

 

To start, we made wands from tin foil and chose witches hats and capes. Tin foil wands are simple to make if you have limited time; wrap tin foil around a pencil or simply roll and scrunch the foil into your desired shape.   If you are more ambitious, make wands from sticks by stripping off the bark, adding ribbons or painting them in special colours. I also like these Harry Potter wands from Red Ted Art

With wands in hand, they chose ingredients to go into the brew.  They didn’t think witches and wizards used shaving foam or cornflour to make a spell, so they chose gruesome alternatives.  Flour became giant’s dandruff, hair gel was ogre snot and fuzzy balls became warts.

spell

The girls wrote down their ingredients so they could remember the order in which to add them .

quill writing

It didn’t matter that my youngest is only just beginning to write, she found her own way.

potion recipe

spell ingredients

Armed with spells, wands and witches hats, they made their way outside to the cauldron at our potion station. One by one, they tossed the ingredients into the cauldron, stirring it and modifying the quantities until they were satisfied. Then it was time for the spell.

Wibbly wobbly wibbly wog

See the little jumpy frog

Wibbly wobbly wibbly wagon

Turn the frog into a dragon

We looked for the dragon but decided it was hiding amongst the clouds.

witches brew

The dance around the cauldron resumed with another spell.

Wibbly wobbly wibbly wog

See the little jumpy frog

Wibbly wobbly wibbly wat

Turn my mum into a bat

 

Thanks girls, I’m not sure  I want to hang upside down from a tree.

 

witches brew
The potion remained in the cauldron for sometime and became the central point of their witch and wizarding school.

Suggested ingredients for a witches brew

  • Jello/jelly powder (makes it smell great)
  • mud
  • hair gel
  • shaving foam
  • flour
  • glitter
  • coffee grounds
  • leaves and petals
  • plastic bugs
  • coloured water
  • baking powder-

Further Ideas

  • Give the children collection bags and a card with ingredients for a spell, in picture and written format.  Ask the children to find the objects they need and place them in the bag.
  • Give the children a group of objects and ask them one at a time to add a specific number into the brew.
  • Chant around the caldron and make spells that require the children to make specific movements e.g make us slither like a snake, make us jump or stretch up tall.

 

What Can We Do with All These Leaves?

This time of the year my garden is covered in a blanket of leaves.  The girls enjoy helping to rake them up but it is a never-ending task. When leaves are plentiful there are many activities that you could take advantage of. Here are a few of our favourites.

Leaf Man

Leaf Man by Lois Ehlert is illustrated with photocopies of leaves that have been arranged to make pictures.  We studied the way Ehlert uses coloured paper to create a layered background and  leaves and natural materials for the main body of the picture.

leaf bird rowena

We created our own pictures, starting with the background and adding leaves.  The leaves work better if they are pressed beforehand using a flower press or a heavy book.  Preserve them by laminating before the leaves dry out.

leaf man

Painting

Young children enjoy printing with leaves or painting on larger leaves. You could also try  painting with different types of leaves or dipping the stalks into paint to make marks.  Dried leaves crumbled into paint could also make an interesting texture.

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Leaves are perfect for investigating colour mixing.  Give each child a leaf and ask them to try to mix the matching colour.  Younger children could paint the colour onto their leaf, print it on paper or paint around the outline, older children may like to try an observational painting of their leaf. Small square canvases or watercolour paper would make them extra special.

Leaf Rubbing

leaf rubbing

Sometimes young children  find this difficult so experiment with different colours and materials, like crayon, pencil, chalk, pastels or charcoal to decide which makes the most effective rubbing.

Leaf Mosaics, Patterns and Sculptures

Use leaves to create mosaic patterns and pictures. These could be individual or large group projects.

leaf face

The girls collected leaves on a camping trip and used them to thread onto sticks to create clothes for their stick people.

stick men

Clay

clay and leaves

Leaves  make interesting imprints in clay or they can be used  as a template to cut around. Clay leaves make great bowls, tiles or mobiles.

 

Sensory Play and Loose Parts

Collect leaves and put them in a sensory bin – investigate what happens to them over time. Add interesting objects hidden amongst the leaves or toy woodland animals and bugs for small world play.

If you have leaves outside how do the children use them as loose parts?

My children built a bonfire……

 

building a bonfireBuried their feet….

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and added them to a potion.

potion making

 

Use them as a Filler

Last Halloween we made spiders to hang on the bushes outside.  The bodies were made from black bags stuffed full with leaves.  You could also use leaves to stuff scarecrows or guys for bonfire night.

Laminate them

laminated leaves

Over a period of time we collected interesting leaves and laminated them.  They looked great on the window and I challenged the girls to find out which trees they belonged to. I think they would also make an eye-catching mobile.    This year we are using the laminated leaves to see if they can find matching leaves in the neighbourhood. Laminated leaves could be used for all kind of things. We have used them as gift tags, to play matching pairs and they look great on the light table.

Leaf Rainbows

If you collect leaves gradually from the same tree or bush as they change colour you can make a leaf rainbow.

leaf rainbow

Before you  decide to rake all the leaves away, take a look at this face, I think it says it all.
autumn leaves

A Natural Playground

Young children have an immense curiosity about the natural world – the challenge is to stop them from losing it! Nurture that precious sense of wonder …….. A little empathy and enthusiasm is all you need to encourage children to appreciate wild places.

( Nature’s Playground)

There is even frost on the leaf
There is even frost on the leaf

Natural environments offer opportunities for adventure, which build confidence and instill bravery.

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Take time to stop and explore. Rushing children along to the next thing, denies children the opportunity to make their own discoveries.
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Using natural materials creatively helps us to appreciate them in new ways.

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Wild places provide opportunities for quiet reflection.

musing over a blade of grass
musing over a blade of grass

Finding creatures in their natural environment encourages respect and reduces fear.

holding a frog Explore all types of weather. Rain, snow, wind and sunshine offer many different experiences.

rain

I just want to lie in it
I just want to lie in it

reading in the tree

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Allow children time to be immersed in their experiences and they will adapt natural materials, weaving them into their own imaginative worlds.

building a bonfire

Sometimes nature is cruel but when children come across these things in the wild, it promotes discussion and allows them to navigate difficult concepts in a meaningful way.

We found a dead birs in the garden. How did it get there? What shuld we do with it? We buried it under a tree.
We found a dead bird in the garden. How did it get there? What should we do with it? We buried it under a tree.

Being in a natural environment offers children opportunities to develop physical skills, through climbing , negotiating space, moving on different surfaces, reaching, touching and many more.

climbing tree
toddler on beach

It makes a big splash. Plop!
It makes a big splash. Plop!

Explore with all of your senses.

I'm going to have a shower. I'm getting very wet, now the rain is staying on me.
I’m going to have a shower. I’m getting very wet, now the rain is staying on me.

picking huckleberrieshands on a tree.

blackberris

If I need a little encouragement to go outside I only need to look at the joy, concentration and contemplation on my children’s faces.

If you need further inspiration I recommend reading Nature’s Playground.

This is not a sponsored post the book mentioned is a personal recommendation only.