Treasure baskets - heuristic play for your baby
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I first came across treasure baskets when my eldest was several months old and thinking about sitting up. I'd ventured out to a local baby café for a breather and a cup of tea.
When I walked into the small room at the back of the church, I was surprised to find just a huge blanket with a basket in the middle.
I saw how everyone had placed their babies on the blanket and sat next to them, so I tentatively did the same.
Inside the basket was the following:
Black and white pictures of babies
Scarves in bold patterns and colours
Recycled drinks bottle filled with pulses and taped shut
Gift wrap bows
One of the ladies running the session told me this was a treasure basket and handed me a bow - it made a lovely crinkly sound which delighted my eldest. He then enjoyed holding one of the bottles with his hands and his feet whilst lying on his back.
He must have found the whole thing very stimulating as after about an hour of play he fell asleep on the mat. I was amazed as he'd never fallen asleep on his own before!
What I didn't realise at the time is that we had experienced our first heuristic play session
I was so inspired that when we got home I started reading up on treasure baskets, raiding the cupboards for pulses to put in bottles, and searching the house for interesting objects!
What are treasure baskets?
'Treasure baskets' are a form of heuristic play where babies are given a selection of objects in an open basket. They are free to explore using all of their senses whilst being closely observed by a parent or caregiver.
'Heuristic play' is a term that was coined in the 1980s by Elinor Goldschmied, a pioneer in early education from England. It's the idea of presenting children under three with real world, natural and recycled objects to explore; playing freely and without adult intervention.
Children are naturally curious, and treasure baskets are the perfect way to build on that curiosity by exploring a wide variety of textures and material properties.
We love heuristic play and all three of my boys have enjoyed treasure baskets as babies.
The benefits of treasure baskets
Treasure baskets help babies to develop through playful learning. They provide lots of opportunities to experiment and understand the world around them.
Treasure baskets have no pre-defined way to play. They invite curiosity and experimentation. Where a toy car is designed to be driven around, a whisk is just something shiny, slightly bendy and cool to the touch. It makes a great sound when you hit it against other objects, but it's not designed for that. A gift bag is meant to put gifts in, but baby might like to put it on their head! Or look at the way the light dances on its shiny surface! Objects such as these, without a defined way to play, are known as open-ended.
When a baby reaches for and handles objects, they are developing their grasping skills and improving their hand-eye co-ordination. The variety of shapes and textures of objects in a treasure basket means that they are given many different and challenging ways of doing this. In doing so they are learning how to manipulate and handle objects ready for feeding themselves and later on stacking blocks, turning pages in books (etc) and eventually drawing and writing.
Goldschmied explains how, when giving baby a treasure basket, the parent or caregiver should look on but not direct play in any way. You are there purely to ensure the safety of your baby . This early opportunity to play independently with the safety of an adult nearby helps to develop confidence. It provides the foundations for creative thought and risk-taking as they grow.
Cause and effect
Giving baby a broad range of materials will provide them with opportunities to learn about cause and effect - how their actions impact the world around them. They will see how hitting objects together can make different sounds, how ribbons are slippery through their fingers and drop to the floor, how some things can be scrunched up and will spring back where others don't...
The more diverse the objects are that you give your baby, the more stimulating they are. Treasure baskets are the perfect opportunity to offer your baby objects that use all 5 senses. Baby toys are often plastic - they may use bold colours to excite vision but offer just one texture (smooth) and no smell. However a small bag of lavender or a lemon also has scent, and a large bell or jar with beads in has sound. Thinking about how objects can excite your baby's senses will help them get the most out of their treasure basket.
If you want to give treasure baskets a try at home, the best time to introduce them is when your baby can sit unaided, which is usually around 5 - 10 months old.
This first thing you will need is a solid open basket like this one:
It's important to have something that's sturdy enough for baby to lean on, but is nice and open so that they can see and choose objects.
Start building up your collection from things around the home and any nature 'treasures' you can find. Avoid anything that has sharp edges, is a chokeable size or is painted, and avoid plastic as this is a material they are already saturated with in everyday toys.
If you aim for around 30 core objects, you can add to this as you go along, rotating objects to keep baby interested.
Here's some ideas for what to include in your treasure basket:
Large smooth pebbles
Muslin herb bags (e.g. lavender)
Brushes (hair, pastry, paint, mushroom, nail)
Plastic bottles filled with pulses
Small gift bags
Used tape / ribbon centres
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Tips for getting the most out of your play
Time it carefully
When baby is hungry or tired is probably not the best time to introduce a treasure basket! Choose a moment when baby is happy and alert and you can sit quietly together for a while.
Don't limit things
As important as choosing the right time is not limiting how long baby is given to explore the basket. If you have to stop in the middle of a session for whatever reason (dirty nappy, phone call etc.) leave things as they are and then return to it after.
Mix it up!
Regularly refreshing the contents of baby's treasure basket will help keep their interest piqued. You can also observe what items are the most played with and add variations of it, for example they might love a mirror, so you can find other things with reflective surfaces and include them, such as jam jar lids, foil containers and metal spoons.
Have you tried treasure baskets for the first time? Leave me a comment!
Hi I'm Vicki, I'm an author and mum to three energetic boys who love learning in a playful and creative way! For more creative fun, play ideas and easy crafts, visit us at: