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Heuristic Play and the Not-Toy Toys

When my kids were little, they had some of the best not-toys. These were what we called everyday objects that, for one reason or another, our children became attached to and played with.

Wooden spoons, doorstops. My daughter once wanted to take a nap with an empty jar of Peter Pan Peanut Butter.

This is totally normal for toddlers exploring their universe. They are learning, comparing, manipulating, and absorbing everything about the world around them, and that's FANTASTIC.

In fact, there is a whole term coined for it: Heuristic play.

The term, coined by Elinor Goldschmied, can be defined as offering a child, for a defined period of time and in a controlled environment, a large number of objects and receptacles with which they play freely without adult intervention.

Or, more simply - playing with non-dangerous household objects free from parent intervention.

Many education models, including Waldorf and Montessori, practice Heuristic play with sensory tubs (photo from

When Goldschmied practiced this during her career, play time was usually less than an hour and made up of a "treasure box" - a basket at a low level filled with non-dangerous household objects for toddlers to easily explore. When I practiced it without knowing there was a word for it, it consisted of a cupboard stuffed haphazardly with a bunch of the household things my kids were going to pull out and play with anyway.

Photo of Audrey around age 4

"My siblings and I LOVED heuristic play. Because my parents both worked from home, they made sure that we were engaged in imaginative play and most of our toys were either household items or made of natural materials. My favorite game as a toddler was to open the drawer in the kitchen where the canning supplies were kept and putting ALL of the lid rings on my arms. Then I would run around making a glorious noise with my bracelet armor." - Audrey.

While Goldschmied coined this term and promoted its effects specifically with toddlers, We STILL have a cupboard in our house that my ten year old and eight year old can raid. Why? Because that desire and need for exploration and imaginative play never really ends, and a funnel doesn't stop being a good trumpet just because you're in 5th grade.

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Waupaca WI, 54981 USA

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