Treasure baskets and heuristic play

by Anni McTavish

What are treasure baskets? 

“Treasure Baskets” are a collection of ordinary household objects, that are chosen to offer variety and fascination for babies who can sit up comfortably but are not yet crawling.

 When babies begin to sit up by themselves, they are often fascinated by the world around them. It can be very frustrating to see all these interesting things and not be able to reach them!  An ideal way to nurture this early curiosity is to provide a collection of natural objects and materials, gathered together in a ‘Treasure Basket’.

The idea was first devised by the educationalist Elinor Goldschmied (1910-2009) during her time working with young, single mothers in post-war Europe. She recognised that the infants in her care were innately curious, and needed something interesting and safe to explore.

How are children learning?

An important aspect of this type of play is that it is multi-sensory. The materials provide an  experience where learning takes place through all the senses. For example, babies will explore through looking, listening, smelling, touching and even tasting. They will be at the stage of mouthing objects in order to explore and find out, “what is this object like?” Goldschmied also emphasised the ‘sixth sense’ of bodily movement, whereby the whole body is involved in discovering and finding out. We can connect with this idea as adults, too. For instance, imagine when you are thinking deeply or concentrating, do you, perhaps, hum, tap your foot, or bite your lip? This is the same sort of thing – your whole self is involved in the process. Further, it will be of great benefit to a child who is sensory-impaired, to be offered experiences that stimulate all of their other, available senses.  

What comes next?

As children grow and their mobility develops, they begin to crawl and toddle, leaving the treasure basket behind. This leads to a second phase of exploration and discovery, often termed Heuristic Play.  This type of play involves many of the same materials, but they are combined and used in different ways. For example, once children have experienced a variety of objects in a treasure basket, they begin to ask, “what can I do with this?” They will begin to discover that they can place, fill, tip, empty, shake and post many of the smaller items, such as shells, dolly pegs or corks, into a range of containers, such as baskets, plastic bottles or tins. These early experiments help to form a valuable foundation for all future mathematical and scientific understanding.

It is astonishing to think that everyday materials, such as the ones mentioned above, can provide such powerful learning for babies and young children. They can be adapted and curated for children with different needs, and used creatively in many ways with older children and adults. Treasure baskets and heuristic play collections also allow the adult to create something that is unique and personal to them. No two treasure baskets will ever be the same!

To learn more about this subject and other topics, check out our programme of CPD webinars and workshops.

Anni McTavish is a freelance workshop leader and presenter, with over thirty years in the field of early education. With a background in education, the arts and humanistic psychotherapy, her approach is to inform and encourage participants to recognise strengths and areas to develop.


  • People Under Three: Young Children in Day-care by Elinor Goldschmied and Sonia Jackson, 2nd 2003
  • Developing Play for the Under 3s: The Treasure Basket and Heuristic Play Paperback – Illustrated, 2015 by Anita M. Hughes (Author)

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