The Happiness of Heuristic Play.

The Benefits That Heuristic Play has on Children’s Emotional Regulation.

Research practitioner:

Senior practitioner:

Project summary:

An observational study of 3 – 5 year olds who have additional support needs during heuristic play sessions. This project explored the benefits heuristic play has on children’s emotional regulation.


The aim of this project is to determine the benefits heuristic play has on children’s emotional regulation. Heuristic play is such an inclusive experience, which for the purpose of this inquiry will enable research to focus on a small group of children with additional support needs. It takes into account practitioners’ knowledge and confidence of what heuristic play means and how heuristic play is facilitated within our setting. This project is supported by literature, ‘People Under Three. Young Children in Day Care’ (Goldschmied and Jackson, 1994). This provides background of heuristic play while highlighting the benefits, how to implement sessions, suggests resources and gives a deeper insight into the role of practitioners


Within the setting, it is identified that 25% of children have additional support needs. Considering this and looking at previous data recorded, it was apparent there was a need for heuristic play in the 3 – 5 room and as I was based there, it made sense. Although heuristic play is aimed at children from birth to three as they become mobile, Goldschmied and Jackson (1994, pg.139) said, ‘Heuristic play can also be helpful to older children with learning difficulties, who can play with the material at their own level’.

It was clear there were lots of opportunities for exploration during play and encouraging older children’s individual schemas, although heuristic play was not strong part of our core provision. It was not clear whether this was due to a lack of adequate materials to support this or the knowledge and understanding of practitioners.

As I was passionate about heuristic play, helping to facilitate sessions outwith the setting, I was eager to share with other practitioners, to give them support. Most importantly, to provide quality experiences for children that would allow them to be curious, make their own choices and follow their interests without prompts from adults, ‘children were free to move, explore, play, create, participate and to learn at their own pace.’ (Tovey, 2020).

In order to fulfil the aims of this research project, I carefully considered the different methods that would allow me to identify and support the needs of children and practitioners within the setting. As I would be focussing on the 3 – 5 room, a small group of 5 children would be selected to participate along with all 10 practitioners from the room. It was decided that narrative observations would be used during heuristic play sessions to gain a holistic insight into their experience, engagement and give us a clear indication of children’s levels of wellbeing to process the overall impact. To enable me to support practitioners appropriately, a questionnaire would be used to identify their knowledge and at the end, a report will be created and a poster to allow dissemination of the project between the team for those who feel it would be supportive. As stated previously, heuristic play would become a new part of our core provision so it was vital to do an audit of resources to ensure we acquired a variety of materials in the setting.


I ensured all staff within 3-5 room had given their consent. In my project, all children participating have additional support needs. This created some difficulty in ensuring there was consent from them, therefore I obtained written consent from their families on their behalf. However, as the children’s wellbeing is always our main priority, when each session was introduced it was extremely important for me to be aware and sensitive if children expressed any non-verbal cues that suggested they did not want to take part. In this instance, they did not have to join the session and could continue their play. In addition, if during a session a child became upset and could not be consoled, they were able to leave too. This enabled me to be even more conscious of children’s feelings and how a change to their routine by inviting them to a session could impact their wellbeing.

‘[The] child is free to determine his own actions according to the laws and demands of the play he is involved in. Through and in his play he is able to feel himself to be independent and autonomous’. (Froebel in Liebschner 1992:69)

Tovey, H. (2020) Froebel’s Principles and Practice Today. London: Froebel Trust. Available at (Accessed: 8th January 2024)


Ten practitioners within the 3 – 5 room were asked to complete questionnaires to determine their current knowledge on heuristic play. Within the six responses, it was identified that most practitioners possessed a good level of understanding of heuristic play. There was diverse levels of confidence from extremely confident to somewhat not confident and opportunities for exploration were “infrequent”. It was evident that all practitioners felt this type of play has a positive impact on children, “by giving the children the opportunity to find ways to play with ordinary items as opposed to toys.” To enable me to share knowledge and practice, one practitioner was asked to help implement heuristic play sessions alongside myself. Unfortunately out of the three planned sessions, they could only attend one due to maintaining ratios within the playroom. Moving forward, I aim to take on a coaching role within the whole team and continue to implement heuristic play sessions with three practitioners who will then be able to share their experience and knowledge with others within their playroom.

At the beginning, I was able to do an audit of resources, discovering there was a lack of heuristic play resources. As we wanted this to become part of our core provision, there was a real sense of importance. The Senior Leadership Team were supportive, ensuring there was budget available to gather materials and create a designated space, our ‘Heuristic Den’. As I researched literature, obtaining ideas what heuristic play sounds, feels and looks like, this was replicated in the setting. Our Heuristic Den is a cosy, carpeted space with soft lighting where children can be curious, making sense of the world around them. All materials are labelled with photographs in canvas bags or baskets to support practitioners in accessing them.

Within the focus group of five children, two were willing to participate. All children were offered an object of reference from the heuristic resources as invitation to sessions. After the first session, this was interchangeable for something which I observed was of interest. “When we entered the quiet, calm space, you sat down and took off your socks and shoes.” (Child B). This highlighted the feelings of comfort and safety, in a home-like environment, one which they were happy to be part of, “This seemed to make you happy as you moved up and down on your toes.” (Child B). Child A and Child B showed an increase in their levels of engagement, as identified by the Leuven Scale of Involvement, seeming to be absorbed in their play, demonstrating curiosity as they embarked on their discoveries. Both Child A and B demonstrated a high level of engagement during the heuristic play sessions from the beginning, a marked difference from their lower engagement levels during other aspects of play outside the heuristic den. “You began to choose the metal curtain rings one at a time and drop them onto the holder. As there was no more next to you, I saw you look around then crawl to where you spotted more.” (Child A). Analysis of observations before the project demonstrated that both Child A and Child B were making progress relevant to their stage of development holistically. However observations of both children showed a lack of engagement, at times within the general playroom when their levels of wellbeing were low. The lived experience of both children within the heuristic den demonstrated that a safe, quiet space enabled children to regulate their emotions through the heuristic experiences. This led to high levels of engagement for both children.As a setting we are maximising the use of this space daily, to ensure sustainability in the use of heuristic play but to also ensure that Child A, B and their peers have a positive lived experience while in ELC with a variety of tools at their disposal to impact positively on their emotional harmony.


We gained evidence of the benefits heuristic play has on children’s emotional regulation, particularly those with additional support needs. Heuristic play encourages children to be autonomous learners, promoting their engagement in a quieter, less busy space. This demonstrates that our targeted children were able to thrive in an experience, in a more intimate setting with a familiar adult.

Moving forward, we will continue to broaden practitioner knowledge and self-confidence in implementing heuristic play for children in the setting, ensuring that each child has access to this new part of our core provision on a regular basis. As part of continuous improvement, the project will be shared at our next in-service day and a heuristic play session for staff will take place. We also plan to share this with families, focussing on smaller sessions where parents/carer can engage in heuristic play alongside their child.

The project also highlighted that our wee people’s voice comes in many forms as one child was observed “you took my hand and placed it on the door handle, pushing my fingers like you wanted me to grip it.” (Child A). This ensured we recognised that Child A was finished and was able to express their choice to leave each session confidently.

Research implications

To be completed

Practitioner enquiry

To be completed

Leadership learning

To be completed

Author and role

To be completed

Comments from other network members

What did you appreciate about this research? What forward-looking questions did it raise for you?

  1. Debi Ashworth
    Debi Ashworth
    23 Mar 2024 at 3:38 pm

    An interesting and thought provoking inquiry. I found it useful as we’re going to develop heuristic play and our children have SEMH. I love the idea of an heuristic den for a safe quiet space. Thanks for sharing.

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  2. Natalie Morgan
    Natalie Morgan
    24 Mar 2024 at 2:57 pm

    This project was a good read and showed the benefits of heuristic play and how they made an area in the setting for it.

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  3. Donna Green
    Donna Green
    27 Mar 2024 at 1:07 pm

    Well done, Cheryl and Gemma, it is great to read how your Practitioner Inquiry has started to show benefits. Wonderful that you have involved your colleagues in this practitioner Inquiry and how it will move on to be an inclusive core experience for children. Love how you are thinking around sustainability and involve the team to share knowledge at inset day and then enabling the families to become involved with heuristic play is fantastic.😊

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