Heuristic Play

In the couple of years I have been missing in action I have done loads of training and research in therapeutic parenting and have become a lot more thoughtful in how I deal with the kids (and the children that were placed in our home when we were foster carers). The teenagers still have screaming abdabs and Oona has tantrums (Leon does quiet sulking) but I have realised it is about how I deal with it that matters rather than what they do or how they behave. I couldn’t control a small boy who was overwhelmed and suffering sensory overload in the supermarket, but I could be present and help him through it so that he could feel loved and accepted despite his behaviour.

I will share some of my strategies and training over the next few weeks but today I wanted to talk about heuristic play. One of the big things with children who have trauma is that they often break toys that they are given due to having a strong feeling that they don’t deserve them. Another thing is that they haven’t necessarily had the things before or if they did, they were not taught how to look after them. When we had our foster child I would provide shiny new plastic toys and he would break them in temper or would throw them. Also due to his autism he never played with toys how they were meant to be played with. A book wasn’t for reading, it was for bending and scratching. He liked the noise of the pages being turned and would do this in a kind of rhythm/stim. When Leon plays with his cars, books become ramps and bridges. I’m much more repressed than this! I kind of like order and historically when things are not returned to the correct box at the end of play, I have been stressed out about it. Books should be on the shelf. Or on your knee being read not upended on the floor for a toy car to be brumming over! My kind of kids however, have taught me that I needed to chill out. If I hadn’t then I would have had some kind of nervous breakdown because there’s only me (and Paul but he doesn’t get bothered by this stuff like I do) against them. And I’m out numbered! It helps if you give it a name. The chaos, I mean… then the play becomes a “thing” and suddenly I find it easier to accept that the dominoes have been chucked in the box with the blocks and the dice or that the bits and bobs from “Mouse Trap” are now involved in some other game with space warriors and the tinfoil out of my kitchen cupboard. It’s called “Heuristic Play” and a real life child psychologist coined the term. So it must be okay.

Elinor Goldschmeid came up with it in the 1980’s…you know at Christmas when your kid plays with the packaging not the expensive toy? heuristic play. You know when you put the Fisher Price flashing lights musical toy in front of your 11 month old and they use the furniture to walk right past it so they can grab the TV remote and put it right in their mouth? That’s heuristic play. I remember going to my Great Granny’s house and in her pantry there was a box. In the box was a tin of buttons, some cones that once held fibre in the mill she had worked in years before, pine cones and some wooden blocks, some random figures from a long lost play-set and some pegs. Also in the pantry was a clothes maiden and some table cloths. (a great tent in other words!) I could play ALL DAY with those items when I was a pre-schooler. I would go to her house after play group every Wednesday, eat sausages and crinkly chips, my very own rice pudding made in an individual ramekin dish, I would have a cup of tea in a china cup with a saucer and then I played. And played. And played.

Offering children a large number of objects (both natural objects and every day objects, even loose parts) to play with freely and without intervention is the underpinning method. It isn’t prescriptive. So you can’t do it wrong! Your objects will be different to mine. If you live in a different area of the world you will have access to different natural objects. My Grannie had big bobbins in her box because she had worked in a mill. You might not have access to those but you will have other interesting things that I’m not offering my children. The main thing is that the children should choose what they want to play with and should be able to pretend or make-believe their own narrative with those objects without an adult intervening to control the play or “help”.

I’m setting up as a childminder and in preparation I took my children to a scrap store in Blackburn where I let them fill a trolley full of stuff that looked like it belonged in a skip. It cost me £25. They chose cardboard (huge sheets to make a fort with) silver card, small pieces of fake grass and some beautiful blue fabric that looks like it could make a great bit of water to go under a book bridge (ok the grass and water was my idea…they weren’t bothered about that ha ha) they got ribbon and fluffy fabric, clay, boxes, bits of glittery what-nots and who’s its…and they have played all afternoon. Not one tablet in sight!

Give it a try! Start small with a little basket of goodies and see what your little people think. Try a loofah or natural sponges, pine cones, large buttons…things that stack and things that can be posted and tipped. Just watch for choke-hazards and check that nothing is broken or sharp.

Good luck!

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