Learning Through Play

Here at Hunsdon House, we are firm believers in the value of free play, sometimes known as heuristic (discovery) play. We provide a huge variety of beautiful natural educational materials and it gives us great pleasure to see each little person explore, create and discover through play. Often the simplest materials, such as sand, pebbles, grains or wool felt balls can stimulate the richest creative experience, as the children reach out to make connections between these objects and their imagination.

Some people watch children playing freely and believe there is no intrinsic value in their seemingly purposeless activity. Especially in a nursery setting, which you are paying good money for, it may seem a waste of time.

But if you look closely, you may see that there is a learning and working process going on, in which the child is exploring his environment, discovering exciting things about the properties of the world around him, creating new ideas and replaying previous experiences in his play so as to cement his comprehension of them. This is heuristic play. The word heuristic derives from the Greek word “eurisko” meaning “I discover”. It is used to describe an intuitive way of meeting challenges and solving problems in play. Play is a child's work: it is his way of gaining an understanding of the world. And since each child is unique, each will have his own timetable and agenda for discovery which is relevant and meaningful to him at different stages of his development.

As adults, we think we are the wise ones, we know everything and the child knows nothing. It is therefore 'our duty' to fill this gap with purposeful adult-directed learning activity. However, children are born equipped with fresh eyes and senses, intense curiosity and many other innate tools with which to investivate the world around them. If we present certain types of materials to a young child, in a loving and encouraging environment, she can actually teach herself many of the things she will need to know about the world. And this investigative, heuristic play takes the child into a very intense, focused state of concentration. This type of play is associated with increased cognitive development and educational progress.

We would like to share some snapshots of the children's free play experiences with you. Please click on the Play buttons to view our mini-videos, enjoy our pictures or scroll through the carousel of little explorers at the bottom of the page.

This little girl is pretending the collection of magnet people is a yoga class and she is the teacher. At first she instructs the class "Don't touch anybody", but then she finds that because of the nature of magnetism, the unruly class keeps finding a way to stick together. She then finds a solution: "Everybody touch everybody"! But one of the magnets is repelling and refuses to touch. Patiently she suggests, "Maybe you need some more space...okay..."

We use feedback like this to develop several new activities to teach about magnetism.

These children are exploring a set of simple, brightly coloured cups, bowls and spoons which are paired with a variety of glass pebbles and shapes (at other times we use felt balls and eggs or wooden beads) to encourage open-ended free play. This leads to learning of colours, creative mixing and recipe making, transient art with patterns of pebbles, counting, sorting and a wealth of other games and discoveries...the only limit is the children's imagination!  If we give a child an object of such complete simplicity that it could become literally anything his imagination can conjure up, we give a priceless gift. A simple wool felt ball, which is soft and fuzzy, can become a cake, an ice cream, a mouse, a fruit, a cabbage....or any number of other things. I have watched a pine cone be transformed into a bottle of medicine, a fairy creature, a hedgehog and a doctor's instrument! And bowls, boxes or baskets that stack or nest together can be used for hundreds of sorting, mixing, transferring and gathering activities.

This happy group of friends are making sand cake recipes together and finding out if their delicious-looking creations are actually edible! Another little girl is gathering a huge bunch of beautiful Autumn leaves.

Various 'loose parts' can be found by the children or left ready to enrich imaginative play, for example next to a sandpit we might place bowls of pine cones, corks, shells, pieces of wood and pebbles.