Encourage your baby's curiosity with a eureka moment

by Julie Snyder

Baby EurekaAlthough the shelves could barely hold all the colorful toys, the baby section at the toy store seemed a little, well, boring. Nothing there was what I had in mind for my tiny girl.

I was looking for playthings that promote a greener way of life; toys that offer a creative, unhurried way for my child to learn.

At Christmas, my 6-month-old played more with the paper and ribbon than the present. She smashed the curly ribbon and watched it pop back up. She crinkled the paper just to hear satisfying noise, even though she flinched before rustling it.

That's the type of play experience I wanted. Something that would let my miniature scientist, who can't even walk yet, make discoveries about the objects and about the world.

Discovering through heuristic play

This special type of play utilizes a young child's curiosity. It's called heuristic play, coined by child psychologists Elinor Goldschmeid and Sonia Jackson. The word stems from the same root as eureka -- "I found it!"

When I first read the word, I looked only at the first and last letters and substituted the middle or had a dyslexic moment. I thought, "Hedonistic play? For a baby! That is wrong on so many levels!" That error worked in my favor. I had to know why anyone thought a baby's activity should have such a name. In my search I learned all about discovery play.

Down through the ages babies and toddler have amused themselves with objects they found or were given. Whether a pile of rocks or spoons and cups out of a kitchen cabinet, found items provide stimulating experiences that expand a tot's growing mind.

Getting started with discovery play

When your baby can sit up, and even before, you can begin offering a basket filled with a variety of "treasures." Babies this age spend their time discovering an object -- how it feels, how it sounds and how it can be manipulated.

Around 15 months, toddlers become less interested in what it does and more interested in how they can use it. Your job is to sit back and watch. Ask yourself questions like:

✓ How is my baby exploring the items?
✓ Are they using sight, hearing, smell, taste or touch?
✓ Can I find an item to stimulate any missing senses?
✓ What else could I give them that is similar to the one they seem to particularly like?
✓ Is there a preferences for certain items?

Your baby may play as long as an hour or lose interest in a few minutes. Put the treasure basket away and bring it out again tomorrow or the next day.

To keep the game new and interesting, you can switch items out or create several different baskets.

Make your baby a treasure basket

What should go in your baby's basket? Try to fill it with a variety of objects, both natural and man-made. You'll want some that stimulate each of the senses and others that can be used as open-ended tools for exploration and imagination.

Aim to for a collection of 20 to 30 objects, from a wide range of materials and a variety of textures. These ideas can get you started:

Paper or cardboard: Egg cartons, small boxes, crinkly paper
wooden: Small bowl, wooden spoon, napkin rings, dowel, bracelet
Cloth and leather: Knitted toy, bean bag, square of flannel, cloth bag of herbs, colorful ribbons, genuine leather coin purse
Metal: Tea strainer, measuring spoons, whisks, curtain ring, jar lid
From nature: Lemon, sheep skin, pumice stone, drift wood, pine cone
Brushes: Baby's hair brush, tooth brush, nail brush, pastry brush

Safety tips: Keys often contain lead and other heavy metals that your baby could ingest. Pewter is also high in lead, so opt out of these items as well.

Are the objects a choking hazard? Test with a toilet paper tube. Anything the fits through it is too small.

Now that you've gotten a treasure box of discoveries put together for your baby, you can sit back and watch the learning happen!

Have you or would you like to get your baby started on heuristic play? What things will you add to their basket?

Photo courtesy of iStockphoto.