Changing parents’ perceptions of play: mark making and heuristic play in the Toddler Room


Being a toddler can be a tricky time in a child’s life.  Some of the children in my setting have just left the Baby Room, where they were in a small environment with only two adults and no more than five other children each day. They suddenly found themselves in a room twice the size, with lots of other children and adults who they don’t know and may only have seen several times before. Other children are in a new setting, so everything they see in their surroundings is for the first time. To make matters trickier, there is competition for all the new toys to deal with.

The children have to learn so many new things in order to be able to navigate this environment themselves. In the Toddler Room, we encourage the children to be as independent as they can be. We always challenge each child to encourage their development and give them a new experience whenever possible. To do this, every child needs an adult who can support them, but more importantly, guide them to do things for themselves, so they can start to practice their life skills. However, if we, as adults, step back and observe them for a while, what do we see?

Research summary

For my action research project, I decided to look at two different experiences for a small selected group of four children from the Toddler Room. I choose mark making and heuristic play, as these two activities enable independent, exploratory play, allowing the children to dictate how the activities will progress. I observed and evaluated each activity, and recording the outcomes. These activities were part of the weekly planning for the whole class. I then created displays to share what we had been doing with the children’s parents, and administered a questionnaire to capture the thoughts of parents with regard to these two examples of how children can learn through independent play.

What are mark making and heuristic play?

The term ‘heuristic play’ was coined by child psychologist Elinor Goldschmeid in the early 1980s. It describes the activity of both babies and children as they play with and explore the properties of objects discovered in their new world. It means giving the toddlers real objects which they can use in many ways, gathering, filling, dumping, stacking, knocking down, selecting and manipulating in other ways, with the freedom to do whatever they want. When a toddler makes an enjoyable discovery, for example when one object can fit into another, or they have find a different way to make an interesting sound, they will often repeat the action several times to test the result, or see if a different sound will be made if they use a different tool. This strengthens cognitive development, as well as fine muscle control and hand/eye coordination.

“During the first three years, babies and young children begin to rehearse role play, pretend and create play props as their ability to imagine accelerates along with their acquisition of language and their competent use of symbols in play.” (Bruce, 2001)

Tina Bruce talks about allowing the children to take the lead during play as a process which fosters cognitive development and the importance of practitioners providing many opportunities for children to explore and play in a safe and secure environment. She goes on to talk about giving these children appropriate responsibilities, which allows  errors or mistakes, giving them time to make their own decisions (or choices) as they are competent learners.  Through both Mark Making and Heuristic Play, the children take control of how the activity flows, and it is my responsibility to provide the resources to start this journey and to continue to support their thinking, as well as encouraging them to try new things.

Vygotsky defined the Zone of Proximal Development (ZPD) as:

The distance between the actual developmental level as determined by independent problem solving and the level of potential development as determined through problem-solving under adult guidance, or in collaboration with more capable peers.” (Vygotsky, 1978, p. 86).

The ZPD talks about the difference between what learners can do without help and what they can achieve with some guidance and encouragement from a skilled partner, or in my case, an Early Years practitioner.  The children are learning from each other and are being given the opportunity to practice the skills they have observed from adults. This provides them with an opportunity to try out what they have seen, and work out how to do things for themselves.

The Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS) identifies the central importance of creativity and critical thinking in early learning and development, asserting that:

When children have opportunities to play with ideas in different situations and with a variety of resources, they discover connections and come to new and better understandings and ways of doing things.

Toddlers spend a lot of time watching what we as adults do every day. They need time to develop an understanding of what they have observed, when given the opportunity to complete their own challenges, which is to repeat what they have seen.

In ‘Birth to Three Matters’, a framework of best practice for supporting children in the early years, under the heading ‘A competent learner’ it states that:

Children learn better when they have been given sufficient time and encouraged to make choices – babies and young children are naturally curious

By modelling how to hold a pen to make marks or by encouraging the children to think outside the box, we are creating wonder and awe in children from a young age who will hopefully want to investigate for themselves.

Mark making observations

I planned different activities each day to expose the group to different ways to make marks using a range of tools and materials.

Day 1: Chalk on black paper.

Day 2: Car wheels printing

Day 3: Mark making in sand.

Day 4: Cotton bud painting

Day 5: Mark making with felt tip pens

Some examples of mark making

For each child, I gave them the time to practice their early writing skills and to enhance their physical development, especially the fine motor skills needed to hold a pen and write with it. This also aids with hand-eye coordination and helps to enhance a child’s critical thinking, brain development and language skills.

E. was fascinated with the chalks and kept trying to keep the whole tub to herself, but with the car wheel printing and cotton bud painting, she was more interested in using her hands to turn it into a sensory experience.

O. was interested in learning the names of the colours he was using and discovering what each one looked like as he used them.  He was trying to say the names of the colours and once I told him what they were, he tried hard to pronounce them correctly. In addition, he also tried hard not to mix the colours, but was intrigued when he inadvertently created another colour. 

While R. was mark making, he was moving the sand around smoothly and enjoyed creating marks of all sizes and areas of the mirrored tray.

Heuristic play observations

I collected a variety of different resources in a large box. These included the following:

  • Keys                                              
  • Corks
  • Pine cones
  • Ribbons
  • Mirrors
  • Large and small tins
  • Wooden spoons
  • Wooden clothes peg
  • Lolly sticks
Heuristic play resources

E. was unsure at first, unaccustomed to such sessions, but soon became fully involved and was very happy when T. and N. joined the sessions. E. wanted to play with them both, and demonstrated her growing imagination skills when they were both around. E. always added the lolly sticks to her play and enjoyed laying them out across the floor in a line.

O. took to heuristic play for his first session and would always use tins to make musical instruments (i.e. a drum with a wooden spoon to bang on it acting as a drumstick), but he did try various other objects to create music with. He would try to get the other children to join him, so was happy when J. joined in, after which the session turned into a music session with songs being sung.

R. was very reserved and spent time on his own investigating the different objects though his sense of touch.  He enjoyed filling the tins and pouring out the content – he was always ready to see what else could fit inside the tin.

K. entered each session happy to see what she could find. She would continually vocalise, to herself, and would join in with different children who may also have joined the group. She enjoyed playing with the scarves and would mirror her peers, copying what they did.

Parental engagement

Following these activities, I created a display with information and photos about the two activities and sent out a parent questionnaire to all 23 parents in the Toddler Room to see if they had looked at the displays and to share their thoughts. I received 14 questionnaires back from parents, and received positive verbal feedback from all the parents.

 The survey findings revealed that:

  • All the parents had enjoyed looking at my displays and seeing what their children had been up to.
  • They found the displays informative, colourful, vibrant, with a good selection of photos and easy to read information.
  • Most had either tried it at home or were willing to try it.
  • My displays had introduced the ideas of mark making and heuristic play to many of the parents.
  • The displays raised the profile of different ways of making marks using a wide range of resources.
  • They encouraged parents to raid their cupboards for items and objects to enable to children to engage in heuristic play at home.

Further findings

I also asked some of my colleagues questions regarding the two activities; all said they thought this project served as a good reminder for them of the importance of mark making and heuristic play. It also encouraged the staff to reflect on their own experiences. Many found the displays helped to explain to parents about what their children may do in class. Many staff had experienced times when they were young children making marks in the sand at the beach, or using crayons and felt-tip pens to draw with. However, most importantly, it reminded them of some of their fondest childhood memories. Discovery play, as one staff member called it, had been an important time for them in their early life. This is interesting to note, because nowadays discovery learning has fallen out of favour among some teachers. However, this project has highlighted that learning through discovery is incredibly important in the early years, and regular opportunities to engage in mark making and heuristic play can boost this learning significantly.

Conclusions and reflections

It was not my intention to collect data on the impact of mark making and heuristic play in this short observational research project. However, having spent many hours observing the children immersed in these two activities, it is clear to me that such independent play offers a range of benefits, enabling children to learn independently and to make links between objects, textures and sounds.

It is also interesting to note that this project has prompted my colleagues to remember their own childhood memories. These moments have also reminded me, as an Early Years Practitioner, the importance of making sure all Toddlers are given a world of opportunities to encourage them to be assertive in how activities are led, and giving them the time to make their own decisions on how the resources can/should be accessed. The idea of the ZPD suggests that children need time to practice these particular skills, which they have seen adults use, to find their own ways to make sense of what they have seen.

As a result of spending time with these two activities with the toddlers, I have restocked the mark making trolley so it can be moved to different parts of the room, as well as outside. This has proved to be a big hit with the Toddlers, Babies and Ducklings (our infant school). It contains different mark making tools, paper of different colours, clip boards, notebooks and post cards.

With heuristic play, I have restocked our activity shelves with new resources. As the children really enjoyed heuristic play, after being introduced to it, I plan to introduce it to both Babies and Ducklings, as both groups would benefit from this type of experience. It has been a great tool for less vocal children, as it can be used as an observation technique. My small group of children had never taken part in these types of sessions before, so all were very interested by the end of the project (and still are).

Heuristic play should be an important part of early years provision, as it provides children with opportunities to demonstrate what they know, revealing skills they may not show in the classroom, as well as enabling them to learn through discovery.

Our lovely new heuristic play resource area 🙂


Abbott, L. and Langston, A (eds) (2005).  Birth to Three Matters: Supporting the Framework of Effective Practice. Maidenhead: OUP McGraw-Hill Education.

Bruce, T. (2001).  Learning through Play: Babies, Toddlers and the Foundation Years. London: Hodder & Stoughton.

Department for Education (2014) Statutory Framework for the Early Years Foundation Stage. Avaliable at:–2 .  (Accessed: 11 March 2019).

Mark Making Matters (2008) Published by the Department for Children, Schools and Families.

McLeod, S. A. (2012). Zone of proximal development. Retrieved from

Vygotsky, L. (1978). Mind in Society. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University. 


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