What are treasure baskets, and how do they benefit our children? In my own experience, treasure baskets are one of the most valuable experiences we can offer our babies, so here is a brief explanation to help you get to grips with these ideas, and some practical tips on getting started!
A little bit of History...
'Treasure baskets' were originally conceived by Elinor Goldschmied, a pioneering early years educator. Through her work with children in Italian orphanages after the Second World War, she observed how even very young babies benefited from unstructured play with natural and simple household objects. Most of us have experienced this ourselves at some point - for example in playing with the saucepans from the kitchen cupboard, or the random collected contents of our parents' bags and pockets. Goldschmied realised that the different properties of these objects - whether they were smooth or rough, heavy or light, cold, shiny, fragrant and so on - enabled babies to use their senses to explore and discover the world around them, in a way that today's mostly plastic toys cannot.
This type of activity is an example of 'sensory play' - play where the main interest and purpose is in engaging one or more of the five senses. Brightly coloured plastic toys can stimulate your baby's sense of sight, but will usually do little for any of the other senses. Test this out for yourself by gathering some of your child's plastic toys together, closing your eyes and then exploring these toys the way babies do - with your hands, mouth, tongue, nose and ears... what variety and interest do they offer to your child's senses of smell, taste, touch or sound? While there are some excellent plastic toys around, limiting your child's play to only these will limit what they can learn from the world at this early stage in their development.
The aim of a treasure basket is to collect together a group of non-toy objects (this is very important) made of or being natural materials (wooden or metal spoons, for instance, or objects such as pinecones or shells). These objects are put into a large, shallow basket that is big and deep enough for the child to have to rummage to discover them all, but not so big as to topple over if the baby leans on it. The objects in the basket offer your child a range of sensory experiences, but the act of sorting, choosing, removing and even rejecting and returning items to and from the basket are all just as important learning opportunities here.
Goldschmied suggested the ideal basket to be round, about 30cm in diameter and about 10cm deep for this reason. She also suggested the best baskets would be woven willow (or similar) with ridges to provide additional textures for the baby to explore.
If you cannot find a basket that fits Goldschmied's criteria exactly, don't despair; people use baskets or boxes of all shapes, sizes and materials, as what's most important is that the baby can reach inside easy and safely, that the basket holds a good amount of items (variety is another key factor), and that everything can be cleaned after use. As always in this kind of play, avoid anything plastic as that would defeat the whole purpose of this activity.
All sorts of items can be put into a treasure basket. They should offer your baby a chance to examine and play with an object that would not normally be available to them and is made of a material other than plastic, to provide your baby with as rich and varied a sensory experience as possible. These don't have to be bought specially - you are more than likely to have a large number of suitable items already, and as long as they are cleanable and don't pose a safety hazard (choking risk or sharp edges, for instance) then many ordinary household items will do just fine. Here are just a few suggestions to give you an idea of what you could include.
How Much is Enough?
So you've gathered together your 'treasure', but how do you know when you've got enough? Goldschmied's research suggested that a large variety of things offers the most interest and so, to start with at least, go for a nice big pile in your basket - how much therefore depends on the size of that and the objects inside, but aim for at least twenty different items. As your baby gets older, the ways in which they use the basket will change, and you can start to do things like themed baskets and smaller, more focused collections, but start off with a random mix to provide maximum interest and variety.
Let Them Explore
Once you've assembled your basket of treasure, you are ready to begin. Treasure baskets are best introduced to babies when they are able to sit up, and you should find a time when they are not tired or hungry. Sit you baby next to the basket so that they can reach in easily. Then sit back and let them explore. It's that simple. It is important that you resist any urge to commentate or 'help'; just stay close and respond to them when they look to you for approval or comfort. Ideally, babies should be given the opportunity to explore their basket every day. I used it as an opportunity for a daily dose of quiet time with my babies, where I got to sit back and enjoy a guilt-free cuppa as they rummaged.
Some babies take to treasure baskets straight away, and dive right in with great excitement - my daughter was one of these, but my son was the exact opposite and burst into tears after a few minutes the first few times we tried it as he was clearly overwhelmed by the new experience. Don't be put off if this happens to you - bear in mind that the basket is offering your child a wealth of sensory input in a way that is entirely new to them so of course some children will need to adjust. Just don't force it, put the basket away and bring it out again the next day and try again. It didn't take long for my son to get used to his basket, and he was soon rummaging around very happily. You might want to keep the first few sessions fairly short for this reason, and gradually build up session length as your baby gets more comfortable with exploring their basket.
A note about safety. Play with everyday non-toy objects has widely recognised benefits for babies and young children, however these kinds of activities should always be closely supervised. Use common sense to decide what you are comfortable letting your child handle, and decide for yourself what could be a hazard.