At the end of a BabyNatal class that I taught a few weeks ago, I got talking to the parents-to-be about things to do and activities for small babies and mentioned how I liked using treasure baskets. The couple smiled and nodded politely, but I could see they were also looking at me as if I had just come out of a spaceship! Needless to say that I felt the need to explain what treasure baskets were! Sometimes we tend to forget how much we learn and find out after having a baby, and things that become part of everyday conversations for new parents are actually not that obvious for someone who hasn’t had a baby yet, so here I wanted to share some information and my personal experience with treasure baskets to show how I’ve found them really useful to get some insight into my children’s learning patterns.
What is a treasure basket?
A treasure basket is literally a wicker basket filled with objects which you place at arm’s reach of your child to allow them to explore and play with the objects. The idea is that you fill the basket with everyday items made of natural materials. It would be best to avoid plastic if you can as plastic does not provide an exploring baby with a very rich sensory experience: plastic toys may well have nice bright colours but don’t give the child a lot of exposure to different textures, temperatures etc. Natural materials (and we’re talking about wood, leather, metal etc.) are all different and stimulate your baby or toddler’s senses in different ways (taste, smell, touch etc.). As they explore the various objects you children slowly start making sense of the world they live in!
Make your own
You can find already made treasure baskets, but they tend to be quite expensive, so you can always have fun and make your own at home. Just have a good look around the house / garden and see what you can find that is suitable to use. To be on the safe side, here’s a few points I found useful in the past when making my own baskets:
- Always think about safety – pick objects which your baby can safely put in their mouth but cannot swallow or hurt themselves (or others) with in any way. Keys can be heavy in lead and other heavy metals, so it’s not great for a baby to chew on keys much, for example. Also try and avoid pewter and PVC. You may want to check the basket itself and its content regularly to ensure that nothing is broken and your baby cannot get hurt. Also, it’s a good idea to give the objects a good wash or rinse before giving them to your baby to play with.
- Make it a good sensory experience – pick objects which appeal to your baby’s senses. Your baby will explore the objects with their hands, their fingers, their mouth and their feet, so think about objects that feel good to touch – think different textures! Select objects which look interesting – think of nice, contrasting colours like black, white and red. Your baby will also check if the objects make a noise, so they may shake them, bang them and drop them for example. A great thing that you can do with an empty plastic bottle or container (and I know this breaks the ‘no plastic rule’) is to put rice or pasta or dried lentils etc., ensure they lid is very securely on and make it into your own shaker. Your baby will love experimenting with different size shakers which make different noises! They will also smell and taste the objects, so make sure you add a washed lemon or orange too – they look and smell great and are great to throw and roll too!
- Start small and introduce more items gradually – 20-30 objects are a good amount for your basket. To make it even more interesting, you can consider varying the content of the basket from time to time to give your child more chances to experience different objects. You could even have ‘themed’ baskets where all the objects belong to a specific category; for example, kitchen baskets, garden baskets etc.
- Consider baby’s development stage – the best time to introduce a treasure basket is when your baby can sit up unaided and reach the objects in the basket by themselves. Pick things which your baby can easily grab or reach, for example, or they will get frustrated from not being able to explore as much as they would like to.
- Get the timing right – pick the right time in the day to let your child explore a treasure basket. You want them to be alert and ready to play. If your baby enjoys playing with their basket you can take it out every day for however long your baby seems to be interested in it. Depending on their age you may be surprised to see that your child can actually focus their attention on it for about 30 minutes or more!
- Think ‘supervision’, rather than ‘interaction’ – it’s great to watch your baby go through the various objects in the baskets on their own. Let your baby choose independently and gain confidence in making their own decisions. You should always be close by to ensure that you can check on baby and offer help if needed, but there’s a lot to learn for you in watching your baby ‘do their own thing’.
Why are treasure baskets good for the children?
Treasure baskets are widely used in early years settings, and in particular with children under the age of 3, because they help children learn through play. Your baby will use their senses to experiment, explore and understand the world around them. Through playing freely and independently with the various items in the basket they start to learn about gravity, spacial awareness and density in a way that is appropriate for their age. They can grasp the concepts of same and different, heavy and light, small and big, things of same size vs things of different size etc. They would do all of this anyway, but chances are it’d be by emptying your cupboards looking for pots and pans and wooden spoons (which is also lots of fun by the way!).
Can the parents learn anything from treasure baskets?
Using treasure basket for my two boys was great for me too as through watching them spend time playing with their basket and exploring items I learnt how different they are and have been from an early age. My first child loved and still loves putting objects in lines – the longer and more orderly the line the better! He likes lining things up and counting them and can get very upset if you move them. My second child on the other hand is a great fun of things that roll and that he can throw and of transporting things to one place to another.
I did some research into this and was amazed to find out that we are all born with certain patterns of behaviours – called schemas. The behaviour can be easily observed as you see your child repeating certain activities over and over again. They do that because they like the activity and it appeals to their interests but at the same time they learn from it, develop high levels of concentration and further expand their interest and knowledge. Apparently, brain paths develop faster when connections are supported, so supporting your child’s schemas will effectively support and extend their learning.
Of course I would have observed these behavioural patterns in my children anyway, but doing so from an early age through the use of treasure baskets has been incredibly insightful and has always helped me to find ‘targeted’ toys and activities that would appeal to their interests. And it’s been fun as well – we don’t use them as much anymore, but I will still look at a nice pinecone and think it’d be perfect for my treasure baskets!