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Meet the community - Heuristic play with Franzi from Imagine, Play, Inspire.

Franzi, what is your background and how did you get into early childcare and heuristic play?

I started working with children when I was still at high school, spending my school holidays helping out at a local kindergarten in preparation for a gap year as an au pair. I absolutely loved it! After 12 months of living and working in the States, I went back to Germany to study Culture and Media Education. I knew then that I wanted to continue working with children, but I didn’t envision myself becoming a teacher in the traditional sense. During my studies I was lucky enough to complete an internship at the Children’s Discovery Centre in Honolulu, Hawai'i. It was there that I began learning about the importance of play-based and child-led learning. I was blown away by what the setting offered and the type of environment they had created. For a long time, I dreamt (and sometimes still dream a little) of developing a space with a very similar concept here...

After graduating from uni I chose teaching in early childhood as a career. I felt like it was a job where I could have a real impact. I wanted to make a difference. Research in neuroscience shows that the development in the early years sets the foundation for lifelong learning, behaviour and wellbeing. I have now been teaching for over 15 years, in a range of different settings, and being a small part of children’s life and learning journey has been so special and rewarding.

What is Imagine, Play, Inspire? And how can we attend?

Imagine, Play, Inspire offers creative play experiences for young children, focusing on the process rather than the product and open-ended sensory exploration. Through providing an inviting and inspiring environment with small group sizes, I am aim to create a space which both little artists and their parents can enjoy. An opportunity to play, observe, create and connect - without having to worry about any of the mess.

Imagine, Play, Inspire runs during term-time, offering art playgroups for 1-5 year olds and Little Art Lab for 3-7 year olds, in Ōakura. The best way to find out about upcoming classes is joining our mailing list via the Instagram or Facebook page.

What is Heuristic play? Can you give us an example of an activity that would support this type of play and values?

Heuristic play is a form of play that involves providing tamariki (children) with a variety of open-ended, everyday objects (also known as loose parts) to explore and manipulate. It encourages children to use their senses and creativity to discover the properties and possibilities of these objects. A typical example of an experience that supports heuristic play is setting up a "treasure basket" with items like wooden spoons, fabric scraps, pinecones, and seashells. Children can touch, taste (under supervision), smell, and examine these objects, encouraging sensory exploration and problem-solving skills. This type of play values a child's innate curiosity and promotes independent learning, helping them develop essential cognitive and fine motor skills.

Where do you get your inspiration from?

From all the children I work with, and probably my own inner child, haha. Honestly though, whatever ideas I have in mind when planning our sessions, the tamariki (children) often come up with better ones. When I get stuck or feel like it’s time for something new, social media becomes my friend; it’s great for connecting with like-minded businesses and creators in other corners of the world. Process Art seems to be a growing movement, which is wonderful to see and be a part of.

What do you think wellness looks like for a child?

Taking it back to the basics, simplicity, slow-paced living, real-life experiences, joy through play, art and movement, time in nature, developing healthy habits, and, most importantly, strong connections to people who love and nurture them. For children, as well as for us as adults, the latter means to feel seen, heard, and valued.

How do you minimise waste in your industry?

It starts with the kind of resources I use for our sessions. Most resources have either been donated, collected in nature or are purchased second-hand. When buying new items, I consider how much use we will be able to get out of them, what will happen with them after (can they be repurposed?), and invest in good quality.

Oh, also, you won’t see any sensory bins filled with rice, beans or lentils at any of our classes. While I use some food staples to create taste-safe experiences for the youngest tamariki, such as slime and play-dough, I keep the use of food items at a minimum.

What are your three favourite heuristic sensory play activities? Any tips for setting up at home?

My tips for setting up play heuristic play experiences at home are: keep it simple and use what you have on hand, e.g. large spoons, ladles, pots, pans, Tupperware, lids, cups etc. Nature is a great source for loose parts too! Think leaves, flowers, herbs, sticks, stones, driftwood. Of course, keep in mind the age and stage of each child to ensure safety.

Some simple, yet engaging set-up ideas:

A large, shallow bin filled with water and a handful of tools to scoop and pour with. Optional: Add a few drops of food colouring and some flowers.

Fill 3-5 smaller baskets or bowls with different groups of loose parts, e.g. cardboard tubes, pine cones and corks.

Present loose parts such as flowers, sea shells or sticks with play-dough. 

Do you have a favourite book centred around preschool play?

‘The Sacred Urge to Play’ by Pennie Brownlee & Kimberley Crisp is a must read for anyone interested in play-based learning, emotional nurturing and healthy brain development in the early years.

What are your favourite sensory play Instagram accounts to follow?

@navybabynz offers great heuristic play resources and inspiration for setting up inviting play experiences at home.

@popartkids - a reggio inspired sensory art and learning studio over in the States.

@raisingcalm - okay, not quite sensory play but very helpful in all things emotional self-regulation (which sensory play supports), plus a very aesthetically pleasing feed. 

Can you share with us a moment in which you saw the positive effect of heuristic play influence a child?

So many! It would take too long to describe a specific situation as development happens over time and through repeated experiences, but I have seen children gain confidence, grow their imagination, improve their fine motor and social skills, and so much more when having had the opportunity to engage freely with loose parts on a regular basis. Of course, heuristic play is just one part of the ‘learning puzzle’ and can’t be viewed in isolation. Other forms of play and accompanying teaching strategies will have supported these learning outcomes.

Does Heuristic play support children who are anxious? How so?

Yes, heuristic play can be a fantastic support for anxious tamariki (children). Firstly, it offers a safe environment where children can explore at their own pace, reducing anxiety triggers. Secondly, the sensory-rich experiences in heuristic play, like touching different textures or manipulating objects, can have a calming effect, helping anxious children regulate their emotions. I can often see this at our water play station in particular. Thirdly, the open-ended nature of heuristic play fosters a sense of control and predictability, which can be especially comforting for tamariki (children) with anxiety. Additionally, it provides a non-verbal opportunity for self-expression, allowing children to communicate and process their feelings. Finally, as children gain confidence through this type of play, they often develop increased self-esteem, which can contribute to reduced anxiety overall.


Have you observed any major differences between how children are being raised now to how you and your generation were raised. For example, I see so many young kids being taught about breathing and yoga!

Yes, I’d definitely say there are some differences. Although, I have to admit that it’s a tricky one for me to answer: I was raised in Germany, so there may be cultural differences too. Overall, I think the current generation of parents are much more informed and aware of their own parenting style. Thanks to social media, it is so easy to have access to specialist knowledge on any topic. However, I can also see that this information overload can cause some challenges around parenting expectations, and lead to unnecessary comparison.

I am also noticing that there seem to be more structured and adult-led activities for young children these days. While there are certainly benefits to those, I strongly believe that nothing can exceed the advantages of unstructured, free play for children’s holistic development.