Emma Poppenborg – 15 min read
In this guide we cover everything you need to know to create your own treasure basket – from starting your collection of objects to finding the right basket to house everything in – as well as providing lots of tips and tricks to make sure you get the most out of it.
- What is the best age for treasure basket play?
- Who created the treasure basket?
- What are the benefits of using a treasure basket?
- Where to begin your collection
- How many items to include in a treasure basket
- Things to consider when collecting items
- What to put in a treasure basket – a list of items
- Top tips for making a treasure basket
- What type of basket to use
- How to set up a treasure basket session
- The role of the adult
- How often to use a treasure basket
- Tips for keeping your baby engaged with their treasure basket
What is a treasure basket?
What is a treasure basket?
In its physical form, a treasure basket is a low-sided basket filled with a variety of natural and everyday household items. The items should offer a wide range of different textures, weights, colours, shapes, smells and sizes that are designed to be explored by a seated baby.
The aim is that the items should offer a wide sensory experience and for this reason they are also sometimes referred to as sensory baskets (you may also have heard the term treasure box or sensory box).
What is the best age for treasure basket play?
Treasure baskets are primarily designed for babies who are sitting independently and grasping objects (typically around 6-10 months) up until approximately 18 months of age.
However, they also hold huge appeal to toddlers, preschoolers and older children as there are a myriad of different ways treasure baskets can be used as children develop.
Treasure baskets are so captivating for seated babies because, at this stage of their development, they are fascinated with the physical qualities of objects. And it is for this reason that a baby will happily spend up to an hour completely absorbed in exploring a treasure basket.
Who created the treasure basket?
Treasure baskets were first created in the 1940s by childcare pioneer Elinor Goldschmied. She also later developed heuristic play and introduced the key person approach – concepts which are used in many childcare settings throughout the world today.
In 2018, Elinor Goldschmied’s original treasure basket was discovered and has since been offered to the Froebel Trust by Goldschmied’s family on a long-term loan. You can read more about it and see photographs of the basket itself here.
What are the benefits of using a treasure basket?
For something seemingly very simple, (essentially a basket filled with different items) a well curated treasure basket provides many benefits for babies.
These benefits include promoting curiosity, developing concentration, providing opportunities for decision making and laying down the foundations for independent play.
Babies are naturally curious about the world around them and the more experiences they are offered providing them with choice, the more that curiosity is fed. Exploring a treasure basket allows a baby the chance to make a whole host of decisions – giving them the choice of which items to select, whether or not to pick up a certain item, and if they do, how long to explore and examine it for.
Treasure basket play also sets the stage for conceptual learning and language development. By handling a wide range of items, babies begin to learn a range of abstract concepts (such as smoothness, heaviness, roughness as well as recognising differences and similarities between objects) long before they have the language to express them.
“What do the concepts cold and smooth, prickly and rough actually mean unless we have caressed a pebble, picked up a pine cone or fingered the bark of a gnarled tree?”
Elinor Goldschmied, quoted in Developing Play for the Under 3s, Anita M. Hughes
And through interacting with a wide range of shapes, weights and textures, babies get lots of practise at manipulating different items, all whilst working on developing their fine motor skills and coordination.
For older children, the open-ended nature of a treasure basket also offers countless opportunities for experimentation, creativity and imagination.
Another huge benefit for parents and carers is the moment of calm during a busy day at home that a treasure basket session provides. It gives the rare chance for a sit down, to enjoy a hot drink or even just to rest your arms after carrying a small person around all day. And all while watching the absolute magic of a baby exploring their treasure basket.
How to make a treasure basket
If you are someone who enjoys finding and collecting treasures, then you are likely going to love the process of making a treasure basket.
If, however, it sounds rather daunting, this section has lots of tips, tricks and ideas on how to make a treasure basket for babies. And remember, you don’t need to find everything at once – a treasure basket can be constantly added to and edited over time (in fact, doing this will make it even more appealing to your baby).
Where to begin your collection
Start by looking at what you already have at home (you might be surprised by how many treasures you find).
If you’re worried about finding enough items, then enlist the help of others. Make a list of objects that you would like to include (you can use the suggested list below as a starting point) and share it with any family or friends that are obliging.
The hardware store is a great place to find many interesting household and everyday items.
At Grasp + Gather, we stock a constantly evolving range of natural items for treasure baskets (all of which are CE Marked for ages 6m+).
Keep an eye out for treasures on walks and during time spent in nature (including beach trips).
How many items to include in a treasure basket
Treasure baskets can contain anything up to 100 items, but we would recommend starting with 20 and building your collection from there. A well curated treasure basket with 30-40 items with a wide sensory appeal will offer hours of entertainment for a baby.
Things to consider when collecting items
A treasure basket should be as stimulating as possible in order to keep babies engaged and offer the greatest learning potential. Here are a few things to bear in mind when making your collection:
Try to include items that offer a wide variety of physical qualities. Look through your treasures and see if the objects offer some the following characteristics (it may be that some items cover more than one):
Try including objects that introduce different concepts your baby can experience. Many of the physical attributes listed above will already provide this (e.g. smooth and rough, heavy and lightweight) but try including the following ideas too (all of which form the basis for mathematical understanding):
- BIG AND SMALL – does your treasure basket offer objects of differing sizes? Do you have any of the same object but in a different size e.g. a large wooden spoon and a small wooden spoon?
- HEAVY AND LIGHT – do your items offer a range of weights for your baby to experience? Think about including a heavy but small item or large but lightweight one (e.g. a small metal scoop vs a natural sea sponge).
- SAME BUT DIFFERENT – how about including the same object made out of a different material e.g. a metal scoop and a wooden scoop, or a wooden spoon and a metal spoon.
Don’t forget to offer items that appeal to all the senses – touch, sight, hearing, smell and taste. Are there any items that you can include that will particularly appeal to smell and taste, that babies will experience as they mouth the objects? (See full list of suggested items below). Or are there any items that will make different sounds when shaken or banged together?
It is important to understand that every day, household and natural items are not designed as toys and require adult supervision at all times. Babies should never be left without supervision when interacting with a treasure basket if it includes any items that are not certified toys.
Here are a few other safety aspects to bear in mind when making your treasure basket collection:
- Ensure that you are aware of choking hazards – any items that contain small parts and/or small balls.
- Avoid any objects that could include toxins and chemicals e.g. wood should be untreated (not varnished or painted) and for metal items, look for those made from stainless steel.
- Regularly check the contents of your basket to make sure that there are no parts that might have developed sharp edges, broken off into smaller pieces or become damaged in any way.
What to put in a treasure basket – a list of items
Here is a list of what to put in a treasure basket that you can use as a starting point or for inspiration. You can also include more than one of the same types of object in different sizes and materials (this is a great way to add variety, similarities and differences as well as quickly bump up the number of items).
Household / Everyday Objects
- Wooden spoon
- Wooden scoop
- Egg cup
- Curtain ring
- Dolly peg
- Napkin ring
- Small wooden bowl or dish
- Various small brushes (pastry brush, nail brush etc. all new/clean)
- Metal spoon
- Small metal whisk
- Set of measuring cups
- Set of measuring spoons
- Tea strainer
- Mini sieve
- Metal scoop
- Napkin ring
- Small metal bowl or dish
- Coconut bowl
- Bamboo straw
- Pine cone
- Loofah (natural, unbleached)
- Sponge (natural, unbleached)
- Large clam/scallop type shell
- Wooden blocks / shapes
- Sheepskin swatch (baby safe)
Top tips for making a treasure basket
Once you begin collecting items you will find that you quickly develop an eye for finding interesting objects to add. Here are a few extra tips to consider when adding treasures to your basket:
Items with further play potential
Purchasing lots of items for your treasure basket will quickly add up, so if you are buying anything new look out for objects that will have play longevity. (Three years later and many of the items from our first treasure basket are still used in our play activities every day). Here are some examples:
- SMALL UTENSILS (scoops, whisks, bowls, etc.) can later become part of a play kitchen or mud kitchen.
- NATURAL TREASURES can form the start of your loose parts collection or nature display once your little one is older.
- WOODEN BLOCKS and shapes can be added to your building and construction sets as well as included in loose parts play.
Extra special items
Whilst building your collection look for a couple of extra special items – objects that have special sensory appeal. These are often the objects that babies are drawn to again and again and seem to make a beeline for in their treasure basket.
A metal scoop is a good example as it can provide an interesting shape to hold, will likely be quite weighty compared to some of the other items and the metal has the quality of being cold to touch but warms in the hand. It also makes a great sound when banged together with another object and has a particular scent quite different to the wooden items in a treasure basket.
The shiny surface will also make for some interesting reflections and an extra bonus is that it will make for a great utensil once they are older (to use in a play kitchen, practising scooping, grocery shop role play, and even filling up the bird feeders).
Get older children involved
If you have older siblings, get them involved in helping you find items. They might come up with some ideas that you hadn’t thought of. It is also a great opportunity to discuss with them what items are safe for a younger sibling and what require adult supervision.
Items to avoid
Other than the obvious items to avoid due to safety reasons, there are two other types of objects we would tend to avoid including in a treasure basket:
- STRUCTURED TOYS – in general, avoid including any predefined toys (e.g. dolls, figures or vehicles) as this can limit the open-ended quality of the treasure basket.
- PLASTIC ITEMS – Elinor Goldschmied was against any plastic in a treasure basket and is something we tend to agree with. Let alone the environmental impact of producing plastic toys and the fact that they are often not recyclable, they also offer little sensory appeal to babies other than bright colours.
Now the collection of items is well underway let’s look to the basket that will hold them all…
What type of basket to use
In addition to putting together your collection of items, it is also important to find the right basket to house everything.
Here’s what to look for when selecting a basket:
Treasure baskets are traditionally circular in shape (as specified by Elinor Goldschmied). However, oval, square and rectangular baskets also work well. You may just find that with a square or rectangular basket you need to position it differently, so the corners are not in the way of your baby’s legs.
Ideally, you want something that is deep enough to allow for some of the items to be buried or partly buried. This adds to the sense of discovery and allows little ones to rummage through the contents. In terms of specific size, a diameter of 25-30cm and a depth of 8-12cm is usually a good guide to go by (although this depends on the final number of items and their sizes, as to what works best).
Flat bottomed and flat sided baskets are best in that they are less likely to tip up and spill the contents (which can be very frustrating for a baby deep in concentration).
In terms of sturdiness, natural willow or rattan works well (as long as there are no sharp edges). Another option is to use a knitted or crocheted basket as these tend to be flexible enough so if a little one was to lean on them then they wouldn’t tip up.
If finding a basket is proving difficult (this can be the hardest part in creating a treasure basket) then use what you have. Don’t let not having the right basket put you off creating one altogether.
Once you’ve got your collection of items and a basket to keep them in, next is how you actually go about using a treasure basket.
How to use a treasure basket
Although there are no rules when it comes to how a baby interacts with their treasure basket (as long as they are exploring safely) there are guidelines for the supervising adult, both in terms of the set up and what to do during the session.
How to set up a treasure basket session
Once you’ve got your initial collection of items (that you can be continually adding to over time) as well as a basket to house them all in, it’s time to set up your first session.
Choose a time of day when your baby is alert and comfortable (well fed and not tired) as this will ensure they are able to truly concentrate and get the most from their session.
Also, if possible, set aside at least 15 minutes (ideally up to an hour) where your baby will be free to explore the treasure basket without being interrupted or having their session cut short.
It is best if the treasure basket is in an area free from other distractions, so, have the TV turned off and, ideally, try ensure older siblings are not taking your baby’s attention (or trying to ‘borrow’ items from the treasure basket).
Place the treasure basket on a neutral surface (playmat, sheepskin, rug, etc.) that is comfortable for your baby to sit on. A plain or lightly patterned background is best as not only will this frame the items, it will not distract from them (if it is too bright or busy it can be difficult to distinguish items once they come out of the basket).
If your baby is still mastering sitting independently, place some pillows or cushions around them, just in case they have any topples.
And if the weather permits consider taking your basket outside – all the sounds, smells and surroundings around will add to the sensory experience.
The role of the adult
The role of the adult is an important one, both in terms of the setup of the session as well as how you interact with your baby while they are exploring.
Firstly, place the treasure basket next to your seated baby so it is easily within reach. Then, sit close by (so they know you are there) and enjoy watching them discover the contents (bonus points if you have yourself a hot drink at the ready).
It is important to allow your baby to explore the basket independently without intervening, unless you feel that they need attention or if something they are doing is not safe. Try not to make any suggestions or praise your baby as this will break their focus and concentration. This will also help your baby learn to develop trust in their own abilities.
It’s quite normal to find this difficult at first but remember this is their chance to have complete freedom over what items they look at and explore. Try your best not to jump in and show them objects or talk to them while they are exploring, if they need you, they will let you know.
How often to use a treasure basket with your baby
It is best not to leave a treasure basket out all the time, as this could lead to disinterest in the objects.
Instead, aim to allow your baby to explore the contents once or twice a day at most. Ideally each treasure basket session should last at least 15 minutes, but it is good to set aside up to an hour for each session if possible.
Tips for keeping your baby engaged with their treasure basket
If you find that your baby is having shorter sessions with their treasure basket or do not seem to be as engaged with the items as they were previously, then here are a few tips to refresh their interest:
Limit the frequency
Limit your treasure basket sessions to a maximum of two per day (a session lasting from 15mins up to an hour) and keep the basket out of reach when not in use.
Add new items
Continually add to your basket over the weeks and months of use. Start with at least 20 objects and go from there (keep on the lookout for new items and don’t feel like you need a complete collection before you use it for the first time).
For a quick refresh here are a couple of items you can temporarily add that will especially boost the smell (and taste) sensory input:
- A fresh whole orange or lemon (be sure to remove before they go bad).
- Fragrant dried herbs and spices in muslin bags (e.g. vanilla pods, dried lavender, cinnamon sticks, star anise, cardamom pods, fresh mint, fresh thyme, whole cloves and chamomile flowers). Make sure the muslin bags are tied tightly to ensure that small items can’t fall out that could be a choking hazard (and as with all non-toy items, these must be supervised at all times). With any food items it is also important to check there are no allergies present before including in the basket.
Don’t be afraid to mix things up. Take things out and add them back in again after a few days so they can be rediscovered.
Bury favourite items
Using a treasure basket has many benefits and it sets the foundation for many life skills – from decision making and independent play, to developing language and critical thinking.
Here is a quick summary of things to remember while creating and using your treasure basket:
- Aim to start with a collection of approx. 20 items and continually add to your basket over time.
- Don’t let not having the ‘perfect’ basket stop you from using one altogether
- A treasure basket that contains any every day, household or natural items must be supervised by an adult at all times.
- There are no rules as to how a baby should explore a treasure basket, so let them go at their own pace.
- Try your hardest not to interrupt or make suggestions whilst your baby is using their treasure basket (unless you feel something they are doing is unsafe).
- Have a maximum of two treasure basket sessions per day (and keep the basket out of reach at other times).
Most of all, enjoy it. From finding the treasures to sitting back and watching your baby discover the different items that can teach them so much about the world around them.
We hope you found this guide useful. Please let us know if you have any questions in the comments box below. We’d also love to hear if you have any of your own tips to share.