As parents of toddlers you will be fairly familiar with all the bashing, banging, pushing and pulling. It really can drive one a bit mad, especially when everyone is cooped up at home in the middle of a pandemic. But do you know that this type of play is called schematic play and very important for your child’s development. What does this thing do? What happens if I drop it? Will it break if I hit it? What if I hit it again? Your child wants the answers to all these questions and will persevere until she has them. She is trying to make sense of the world, one action at a time.
Schematic play is when children repeatedly practise different ideas or concepts to make sense of themselves in the world around them.
There are different schools of thought as to how many schemas there are but most commonly we talk about 8:
- Connecting: joining train tracks, building towers with Lego or wooden blocks, sticking things together with tape
- Orientation: swing upside down from the monkey bars, lie along the top of the sofa or sit in the trolley facing the wrong way at the supermarket
- Transporting: carrying in bags, prams, trucks or simply carrying things from one place to another.
- Trajectory: watching bubbles, dropping food, watching things swing
- Positioning: lining up toys, creating scenes
- Enveloping: wrapping toys in paper or sticky tape; wrapping themselves in fabric; dressing up.
- Enclosing: putting things into boxes; enclosing animals in zoo cages; drawing boxes around pictures; hiding in dens.
- Rotation: spinning on the spot; objects that rotate, such as windmills and wheels; drawing circles.
Initially, these activities may seem to be random, but once you have spotted the fact that they all have a common element , it is much easier to understand the thinking behind the actions you observe.
Schematic play can be seen in activities from drawings to physical activities, to 3D models to choice of favourite toy. For parents and teachers this type of play is very valuable to understand and know about, because it indicates children’s deep-level learning.
When children are exploring their schemas they are usually absorbed, with a high level of involvement. This can be used to introduce new ideas, consolidate learning and encourage critical thinking.
How to identify a schema:
Schematic play is play that children are compelled to do. Look out for the activities that really capture their imaginations, where they are fully involved and absorbed. Then really observe it, and try to work out what exactly is it that they find so fascinating.
For example, a boy is mixing paint – is it the swirling round in circles that he likes (rotational), or is he enclosing the whole picture with a box right around the outside of the paper (enclosure)? It could be that he loves painting over the whole picture (enveloping).
1. Finding evidence
Once you think you have identified schematic play, the next thing to do is to start looking for more evidence of it in other areas of play. Schematic play is most likely to permeate all areas of the children’s play, so there may be evidence in a variety of different activities.
For example, in the sand tray drawings, 3D modelling, and the interests that the children talk about.
2. Extend their learning
Schematic play usually indicates deep-level learning, because the children have high levels of involvement and are usually strongly motivated to explore their preoccupation. Therefore, providing toys and activities that help children to fully explore their schemas can be highly beneficial.
For example, providing prams, bags, backpacks and diggers, etc. for children who like to ‘transport’ and fabrics, or masking tape and wrapping paper for children who like to ‘envelope’.
Introducing new materials for the children to explore, within their schema, can extend this learning. An example of this might be having small, heavy objects and large, light objects for children to transport.
3. Something for everyone
Some toys and activities can inspire a group of children with different schemas. Interlocking train tracks, for example, are good for children with a connection schema (joining things together), a rotation schema (watching the train wheels go around) and a transporting schema (putting things in the train carriages and pushing them around the track).
When you consider the toys and activities that you present from a schematic play perspective, it is much easier to demonstrate how you are supporting children’s individual needs.
4. Resolving problems
Occasionally some schematic play may be more problematic. If a child is exploring a trajectory schema, this will involve a fascination for items in motion, specifically from one place to another.
This is great when the objects are moving down a ramp, or a football is being kicked outside – but if your child is throwing toys across the room to investigate their trajectory, this may be dangerous.
If that’s the case, you could try to meet the needs of this child by providing safer alternatives, such as using chiffon scarves or going outside and providing a bucket for beanbags to be thrown into.
5. Unique children
Not all children will exhibit schematic play. Sometimes children will pass through different schemas in a few days, whilst others may be stuck in a schema for a long time. If you have concerns about your child becoming overly obsessed with an activity or idea, you can start to introduce alternative play patterns.
For example, a rotational schema could be moved on from simple spinning to include up and down motion, using a yo-yo or cars going down a ramp.
Let’s take a look at each schema, how to identify it and what toys you can provide to add to your child’s deep learning process.
Does your baby like to repeatedly drop their food from the highchair, or throw things out of their pram? Or does your toddler enjoy watching things swing from side to side (like a pendulum on a clock), blowing bubbles, playing catch or making paper airplanes? Then they are exploring their trajectory schema; studying the movement of an object, or their own body, through the air.
For the adult serving dinner, a baby’s joy in hurling their food on the floor is sometimes hard to share, but comfort can be found in the knowledge that your child is involved in important scientific exploration. Will it smash, will it splat? How long will it take to reach the ground? These early attempts at understanding and manipulating trajectory develop into the more familiar skills of throwing, catching and kicking, and eventually to driving, tennis and sending rockets to the moon.
- throwing at a target
- chasing games like tag
- pushing a toy off the table and seeing where it lands
- roll cars down a ramp
- wooden railway
Joining train tracks, building towers with Lego or wooden blocks, sticking things together with tape - these are all signs of the connecting schema. Perhaps your child likes to join arms with you or other people, to be physically connected somehow.
Connecting also includes disconnecting, which is why a child might build a tower of blocks, only to knock it down afterwards - or knock down someone else’s.
In exploring the idea of connection your child is beginning to understand how certain things come together and others fall apart, ideas of strength and magnetic force, stickiness, and slipperiness’ are all understood through connecting.
Understanding that this is a normal urge and allowing it to happen in a safe environment will give your child many happy hours of play.
- holding hands
- paper chains
- collage and junk-modelling
- threading beads
- lego, duplo, octons, connecta straws
- sellotape, glue, stapler (under supervision!), blu-tack
- wooden railway
Is your child often very busy carrying goods from one place to another? Is the walker always full of bricks or the basket full of teddies? If this sounds familiar then your child is exploring their transportation schema. In transportation, children like to move items from A to B - simple as that. Transporting is very rewarding for the young child since they gain a lot of pleasure from completing a task and seeing something happen as a result of their hard work.
You can support the transportation urge by having plenty of useful transport tools around: pushchairs, walkers, baskets and bags are all great. Transporters can be very helpful people, so if you are unpacking the shopping and need someone to put all the apples in the fruit bowl or take the toilet rolls upstairs, here’s your labour. Gardening and water play are also great opportunities to explore transporting - wheelbarrows and buckets will always be played with. To add an element of fine motor development to the transporting urge, focus on moving smaller items which require picking up with fingers such as leaves, acorns or pebbles.
Closely related to the enveloping schema, but with its own distinct character, the enclosing schema is about creating boundaries.
Does your daughter like to create enclosures for her toys? A farm fence made from blocks or string? Perhaps your son enjoys drawing circles, looping the line around smaller marks already on the page. At first glance, the enclosing schema seems very similar to enveloping Both involve closing around something, but that's where the similarity ends. Whereas enveloping wraps an object, often removing it from sight, enclosing simply contains it. It's the difference between a doll bundled up in blankets and a horse in a paddock.
Enclosers likes to draw faces, placing the eyes and mouth inside, hair and ears outside. An enveloper's drawings, on the other hand, focus on making things disappear. They might draw a pretty scene only to obliterate it completely with paint, covering the entire page with a single colour. Nothing of the original remains.
When children enclose, they are learning that objects - or ideas - can be contained in a discrete space. And that anything outside this is a separate entity.
Eventually, enclosing leads to letter-formation. The balled fist that first holds a crayon, making endless spirals on the page eventually becomes the dextrous hand drawing circles for 'o' and 'p' and 'd'. It's also central to drawing faces and bodies. Leave a gap and there's a space for the colouring-in to leak out.
Like all schema play, development of the enclosing schema happens naturally. But if you know to look out for it, you can provide opportunities to practice and improve.
Does your child like to arrange her toys just-so? Does he spend hours lining his cars up in a row or find pleasure in creating scenes or displays? Then your child is exploring their positioning schema. Positioning provides early foundations for many key skills and activities, from laying the table and placing shoes in a cupboard, to creating patterns in maths and maintaining neat work in school books.
To support a blossoming positioning schema try collecting shells and pebbles on the beach, or sticks in the garden, and see if you can create a symmetrical pattern with them. You could gather friends or family and arrange yourselves as an imaginary bus, and play games like rounders that involve positioning. For fine motor development, balancing games like Jenga are great, as is creating patterns with threading beads and simple stacking and construction with blocks or Lego.
Does your child love to make dens, climb into boxes or dress up in layers of clothing such as multiple necklaces or lots of hats? Or do they enjoy filling empty boxes with bits and pieces, wrapping dolls up in blankets or creating homes for their toys? If so, then they may be exploring their enveloping schema.
In this schema your child is trying to work out what happens if they wrap or hide an object. Can I still see it? Can I feel it? What if I wrap it in translucent fabric? Or paper? Or put it in a cupboard? Is it still there when I open or unwrap?
A child investigating the idea of enveloping may repeatedly drop your keys behind the couch or open the bin and look inside.
If you think your child is an enveloper, here are some activities to support their investigations:
- Use posting toys, Russian dolls, nesting toys and shape sorters
- Wrap up baby dolls in blankets
- Play doctors or vets with plenty of bandages
- Make sock or glove puppets
- Wrap up parcels (Christmas is great for envelopers!) and use paper, newspaper, string, sellotape, ribbons
When children twirl around, roll down a hill or just wind their hair around a pencil, they’re exploring their rotation schema. Anything circular - wheels, twirly straws, being swung around by a grown-up, watching the washing machine, ring-a-roses: these are all experiences of rotation.
This exploration and understanding of the infinity inherent in circles lays the foundations for everything from rotational symmetry in mathematics and rotating magnetic fields in secondary school science, to dancing at the disco or passing parcels at the party. It all started at six months when you dropped a ball and watched it roll away.
Some good rotation-supporting activities include:
- Connect nuts and bolts
- Wheels on cars, trains and bicycles
- Twirl streamers
- Use screwdrivers and spanners (under supervision!)
- Make pinwheels
- Turn keys in locks and padlocks
- Draw spirals in sand or with finger paint
- Mix and whisk cake ingredients
If your child likes to swing upside down from the monkey bars, lie along the top of the couch or sit in the trolley facing the wrong way at the supermarket, then they are exploring their orientation schema. In orientation, your child is discovering how to see things from a different point of view. This important schema builds confidence in many physical activities and games, when it becomes useful to anticipate how another player might move.
To support orientation schema play, try walking along walls, rolling down hills, climbing up steps and any kind of movement that requires them to find different heights or positions. Gymnastics, games like Twister, soft play, or a simple trip to the park, are also great for exploring different points of views. And of course, there is always climbing trees.
- hang upside down from monkey bars
- lie flat on the floor when playing with toy vehicles
- see the world from atop an adult's shoulders
Why do schemas matter?
Once a child has understood a schema’s physical manifestation, they are able to consider more abstract applications. For example, the concept of emailing a photo to Granny becomes easier to understand once we have had the chance to practise moving objects from one place to another, whether that’s rolling a toy car across the floor or taking a doll out of her box and putting her into the doll’s house.
Children also learn by using their own bodies in schema play. The simple act of walking from one point to another helps them understand the idea of trajectory, of moving from A to B. Their schema play is visible. It follows then that your child's interest in a given schema diminishes over time. What seemed like an obsession is quickly forgotten once the concept has been mastered.
It's incredibly satisfying to identify the schema your child is interested in. You are then able to offer toys and activities that help them get the most from their investigations.