Have you ever noticed your toddler loves putting things in prams and pushing them around? Or maybe they make fort-like structures and hide away, day after day. It could be that these little quirks we observe when our kids play aren’t just the baffling toddler behaviours we’ve come to scratch our heads at and love (of which, there are many, let’s face it!). It could be that your child is exhibiting their favourite schema. Often completely unheard of for many parents, we have a look at what schemas are, how you can embrace them and how they may even help with your child’s development.
What is a schema?
Play schemas are repetitive behaviours that children exhibit through play. These behaviours facilitate development and have been an important subject in the child development world for 100 years. Miriam Webster defines schemas as “mental codification of experience that includes a particular organized way of perceiving cognitively and responding to a complex situation or set of stimuli.” The unique way each child plays can tell us so much about them, how they are processing information and organising the world in their ever-growing minds.
A brief history of schemas in play
In 1923, Swiss psychologist Jean Piaget was one of the first to use the term ‘schemata’. His influential Theory of Cognitive Development still leads the way today. He theorized that children have three schemata: Symbolic Schemata, Operational Schemata, and Behavioural Schemata, and understood that children have a different thinking pattern than adults that must be respected and understood.
How many schemas are there and how can you support your child’s schema?
If your child loves putting Lego pieces together, playing with construction toys, magnets, or sticking things on to Velcro, they most likely have a connecting schema. Children with this schema also like pulling things apart, knocking things down and opening/closing cupboards and doors (frustrating for you, super beneficial for them) and even holding hands (cute!). With this schema they are learning about forces, shapes, joining and separation, spatial awareness, cause and effect and much more.
Connecting activity examples that are cheap and easy:
- Jigsaw puzzles
- Stacking stones/blocks (and knocking them down)
- Train tracks and connecting toy vehicles
- Containers with lids
- Tying objects together with string
- Using real tools (think twisting screws into a soft cork board with a screwdriver)
- Threading leaves
- Lego and Velcro
- Tying shoelaces
Have you ever turned your back on your toddler only to find they’ve crawled into the kitchen cupboard? Do they prefer sitting in the cardboard box way more than playing with the present that came in it? With this schema, a lot of play will involve enclosures and walls being built around toys, or food being lined up around the plate, almost like a picture frame. Skills like measuring and predicting are being developed here, as well as object permanence and pre-maths fine-tuning.
Enclosing activity examples that are cheap and easy
- Hide and seek
- Emptying the dishwasher/shopping and putting everything away
- Ball pits
- Colouring inside cardboard boxes
- Animal toys with fences, like farmyards scenes
- Making cardboard frames for their drawings
- Containers with lids
This is all about your bubba looking at things for different angles and perspectives. They’ll be interested in different viewpoints. So, you might have noticed they’re always turning their toys upside down, bending down and looking through their legs, hanging their head off the sofa, tilting their head back when they’re on the swings or climbing to see the world from high up. They’re learning body and spatial awareness, gross motor skills and more.
Orientation activity examples that are cheap and easy
- Walking along walls
- Climbing trees
- Spinning and rolling
- Magnifying glass for seeing items or bugs, for example, in different way
- Going higher up in a building and looking at the views
This is where your child lines things up and puts toys or items in groups. Children with this schema are all about order, shape, and symmetry. They love lining up toy cars or making a row of blocks and placing another row on top of them. Problem solving, classifying and science skills are all covered here.
Positioning activity examples that are cheap and easy
- Numbered stones to place in order
- Screws and nails
- Kitchen objects like cutlery or wooden spoons that they can organise
- Scavenger hunts – help them collect items in nature that they can organise at home into groups
- Threading pasta with string to make jewellery
If your little one loves wheels, spinning around, drawing circles, playing with keys and locks and has a fascination with pouring water and watching it go down the drain, then it looks like this schema is what makes them tick! They’re learning all about cause and effect, improving gross motor skills and seeing how things move.
Rotation activity examples that are cheap and easy
- Locks and keys
- Rolling playdough
- Mixing and stirring (this can simply be done in the bath too)
- Singing songs with movement like Ring Around the Rosey
- Hula hoops
- Play clocks
- Rolling pin play
- Popping them in front of the washing machine!
This one is all about throwing, dropping, and rolling. Objects or themselves! A great schema for your little one to learn about visual tracking, observing, and predicting and gross motor skills.
Trajectory activity examples that are cheap and easy
- Running water and giving them vessels to fill up
- Outdoor items like frisbees and kites
- Any sport that involves throwing balls
- Even chopping food!
If your child loves carrying things with them everywhere they go, either in their hands, a bag, or a dolly pram, they’ve got the transporting bug! With this one, they’re learning about object permanence, planning and spatial awareness (they also look cute holding a basket or handbag!)
Transporting activity examples that are cheap and easy
- A dolly pram they can push anything in, all day
- A basket or a handbag
- Transferring activities – like pouring water from one vessel to another, moving sand from different buckets etc
- Get them to help you with shopping by taking items from the shelf and putting it into your basket
- Similarly, do this at home when putting your food shop away
- Ask them to put items in the bin when you’re in a different room
- Plant and water seeds
Why are play schemas important?
Understanding the intricacies of how and why your child plays, not only makes it clearer for you that they’re not being naughty, they don’t have OCD and it is normal that your toddler wants to spin wheels over and over (and over!) again, it will empower you to encourage play that strengthens so many skill sets they’re unable to tell us they need to explore. By establishing and embracing your toddler’s schemas, you can really open the door to endless exploratory play and see their skills broaden and improve, as well as their confidence. If you get it right, you might also nab yourself a few minutes peace while they’re engrossed in their play (or simply hiding in a cupboard!)