Turn a dial and after one full rotation you are back where you started.
Throw a ball and it arcs through the air in the direction you launched it.
Put your ball into a box so that it won’t roll away.
How did you know the outcome of all these actions? How could you be sure that your prediction would be right?
The answer? Schemas.
One of the foundational tools that our youngsters use to decipher the enigma of the world is schema play.
Think of a schema, or play schema, as a blueprint. As grown-ups, we constantly rely on these unseen cognitive structures, even without realizing their existence. Whether it's sewing a badge onto your lapel or filling a bucket, you're deploying a schema — an internal model shaped through repetitive experiments that allows us to execute tasks efficiently and effectively.
Our schemas can be wrong; they are a reflection of our current understanding.
I have a schema that balls roll until I decide to make some bread. The ball of dough sticks to the table, a phenomenon my schema doesn’t explain.
I experiment and realise that the dough’s stickiness prevents it from rolling.
So I update my schema: smooth balls roll; sticky ones don’t.
This works fine until I try rolling a smooth ball in a bath full of water…
How many schemas are there?
We will focus on the eight main action schemas but there are others. One interesting group centres on mark-making. The basic elements of letter formation, such as intersections, zig-zags, circles and parallel lines are all founded on schemas.
The importance of schemas
Children’s first experience of schema play is physical.
The idea of texting a photo to Grandpa is easier to understand once you have had the chance to move objects from one place to another.
This is one of the reasons too much screen time is bad - children need real-world experiences before they can understand digital activities.
At what age does schema play happen?
All children use schemas but it’s most evident in the play of toddlers, whose ceaseless acts of hitting, shoving, dropping, and pulling are all manifestations of their curiosity. "What will happen if I drop this? Will it shatter if I hit it?" Toddlers relentlessly seek answers to these questions, trying to decode the world one action at a time.
You and I use schemas too. When you assemble an IKEA bookcase without reading the instructions, you rely on a schema. You have done this kind of thing before and have a rough idea of what to do. As a child, you played with Lego blocks and experimented with tape and glue: you understand how things connect.
Even though we don’t forget our schemas, they become less interesting to us over time. Once we have mastered a concept, we direct our fascination elsewhere.
Schema play can seem obsessive, but it doesn’t last.
An Overview of Key Schemas
Identifying your child's primary schema can be a gratifying experience. You can then provide toys and activities that cater to their interests and aid their investigative pursuits. Here are some commonly recognized schemas in toddlers:
If you are interested in the trajectory schema, you are trying to understand how things move from A to B. You drop food from your high chair, kick footballs, zoom down slides and roll trains along your wooden railway track.
This schema is all about joining. Stacking wooden blocks is ‘connecting’ even though the join is not secure. The important thing is that they have been put together. Tape, glue, playdough and magnetic blocks are also fascinating to children with this interest.
A toddler takes their toys, one at a time, and deposits them in a pile on the other side of the room. Later, he puts a collection of objects into his walker and pushes them from room to room. He is transporting.
This classic schema is typical of so much early years play. Baskets, pockets, bags and trolleys - anything to hand can be used to transport.
Does your child watch the washing machine go round? Do they spin and roll? Are they obsessed with wheels? If so, rotation may be their dominant schema.
Also known as the containing schema, the interest here lies in enclosing things within a defined area. Build a fence for your toy farm, enclose your castle within high walls or everyone join hands to make a circle and sing Ring a Ring of Roses.
Children exploring the positioning schema enjoy arranging objects in a particular order or place. Activities may involve lining up cars, setting the table, or arranging toys in a specific way.
If you have ever watched your child’s expression when mixing paint you will know how captivating transformations can be. Changing one thing into another can be temporary (like reshaping playdough) or permanent (like baking a cake).
If you are interested in enveloping, you wrap things up and make them disappear. Do they still exist when they disappear from view?
Dolls are wrapped in blankets, keys are posted behind radiators. Children even envelop themselves, rolling up inside duvets or climbing into cupboards.
Enveloping even explains the mystery of the child who paints a lovely picture and then paints over it completely, obliterating the original.
The best toys for schema play
- Trajectory Schema: Toys that involve movement and the direction of objects.
- Connecting Schema: Toys that involve joining things together.
Transporting Schema: Toys that can carry or move things from place to place.
- Toy Baskets and Trolleys: Take your favourite toys wherever you go.
- Pull-along toys: Bring things along for the ride.
- Train Sets: Transport goods and people around Toy Town.
- Rotation Schema: Toys that spin or turn.
- Enclosing/Containing Schema: Make an enclosure to keep things in - and out!
Transforming Schema: Toys that can be changed in form or state.
- Play Kitchen: Allows for pretend cooking transformations.
- Blocks: Transform your construction by adding and removing pieces.
- Playdough: Tools for learning and transformation of knowledge.
Enveloping Schema: Toys that can be wrapped or covered.
- Dolls Houses: Dolls can be enveloped within the rooms of the house or in the clothes you use to dress them.
- Toy Baskets and Trolleys: Put your shopping in - and take it out again!
- Arks: Posting animals into an ark shape sorter is a classic enveloping activity.
Recognizing and fostering your child's dominant schema is a brilliant way to encourage hours of focused exploration and fun.
Take five minutes to watch your child play.
What do you notice? And what could you offer to extend the learning?
Have a go. It’s one of the most rewarding things you can do.