Schemas are patterns of repeated behavior that allow children to develop an understanding of the world around them through play and exploration. Schemas are mental models or processes that we create by trial and error through experiences.
Kids are the perfect example of how we build schemas to understand the world around us. They are constantly testing out new concepts. You can easily notice these patterns of behavior in older infants and toddlers. Examples of schema play include banging, pulling, pushing, and spinning.
What Are Play Schemas?
Think of schemas as instructions for how to do things. By going through these “instructions” over and over, children develop physically and cognitively. With these skills, they are better able to engage in the world around them.
It's important to note that children can play within multiple schemas simultaneously. Play patterns are constantly changing and growing with your child.
One of the absolute most incredible things about play schemas is that it doesn't matter where a child grows up, what language they speak, the color of their skin, or their family's economic status; all kids exhibit these same play schemas. It's something that naturally connects children all over the world.
Why do schemas matter?
Schemas help children make sense of the world around them. They allow us to predict what will happen next based on experience. This is why it can be so hard for young children to grasp cause-and-effect relationships: they lack experience! We don't know how things work until we've experienced them ourselves. And when we're babies, our experiences are limited to those which take place within the context of our mother's body. As a child grows, they are constantly experiencing new things and figuring out how everything fits into their world.
At what age does schema play happen?
Schema play happens at different ages depending on the skill level required by the schema. For example, babies begin throwing food from their highchair to begin understanding the concept of “trajectory.” If I throw this, what happens? How far will it go? Will it make a noise when it hits the ground? How will my parent react? They need practice until they understand what it means to “throw” something.
As children grow, their ability to play within a schema grows too. You might see bigger kids rolling down a hill or examining a washing machine to understand the concept of rotation. You may notice that they are asking tons of questions about wheels and trying to observe what happens when something is moving forward–this all ties back to the rotation schema.
Encouraging schema play
When you watch your little one closely, you will start to see these patterns of play all over the place. It's quite fun to try to figure out. And not only is it fun to watch, but it's an easy way to get a sense of what types of toys and activities your little one might like best at this stage.
When observing your child see if you can note what schema they are focused on figuring out.
Here is a brief overview of the main schemas you may see.
Common Schemas for Play
Connecting and disconnecting schema
Children in this schema can be seen doing activities such as building train tracks, working with puzzles, joining things, lining toys up, or taking lids on and off. With this type of play, your child is trying to figure out how things fit together.
Ways to support this schema: Train tracks, roadway building, construction materials, and building materials that “fit together” like LEGO® or blocks. Even things such as tape, string, and velcro can be used to support kids within this schema.
Playing in this schema involves things like swinging upside down, sitting in a chair the “wrong” way, and turning toys around to see things from different angles; this is how children figure out how the world looks from different points of view.
Ways to support this schema: Mirrors, magnifying glasses, binoculars, and climbing structures that allow them to climb or hang upside down.
Kids who enjoy moving things from one place to another either use their hands or some sort of toy that can be filled, moved, and usually dumped. Children gain a sense of independence and responsibility when transporting items so you may find them eager to help you do chores that involve bringing something from point A to point B–like unloading groceries or moving clean laundry into the dryer.
Ways to support this schema: Stroller or grocery cart, small boxes that little hands can easily pick up, a little backpack or pretend purse.
Loose parts are also great in this schema because they are perfect for being loaded, moved, and unloaded over and over. A few pots filled with water or sensory bins that allow kids to move things from one pot or bin to another are also good ideas for encouraging play within this schema.
This is a common schema that is focused on how things move. Children in this schema study how objects (or their bodies) move through the air.
So if you are wondering why do babies throw things on the floor? Or why are little ones constantly throwing food from their highchair?
They are learning about trajectory!
Other activities that are a part of this schema are playing with running water, running, playing tag, throwing a ball, and sliding down a slide (or watching how different objects slide down a slide).
Ways to support this schema: Plenty of outdoor time and free space to run, throw things, pour water, send items down slides, or drop things from high places.
Children working in this schema enjoy making patterns, putting objects in lines, and ordering things in sequences. They will often spend a good amount of time trying to make things right.
Ways to support this schema: Loose parts that can be used to make patterns like the Grapat mandala pieces, small cars, or dolls.
This schema is all about wrapping things up. You may see them wrapping themselves in a blanket, wanting to put items in boxes, or swaddling their baby doll.
Ways to support this schema: Give them plenty of blankets, pillows, silks, boxes, and anything else that allows them to cover and uncover themselves or their toys. Things like nesting bowls are also good for this schema.
This is similar to enveloping but more about creating a boundary. So, for example, children working in this schema will create forts or make a fence for their farm animals. This schema is about containment.
Ways to support this schema: Give children items to build forts (we love the Nugget®), large boxes, and blocks that can be used to create a fence or boundary in some way.
This schema involves anything that goes in a circular motion and can rotate. Things like wheels, washing machines, merry-go-rounds, and spinning around in circles are part of the rotation schema.
Ways to support this schema: Provide your child with plenty of opportunities to play with streamers, spinning tops, and toys with wheels. Household items like screwdrivers and nuts and bolts are also good for encouraging this schema.
Child Development and Play Schemas
Children are naturally curious learners who can learn best through exploring materials and concepts at their own pace. Early childhood education all starts with understanding child development. The best thing parents can do for their little ones at home is to practice observing or following their child's lead.
What's nice about this idea of following the child is that it takes the pressure OFF!
It can start with newborns. From the time they are infants, let your children develop at their own pace, try not to force them into sitting or standing positions before they are ready. Observe what things make them feel safe and content–and provide more of those experiences. You will likely see that it doesn't take special toys or experiences for infants to feel safe and secure.
When they are toddlers, focus on encouraging their natural curiosity and providing them with a variety of opportunities to connect with people, places, and things around them. Don't overthink it. You can involve them in your day-to-day life–a trip to the grocery store is just as beneficial as a trip to the playground. Talk about what you see, ask them questions, and engage them in decision-making.
As preschoolers, they will likely develop stronger interests.
Again, follow their lead and provide them with many creative activities. Don't force them into learning concepts to “prepare them for school.” The best thing you can do to prepare them for school is read to them and let them play. Did you know that the monkey bars are a great motor skills activity that helps kids learn to write? Doing things that strengthen the hand muscles, like monkey bars, makes it easier when it comes time for them to learn to write.
As your kiddos grow into elementary-age children, allow them ample free time to pursue their passions–try not to sign them up for activities because it will “look good” or because it's something you always wanted for yourself. It's hard to step back sometimes, but remember that you are not responsible for molding your child into something; you are there to help guide them to become who they were born to be.
Create the Playroom Your Child Needs
Are you interested in learning how to create a playroom that will invite your child to learn and thrive?
Maybe you feel guilty about asking or expecting your kids to play alone but you WISH for time and space to get things done.
Perhaps your home has toys in EVERY CORNER but somehow none of them hold your child's attention.
You wish you KNEW MORE about how to promote learning and development for your child.
I have created a course to show you how to create a dedicated space that will give your child everything they need to play independently.
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