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Supporting the Schemas in Play

The past few months I have been trying to understand the reasons behind certain behaviours my children exhibit. I came across the term “Schematic Play” and I thought it gives me a clearer understanding why my children do the things they do. Schemas are pattern of behaviours that help young children to make sense of the world and understand the social rules; the process of forming and organising knowledge.

As we all know play comes very naturally for babies and children, is their way to explore and understand how things work and how people react to their actions.

So why do we need to know about Schemas in Play (natural urges)?

I like to see these play schemas as “natural urges” which make them exhibit certain behaviours which they are compelled to do; which on the surface they might seem like just-playing.

“…a fancy word for the urges that children have to do things like climb, throw things and hide in small places.” – Clare Caro

The reason why I want to share about these schemas on my blog is because I wished I had known them sooner as a teacher and a mum. I only know these as common play behaviours. Sometimes, we are so into planning activities for them with goals in mind, we sometimes failed to understand some behaviours we said “no” to are actually natural urges. When we suppressed these natural behaviours, the children might direct the urges to something not appropriate as they grow up (I think of it like they are trying to satisfy their curiosity).


When we understand and recognise these natural urges in our children’s play, we can support and extend their play. We also learn to redirect “dangerous or inappropriate urges” to safer alternatives instead of stopping them completely (e.g. redirect M to throw bean bags into a box instead of throwing a big bouncy ball in the house)

Schemas of Play

  1. Connecting and Disconnecting
  2. Orientation
  3. Positioning
  4. Trajectory
  5. Rotation
  6. Transporting
  7. Transforming
  8. Enveloping
  9. Enclosing

1. Connecting and disconnecting

Using a popsicle stick to slice to disconnect the hook-and-loop blocks

Connecting bricks together, stacking the magnetic tiles on top of one another, stacking items up vertically or horizontally, a common scene at home? Probably before all these, they enjoy knocking down towers.

Exploring how to link the cardboard tubes together with the sticks

Putting things together and taking them apart help them to understand how the materials work. So before you keep insisting your child to construct something in the way you think he or she should, let them explore the toy first and build the way they want. Don’t be mad if the young ones keep destroying your structures.

Materials and play ideas: Wooden blocks, foam blocks, magnetic tiles (with a lot of supervision), connecting train tracks, Lego bricks, connecting toys, bowls and cups, plastic jars, ribbons, threading activities, tapes (older ones can connect the dots with paper and pencils).

2. Orientation

“Who is that below me?”

Often catch your baby looking between their legs? Your child going down the slide on the tummy instead? Well, I was very puzzled why my babies will do those fancy yoga poses while I breastfeed them. Probably they have nothing else to do so this natural play urge kicks in.

M likes to hang from a bar or rope and tilt his head back.

Seeing the world upside down can be very fun, it also teaches the child to take on different perspectives – the same object or scene can be seen in different ways. This will help greatly in the future when it comes to navigating around a new place (noticing prominent landmarks), reading maps, and even fitting in pieces of puzzles.

I love adding mirrors to extend on this schema, creating depth and new perspectives.

Materials and play ideas: Monkey bars, swings, higher platform furniture (I used chairs, Wobbel and foldable play mats). mirrors.

3. Positioning

J lining up his (huge collection of) cars. While it might appear like a “random” action to us, he is building on his positioning schema.

Does your child arrange toys in lines too? This is the positioning schema. I think I am still building on this schema now myself; I like arranging items in a line, putting them in order of height or colours.

“My child is just lining things up!” is a feedback I hear so often when parents are asked about how their children play with toys. Putting objects in rows or forming a circle is NOT just lining things up – think about the amazing wonders in their minds as they are positioning objects. Probably thinking “let’s lay the cars along and see where will it end!” , or “how many different lines can I make with all these cars?” Well, we will never know whats going on in the minds of these fantastic toddlers.

M laying the Playmags (magnetic tiles) in neat coloumns on the light pad.

When M is stacking or lining objects, he is also learning about the shapes, patterns, lines and sometimes even learning how to balance the objects or how to make sure the hand does not knock down the objects while he is lining them up.

Materials and play ideas: Variety of loose parts materials with a boundary to work on to create patterns, cars, twigs / sticks, provide variety of textile objects, vary in sizes and weight.

4. Trajectory

This is probably the schema that led me to research more about M’s behaviours.

When people tell me about “trajectory”, I usually think about ramps and getting an object move from one place to another. There is more to that. Throwing objects and jumping (moving own body) is also trajectory! It is all about movements and how we or the objects respond to the movement.

I said “NO” to him a few times without realising the behaviour he is exhibiting is part of the schema of trajectory. He throws things, jumped a lot and absolutely obsessed with ball runners and water walls / fountains.

Throwing a ball

I thought these were misbehaviours of a very active toddler who loves water play. Being a teacher, I know I had to redirect his energy to appropriate activities. However, I have ignored addressing his urge to throw, move and interact with moving objects.

He now learns that he can throw bean bags in the house and the big ball is only for outside play. He now creates his own throwing game at home and almost everyday he will bring his ball along to throw and let it roll down the slide (he loves doing that with a friend, sharing the ball is his tool to make new friends).

M and E exploring how the balls move on the Wobbel board

Do you experience the classic my-baby-likes-to-drop-things-down-from-the-highchair? Yes, that is the trajectory schema too. I like how these schemas are not formed based on physical experiences with the objects, but also how the babies will take note of our expressions and give that cheeky giggle when we picked up the items for them again and again.

Materials and play ideas: Ramps, slides, swings, balls, cars, ball / marble runner, water pipes, bean bags, containers (to throw or drop items into), cardboard tubes, paper aeroplane, chalk, tape or string as movement guidelines, roll on different surfaces and materials.

5. Rotation

Rolling the tyre from one place to another (rotation and trajectory schemas are observed in this scene)

My boy is that child who is obsessed with wheels and anything that goes round. His favourite song on repeat mode was “The Wheels on the Bus”. Because he likes things that goes round, I used to buy a LOT of car and driving toys for him. However rotation schema goes beyond playing with cars.

M exploring the lazy Susan at the Blue House atelier when he was a crawling infant

Spinning things around (e.g. top), rotating objects, and even scribbling round and round are part of the rotation schema.

Materials and play ideas: Spinning tops, spinner, windmill, twisting (large) bottle caps, doing activities on lazy susan, round bottles, drawing circles, hula-hoops, or sing songs that involves turning (eg. The Wheels on the Bus, Hokey-Pokey)

6. Transporting

N enjoys pushing her favourite toys in a wagon walker around the house.

Just a few days ago, I saw N trying to carry as many packets of wet wipes she can, then later trying to transfer three diapers from one cupboard to another. She cried in frustration when she failed to do it. I put her little bag next to her and she used it to put the diapers inside and she was a happy baby once again.

I strongly recommend having a wagon walker at home. Not only it helps toddling infants to learn to stand and walk independently at their own pace (note that those sitting baby-walkers are a big no-no for me), it supports their transporting schema. We bought ours from Ikea and she likes to put things on it and push around.

Using a pot to contain the blocks as she moves from one place to another

Placing items in containers to bring them another location is also transporting schema (sometimes overlapping with enclose).

Materials and play ideas: Wagon-walker / trolleys, baskets, containers of different sizes, bags, cardboard tubes, cars

7. Transforming

Observing changes in the baking soda experiment, learning about cause and effect.

I used to wonder why M likes to pour every basket of toys onto the floor and used his hands to swipe and mix them. I think his urge to mix things up is very strong. The daily dose of sensory and dough play is making mess at home more manageable.

I find transforming schema quite therapeutic for myself, hence i like to play with different types of dough.

Baby N mixing paint colours with her brush and fingers

The transforming schema has a strong link to learning about cause and effect.

Materials and play ideas: Cookery activities, painting with different colours, providing variety of loose parts and utensils, translucent colour materials and toys, dough play (try having more than one colour), ice and water play.

8. Enveloping

Hiding the buttons in the dough

My kids like to “bury” objects in their dough and I remember I always tell M not to push the objects too hard into the dough when we creating letters and Chinese words. He was actually having the urge to push them deep inside to see how far they can go. Even better, till they disappear from sight. N recently likes to wrap her biscuits in her hand into a tight fist and not let them go, I am suspecting it is the envelop schema at work.

N playing peek-a-boo with momma, covering herself with a play scarf

Envelop not only applies to objects, but also to one’s body. How about wrapping scarf and blanket around themselves? Hiding their faces with their hands? Playing peek-a-boo with you? Lots of giggles and fun when the play scarf is drape over the baby!

Colouring one colour over another is also building on the schema of enveloping. M is still doing this at 3 year-old.

Materials and play ideas: Play scarves, light shawl, light blanket / napkin, papers, pails, large hat, play Peek-a-Boo, wrap / unwrap objects with paper and scarf, tapes, crayons
Warning: Keep plastic bags and items that has the risk of suffocating away from young children!

9. Enclosing

Drawing in a carton box

Boxes can entertain my children for a pretty long period of time. Not only it provides imaginative play, the enclosed space serves an avenue for the children to build on their enclose schema. I remember when I was young, I am always drawn to tents and playhouses, going in and out, feeling the difference in the “spacial atmosphere”.

Inserting popsicle sticks into the slit of a container

Do you lose things in the house with a toddler around? That’s them trying to insert our items into holes and container with this play urge. It took me days of searching for baby Jesus from our nativity play set, only to find N chewing on it with a cardboard tube beside her almost a week later.

Enclose can also be a form of drawing where the child draws an “enclosure” around her drawings. M has been drawing borders on his paper and now I know why.

Materials and play ideas: Boxes, tent, DIY fort with blankets, containers with holes, tugging and pulling ribbons from box or colander, inserting pom poms into narrow-opening bottles, stencils.

Understanding, Supporting and Extending Schematic Play

When we learned and recognise these natural play urges, we are better at extending their play experience, curating materials and toys for them, and redirecting inappropriate play behaviours to a safe activity that still allows them to build on the schema.

If your child is currently “obsessed” with some schema, it can get tiring and frustrating to deal with, but remember that they are growing their brain, and organizing their ways of thinking about the world as they explore this schema again and again. – Jangle Durham

Probably often, you don’t see a schema isolated in an activity. Sometimes a play activity can fall into two types of play schemas or more.

When playing with cars and ramps, the child might learn about trajectory, transporting, rotation and transforming (push force).

As you can see from the examples, there are many opportunities for problem-solving, creative and imaginative thinking, critical-thinking, and development of social and emotional skills (e.g. perseverance). This is why play is an important part of the early years to discover about the world.

When you observe how your child plays the next round, see if you can match their behaviours and actions based on these schemas 🙂

#morethanjustplaying #schemasinplay

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