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Schemas of Play in Young Children

Toddler play

Young children do many things which, on the surface, appear random. Some things they do, such as throwing their food, are most times regarded as naughtiness.

But it turns out that most of these actions are neither random nor intentionally naughty; rather, they are driven by natural developmental urges, follow certain patterns (schemas), and serve a purpose.

Toddlers are always trying to make sense of the world they find themselves in. They are constantly asking themselves questions. What does this object do? What would happen if I turn it this way? What if I throw it? The only way they can get satisfactory answers to these questions is by engaging in schemas of play.

Being familiar with some of these schemas will enable parents and educators differentiate between ‘necessary developmental urges’ and ‘random behaviour’; it can also help them design/create learning environments that support schema development and mastery in young children.  

schema play children

Types of Play Schemas

The following are the most common play schemas you need to be aware of as a parent; some of them will sound familiar if you have been observing your child play. Here we go:

Trajectory schema

The trajectory schema, sometimes regarded as the most problematic, involves actions – – such as throwing, dropping, swinging or kicking – toddlers take to study the motion of objects. 

If your toddler currently enjoys making and flying paper airplanes, swinging objects tied to a string, playing catch, throwing their toys, dropping their food, blowing bubbles, kicking or pushing objects around, etc., they are exploring their trajectory schema. In other words, they are interested in finding out how different objects move through the air, how long they take before hitting something, what happens to them on impact, and so on. 

Connecting (and disconnecting) schema

Young children want to understand how certain things can come together; they want to grasp the concept of linkages, stickiness, strength, and magnetism. So when your toddler builds towers, train tracks, etc., by joining Lego, wooden blocks or other materials together; when they stick things together using tape or glue; when they play with magnets; or when they want to join arms with you or their playmates, they are exploring the connection schema.

The connection schema usually also goes hand in hand with the disconnection schema, and that is why your toddler will have no qualms about taking apart that nice house they spent time building with Lego, or even knocking down what their peers built, just to see how it will fall apart.

Transportation schema

Have you observed your child using their walker, a basket, carton, bag, box, their hands, or even a wheelbarrow to move all sorts of things, such as their toys, stones, sticks, and sometimes even their playmate or pet, from one place to the other? That is simply what the transportation play schema involves.

Since young children usually derive much pleasure from completing a task and seeing their effort yield results, the transportation play schema can be quite a rewarding one for them. 

Positioning schema

The positioning schema has to do with arranging items in a specific order, such as a queue. When your child takes the time to position their toys or other items like books and cups in particular ways, they are exploring the positioning schema of play.

The good thing about the positioning schema is that it provides the foundation for several desirable skills/traits that can help your child in later years, such as the ability to maintain neat work in their school books, laying a table properly, tidiness, and attention to detail.

Enclosing schema

Does your son like to build a “fence” around his toys? Or maybe your daughter likes to draw a circle around objects in her picture book? When your toddler feels the need to group things within an enclosure, you know they are passing through the enclosing schema of play.

The enclosing schema helps your child understand how objects can be contained or grouped together within a distinct space, to the exclusion of other objects. When practiced on paper, it could also help toddlers in letter-formation or drawing forms like faces and bodies. 

Enveloping schema

While the enclosing schema is about creating boundaries around objects, the enveloping schema is about removing objects from sight.

While exploring the enveloping schema of play, your toddler may cover themselves with a blanket or layers of clothing, or climb into cupboards and boxes; you will also see them wrapping their toys or other objects in cloth, nylon or paper, or filling an empty box with items and covering it up. The purpose is to understand what it’s like to be concealed, or how an object would look or feel while (or after) being enveloped within another object.   

Rotation schema

At some point in their early years your child may develop a strong fascination for anything circular; anything that turns, spins, rolls, twists, or twirls. They will be drawn to the movement of things like windmills, vehicle wheels, and cloth spinning in the washing machine. They will also spend more time playing with their ball, riding their bike in circles, rolling tires around, pushing their toy cars, trolleys, or wheelbarrows, playing ring-a-rosey, or just drawing circles. 

When you start observing these patterns of play, your toddler is exploring the rotation schema. They may also practice rolling themselves down an incline, or twirling and twisting, all in a desire to physically experience the concept of rotation.  

The rotation schema offers your toddler an understanding of the infinity intrinsic to circles, and can even pave the way for the comprehension of subjects such as rotational symmetry in math and rotating magnetic fields in engineering. 

Transformation schema

The transformation of tangible substances – like water – to other states, as well as changes in weather condition, also interests young children at some point. A child exploring the transformation schema of play usually displays a strong fascination for boiling water, melting ice, rain, snow, burning wood, etc.

To get an idea of how certain things are transformed when combined together, or when wet or dry, they will also enjoy mixing substances like water and sand, drenching paper in water, and so on.

Orientation schema

Does your toddler like lying along the backrest of the sofa, or lying on it with their head on the seat and their legs on the backrest? How about swinging upside down from the monkey bars? Or trying to stand with their hands instead of their feet? If your answer is yes, then that is them exploring the orientation schema.  

The orientation play schema is an important one whereby your child learns what it’s like to see things from a different perspective; it can also help to build their confidence for certain physical activities.

In conclusion, it is worth noting that while most young children exhibit schematic play, not all do. Also, the rate at which children pass through different schemas can vary considerably: while some may pass through several different schemas within a few days, others may be stuck in one for a while. As a parent, you can support your child at the schematic play stage by creating activities and providing toys that can help them fully explore their schemas, and ensuring they do so safely.

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