What is Schema Play?

This article discusses what schema play is, the importance of schematic play in a child’s development, the types and examples of schemas, and how schemas work. Readers will learn how to support schema play in young children and the ways in which schematic play promotes and encourages a child’s cognitive abilities.

Introduction to Schema Play

Schema play is an important milestone in a child’s learning and cognitive development. Schemas are defined as repetitive actions or behaviours displayed by children as they explore their surroundings and try to make sense of the world around them. While not every child displays a schema interest, the majority of young children will at some point during their early childhood. There are numerous types of schemas, including transforming, connecting, enclosing, and transporting, among others.

Adults may not realize what schemas are until they gain a better understanding of the ways in which these behaviours or actions can help promote a child’s cognitive development. Schema play can be as simple as collecting rocks and leaves while out on a walk or pouring water using different containers. The purpose of this article is to inform parents and caregivers about the role of schema play in early childhood and the ways to support children’s play and exploration.   

Rotating schema – children may spin objects and watch how they rotate – or simply spin their bodies! I remember doing this as a child myself – makes me dizzy just thinking about it now..

What is Schema Play?

Schema play is when babies, toddlers, and young children engage in repeated actions or behaviours as they explore the world around them. There are many types of schemas; children may or may not display a particular schema fascination (and that, too, is completely normal). Parents and caregivers may not even realize that a child has a schema fascination; oftentimes, adults may think of schema play as frustrating or strange. In reality, schema play is important for a child’s cognitive development and learning. Examples of schema play include spinning objects around and around, carrying items in containers, and lining objects up.

Education Scotland has a great description of the different play schemas in their resource booklet here.

What is Schema Play in Early Childhood Education?

Schema play in the context of early childhood education focuses on age-appropriate activities that foster exploration, discovery, learning, and application. The value of early childhood experiences cannot be understated. Providing opportunities for young children to engage in hands-on and independent learning is a critical step in their cognitive development. There are a variety of activities that parents and caregivers can facilitate for young children, discussed in more detail below.

Schema play
Connecting schema – threading beads, connecting blocks or gluing activities

What is an Example of a Play Schema?

There are many examples of play schemas, many of which are simple, everyday activities that parents and caregivers already do with their children. After gaining a better understanding of play schemas, you’ll be able to analyze activities in terms of how they support your child’s schema(s). Some examples of play schemas include:

  • Water play with funnels and different containers
  • Gathering rocks, leaves and twigs while out on a walk
  • Playing hide and seek
  • Making forts
  • Playing with windmills or toys that spin
  • Making pasta necklaces (threading onto string)
  • Going to the park and using playground/climbing equipment  

Tinkergarten have further info on Behavioral Schema here: https://tinkergarten.com/skills/behavioral-schema

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Why is Schematic Play Important?

Schematic play is important for a child’s cognitive development. The opportunity to repeat and practice actions or behaviours (a.k.a schemas), helps brain development and learning. The knowledge gained through schematic play represents how a child learns and makes sense of their surroundings. Through hands-on exploration, children are able to investigate their environment and take risks by testing what they can do; children are constantly building upon their knowledge, which they can apply to different settings later on. (You can read my article on the importance of risky play in my article here).

Schema play
Trajectory schema – observing how the water travels once a splash is made, or also experimenting with the trajectory of the jump itself

Does Every Child have a Schema?

Every child is different; some may display one schema while others may show none at all. More likely than not, a child will show a schema interest; if you don’t observe your child engaging in schematic play, you can bring it up with your doctor or paediatrician if you’re concerned. Some children display multiple schemas at a given time. Schemas vary from child to child. Schemas can be identified and observed throughout a child’s early years. Schemas are normal for a child’s cognitive development and should be encouraged through a variety of activities and experiences.  

What are the Types of Schema?

There are 9 common types of schema in early childhood:

  • Trajectory: children are interested in how objects move (up or down, side to side); it’s common to see young children throw objects or food from their high chair, jump in puddles, or playing on swings. Children are fascinated with how they can move their body, as well.
  • Transporting: children enjoy moving things from one place to another, carrying multiple objects using their hands, pockets, or containers.
  • Positioning: children may line objects up or ‘group’ them based on observed characteristics.
  • Enveloping: children will enjoy covering or hiding objects, including themselves. Children may display an interest in filling up and emptying containers with different objects.
  • Rotating: children may display an interest in turning taps on and off or playing with hoops or tires. Children may also display a fascination with twirling or spinning their body, and things that spin or turn.
  • Enclosing: children are fascinated with forming enclosures around themselves or others; building a fence around a play area or playing inside a cardboard box, for example. Children display an interest in organising spaces and explore how to get in and out of enclosures.
  • Connecting: children will display an interest in joining or connecting items together, such as gluing and sticking paper pieces together, construction toys, or threading beads on a string.
  • Transforming: preschool-age children may enjoy changing states of materials; for example, engaging in ice-melting activities or ripping paper into smaller pieces
  • Orientation: children enjoy turning items (or themselves) upside down or around to get a different view or perspective.

You can read more about the types of schema here: https://www.pacey.org.uk/working-in-childcare/spotlight-on/schemas/

Schema play
When children hide things or hide themselves, they may be experimenting with enveloping schema

How do Schemas Work?

As schemas are repeated actions or behaviours, they essentially work through the process of exploration and repetition. When young children are given the opportunity to practice and repeat certain actions, this helps their brain to grow and develop. Children build connections and can apply information to new experiences. For example, as a child explores actions related to movements like up and down or side to side (trajectory schema), the knowledge they acquire through their exploration will eventually support them as they begin to draw and write. Schemas help children to develop formative cognitive connections that will aid in their learning later in life.

What is a Schema Education?

A schema education is a way of fostering, facilitating, and providing learning opportunities for young children to build and explore schemas. Schemas are a way for young children to make sense of the world around them through repeated actions or behaviours as they investigate their surroundings. A schema education provides children with the opportunity to develop and build schema interests.

In the context of teaching and education, allowing children to explore seemingly simple concepts (such as pouring water using different containers), lets them organize information and knowledge that will eventually lead to a larger schema of understanding. Children are constantly acquiring information that they will be able to apply to later learning and experiences.  

The following article discusses how we can help students to build schema: https://www.edweek.org/education/opinion-what-is-schema-how-do-we-help-students-build-it/2019/10

What is a Montessori Schema?

The basic premise behind the term ‘Montessori’ focuses on self-directed, hands-on, and collaborative learning. Under a Montessori-led program, independence and self-confidence are encouraged. With respect to Montessori schemas, allowing a child to explore their schema(s) in a self-directed (and uninterrupted) manner will help them gain knowledge, bridge learning pathways, and learn how to apply their knowledge to new situations and experiences. The emphasis on hands-on learning is important; allowing children to explore their environment in their way, not in the way you or other adults think they should explore, is an essential component of a child exploring and discovering their schema interests.

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Why is Schema Important to a Child’s Development?

Schemas are strongly connected to a child’s development and the overall strengthening of cognitive structures in the brain. Schemas are important to a child’s development to help cultivate the basic mental processes that people need to make sense of information. Children can explore their surroundings and test what they’ve already learned. As children play and explore an idea that they know well, they build upon their knowledge and can apply new information to different activities and experiences. A child’s cognitive structures are constantly strengthened through exploration, application, investigation, and thinking. Schema can also be vitally important in developing Fundamental Movement Skills as discussed in this article on CELA. You can also read about the importance of building FMS (Fundamental Movement Skills) in my article here.

Summary – Schema Play

This article defined schema play as repeated actions or behaviours displayed by young children as they explore and make sense of the world around them. There are numerous types of schemas that a child can display, including (but not limited to) enveloping, rotating, and positioning. There are countless ways that parents and caregivers can support and facilitate children’s schematic play, such as providing (safe) materials for children to string together (like pasta or large beads), allowing children to play in large, empty cardboard boxes, and letting young children jump in puddles, and engage in assessed, supervised risky play.

While schematic play may seem frustrating or odd to adults, it’s crucial to realize that schemas are a normal and important part of a child’s cognitive development. Children constantly acquire new information through schema play; they test what they can do and what they know to gain a deeper understanding, ultimately leading to the application of this knowledge to their future experiences.

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