Schemas of Play

large_7461108728 (2)Have you ever known a child who was continuously filling up a basket and carrying it around the room? Or a child who loved to take objects and line them up in long lines? Or one who had a passion for throwing objects and would do throw all objects whether or not it was appropriate? Or one who only played with things with wheels? Those patterns of repeating behavior can be organized into “schemas” of play.

What is a schematic behavior?

Schema are building blocks for the brain. When a child is able to guide his own play, you’ll often see him exploring things in a predictable, repeated method, testing and experimenting with several objects in turn. This process helps him forge connections in the brain, helps him predict what might happen, and refine his understanding based on the results. Some children cycle through all of these schema every day.

But some children will focus intensely on one schema for a period of days or weeks (or months). Parents may worry that their child is obsessed, or that she will never let go of this one way of interacting with the world, but this is normal developmental behavior.

If a parent of caregiver can  recognize which schema a child is currently most focused on, they can tailor learning experiences to appeal to those interests while still providing a breadth of learning experiences. Sometimes children will pursue their schema in ways that are inappropriate (like throwing things in an enclosed space, or climbing on the furniture) so it is helpful to have other ways to direct that “trajectory” urge or the “positioning” desire.

Activities that Support, Extend, and Re-Direct Schema

Transporting. If you have a child who continually picks things up and carries them from place to place, here are some activities they may enjoy: Easter egg hunts or other gather-things-in-a-basket games; play in the bath with floating toys and a boat or basket to load them into; let them help with putting clothes into the washer and taking them out of the dryer; or helping to clear the table after a meal. Ask them to deliver items around the house (e.g. please put this cup next to the sink). Provide plenty of baskets, bags, boxes, and wagons to move things around in. It may help to put the majority of your small toys away while a child is in this phase so they have fewer total items to clutter the house with.

Transforming. If your child mixes all their food together, and mixes paints together, and likes to get things wet to see how they change, here are some positive ways to play with transformation: containers of colored water they can mix, fingerpaints they can smear together, a container with baking soda in it and eye-droppers with vinegar they can drip in and create “fizz”. Let them help you with cooking – mixing up muffins and seeing how they transform when cooked. It may help to find ways to minimize mess – for example, instead of giving them four containers of fresh paint, you could put four dabs of paint onto a “palette” or dish of some sort where they can mix to their heart’s content without “ruining” the full containers of paint.

Trajectory. If your child throws things, kicks balls, and drops things all the time, she is exploring trajectories – how things move through the air. She’ll probably love: paper airplanes, watching you play tennis or badminton (and fetching back errant balls), blowing feathers or scarves through the air, shooting baskets (tossing crumpled paper balls into the trash can), flying kites, chasing bubbles, bowling, splash painting (go outside with a bucket of water and a paintbrush – she dips the paintbrush in the water and swings it hard so the water splashes onto a wall or fence). If you know a friendly dog who likes to fetch, it may be a match made in heaven. (Although be aware of pet safety issues.)  It may help to put away many of your breakable valuables while your child is in this phase, and/or to provide him with only soft whiffle balls to throw.

Rotation. If your child loves cars, trains, and anything with wheels, and also loves to spin around, they enjoy rotation. He may like: unscrewing lids from empty water bottles, playing with a kaleidoscope, riding on a merry-go-round, spinning in an office chair, playing with water wheels, spinning things dry in a salad spinner, whisking scrambled eggs, playing with hula hoops, and drawing circles. These children may like playing with volume knobs or other knobs, so think about whether there’s anything you need to childproof. They also may like taking lids off containers, they may even figure out “child-proof” containers, so make sure medicines and chemicals are out of reach.

Enclosure and Enveloping. Does your child love to hide under blankets, bury toys in the sandbox, and put things in boxes? Those are enclosure skills. Build forts together, save large boxes for them to hide in and to pack things in, set up tunnels, set up a tent to sleep inside, play with a parachute, give her a shovel and take her to the beach or a sandbox to bury things, save small boxes to hide things in. Play lots of peek-a-book or hide and seek. These children often hide objects, so be careful not to leave essential items (like car keys!) in their reach.

Connecting. Some children love to build puzzles, assemble legos, and tape things together. Here are some ideas for things they can connect: tape together items from the recycle bin, make paper chains, punch holes in something and let them lace a ribbon through it, loop weaving looms, paper trains, construction toys of all sorts, dress-up clothes with buttons, zippers, snaps, and more. If you have a connector, be prepared to spend time untangling, untying, and prying apart! You may find it best to keep string, tape, and glue out of sight and out of mind.

Disconnecting. Other children go through a phase of destroying things: knocking down block towers, scattering Legos, tearing apart books. Give them a bin full of paper they’re allowed to tear apart, try to re-frame your way of playing with blocks – know that it’s all about building something that they will enjoy knocking down, teach them how to use the dustbuster to clean up their messes, put them inside a big box with some styrofoam sheets to break up (the box contains the mess). Now is a good time to put away toys with lots of small parts (e.g. train set or the collection of toy food) for a while, because all they’ll do is scatter them.

Position. Some children really like order: lining things up just so, and believing that everything has a proper place. They love “sets” of things that have a certain order they can be arranged in: alphabet blocks, number magnets, planets, and pictures of shapes with three sides, four sides, etc. They like peg boards, and stacking cups, and shape sorters. Putting things in order often calms them, but having someone mess up their order can be very upsetting, so help them learn to manage those upsets.

Orientation. Some children love to look at the world from a variety of perspectives: hanging upside down, turning their heads sideways, or climbing high to get a better look. Spend lots of time at the playground, or in gymnastics / tumbling classes. Give them binoculars and telescopes or even just cut a hole in a box for them to look through, give them an unbreakable hand mirror for exploring reflections. They will often climb on things not meant to be climbed on, but rather than just saying “no”, say “I can’t let you climb on that, but you can climb on this” or “there’s nothing safe for climbing here, but later today we’ll go to the playground and climb.”

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.

Sources for more information:

Schemas in Areas of Play  – suggests several types of activities a child might enjoy while working on a particular schema, also addresses problems a schema might create for parents and caregivers

What is a schema – includes descriptions of the schema, and then for each one offers activities to support that schema and key words to keep in mind while planning activities for kids working on that schema.

Schemas – How to understand and extend children’s behavior. Includes examples of types of activities a child prefers based on schema and how to help an activity (e.g. cooking) appeal to kids depending on whether their focus is on connection, rotation, etc.

Also, click on those three links in the first section of this post on “What is a schematic behavior” to learn more about brain development and play-based learning.

Resource for parent educators:

I have made up a set of printable postcards describing these schema that you could hang about a children’s play area for parents to read while their children play.

photo credit: Megan Hemphill (Prairie & Co) via photopin cc

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5 thoughts on “Schemas of Play

    • For children’s brains to develop, they need both novelty (new experiences) and repetition (the chance to explore something over and over till they’ve mastered it.) So, if they have a schema they’re doing over and over, trust that they’re learning through that repetition, and let them do it. But also try to round out their development by occasionally suggesting new activities, or new ways of playing. Some kids need their parents to help them focus on one task long enough to learn something, and others need their parents to “distract” them and encourage them to try new things.

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