Teaching and learning

Play schemas in practice: 10 connecting play schema activity ideas

Part seven in a nine-part series on schematic play activities
A child experimenting with the connecting play schema
January 6, 2023
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This series of articles explores the 9 main play schemas, and offers activities to support and develop each one.

In this article, we’re looking at the connecting play schema. If you'd like to see the other articles, or read about play schemas more generally, you can do that here. Or, to go straight to the next one in the series, just click here.

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What is the ‘connecting' schema, and how does it work?

A connecting play schema often appears as an interest in connecting objects together, and often this is followed by disconnecting them too! You might notice children repeat something like tying items together and then untying them, sticking collage materials together and then pulling them apart, zipping and unzipping a coat, or building a tower and knocking it down again!

The connecting play schema often also incorporates opening and closing, so children might open and close doors or boxes and demonstrate great interest or curiosity about this.

Some of the common interests and behaviours of children engaging in the connection schema may include:

  • Building huge towers out of LEGO
  • Fiddling with clothes fastenings (zips, velcro, poppers, buttons)
  • Tying things together
  • Joining things like train tracks
  • Sticking different objects together
  • Playing with magnets

Sound familiar? Most early educators will be able to identify times that they've seen these kinds of behaviours and interests at work, but it’s also important to be curious about what children are learning through this play schema. Like all play schemas, development of the connecting play schema occurs naturally, so it’s not something that we need to or should focus on “teaching” children.

However, when Early Years practitioners understand the characteristics of different play schemas, we can identify when our children are using these and then provide opportunities for children to play in ways that extend their learning.

Here are 10 creative activities to engage children in the connecting play schema:

1. Constructing with magnetic tiles

Making Danish- Activities and Play ideas with Magnetic Tile

A child

The connection schema idea: Magnetic tiles are a fantastic resource for any early years classroom. They’re open-ended, so you can use them for a whole range of different activities and they allow children to play in their own way. Magnetic tiles are ideal for children with a connecting schema. Playing with these tiles allows children to experiment with shape, create patterns and how shapes fit together, which improves their spatial reasoning.

What you need

  • Magnetic tiles
  • Space to play
  • Imagination

How to do it: Magnetic tiles are a good resource for continuous provision as children can choose how they want to play with them. You can fit most sets of these tiles together so you can start with a small collection, and see how children play with them before investing in more sets. Children will often come up with more inventive and imaginative play ideas than we can but practitioners can support their play and learning by allowing them time and space to play, asking provocative, open-ended questions or providing additional resources to enhance play.

2. Open-ended building with LEGO

Famly- LEGO in EYFS Development

A pile of LEGO blocks is a classic toy for the connecting play schema

The connection schema idea: In early education, LEGO can be used as part of continuous provision or in countless activities to support learning across a range of different areas of development.

For children with a connecting schema, LEGO is the perfect resource as it will allow them to connect bricks in different ways for different purposes. It's also a fantastic way to keep working on those fine motor skills and building up the small muscles in the wrists, hands and fingers for writing later on.

What you need:

  • LEGO or Duplo, depending on your children’s development and age
  • Space to play
  • Space to keep ‘in progress’ construction

How you do it:  You can simply provide LEGO, or DUPLO, depending on the age and stage of your children, as part of your continuous provision and scaffold learning through the use of careful questioning. Another good idea when using LEGO is to provide a safe space that children can keep models that they’re still working on. Allowing children to come back to their models helps to extend learning and also demonstrates respect for them and their work.

3. Creating a giant ‘spider web’

Teachers Mag- Spider Web Gross and Fine Motor Skills

Children using thread to create a spider web represents the connecting play schema

The connection schema idea: As children, making a ‘spider web’ was a favourite activity of my siblings and I. We would find a reel of cotton from the sewing kit, and painstakingly thread it all around the house! But this is actually a fantastic play opportunity for children with a connecting play schema, allowing them to experiment with how different things can be connected using a material like string. It can support fine motor skills, as children thread and begin to experiment with tying knots or wrapping string around items.

What you need

  • String, thread, rope, wool, or paper streamers
  • Space to play, this activity could be done indoors or outdoors
  • Scissors for quick clear up!

How to do it: Depending on the direction you want to take this activity, or your children’s interests, the string could represent a spider's web, laser beams or a trap! Provide children with a big ball of wool, string or thread or some ropes or paper streamers and allow them to twist and thread it all around the room or outdoor space. Children can then try to climb over and under the threads, honing their gross motor skills, getting them physically active and developing their spatial awareness along the way.

4. Exploring magnets with a tinker tray

Teach Early Years- Exploring with Magnets

Magnets are a great way to get into the connecting play schema

The connection schema idea: Tinker trays are a brilliant open-ended resource for engaging children in play that supports all kinds of development — in particular, fine motor skills and creativity. Adding magnets will appease the need of children with a connecting play schema to connect items one to another but will also give them a hands-on experience of force and magnetism.

What you need:

  • Magnets
  • Magnetic metal loose parts
  • Containers for children to move their items around in

How you do it: Provide a selection of loose parts, in a tinker tray or on a larger scale in a tuff tray and some magnets. Allow children to experiment with the magnets, connecting items together using magnetic force. They may construct using metal items and magnets, or line items up and then pick them up with the magnets or perhaps see if they can magnetise other items enough to begin a chain..

5. Using woodwork tools (safely)

PACEY: Woodwork in the Early Years

Woodworking can allow children to engage in the connecting play schema

The connection schema idea: There are a whole host of benefits to woodwork in early childhood, as expert Pete Moorhouse will tell you, specifically in his blog for Famly here! But for children with a connecting play schema, woodwork is ideal. It allows them to experiment with the process of connecting things together through hammering, screwing or gluing whilst also honing fine motor skills and developing their confidence in designing and making.

What you need

  • Wood — soft wood like balsa is best
  • Hammers and nails
  • Hand drills
  • Screws, screwdrivers
  • Workbench or safe space to work

How you do it: Simple tools, pieces of wood and things children can attach to the wood will engage children with a connecting play schema in some deep learning. You can talk to the children about using tools and equipment safely, demonstrate how to hammer nails in and then allow them to design and make their own wooden sculptures. Children can be creative and make faces or pictures, or simply have a go at the physical process of connecting different materials.

6. Colour sorting activity using velcro strips

Best Toys 4 Toddlers- Velcro fine motor colour sort and patterning activity

This bucket of velcro strips holds the potential for connecting schema play

The connection schema idea: Any kind of activity using velcro is going to appeal to children with a connecting schema as velcro can be connected and then disconnected over and over again with a really satisfying sensory input. This particular activity also incorporates ideas of sorting and patterning, which are foundational early maths skills.

What you need:

  • Coloured velcro
  • Coloured fabric shapes (baby hair ties are ideal!)

How you do it: Give children access to strips of coloured velcro (the rough side) and fabrics in the same colours. Hair ties designed for babies and toddlers are ideal as they are made from a soft, fuzzy material that will stick easily, come in lots of different colours and can be purchased in bulk very cheaply.

For younger children this can be used as a colour matching activity, helping to build their concepts of similarities, differences and categories. For older children, you can begin to introduce simple patterns by asking what comes next in a pattern you have created, or encouraging them to develop their own.

7. Getting creative with junk modeling materials

Nursery World- All about junk modeling

Loose parts model building is a good example of connecting play schema

The connection schema idea: Junk modeling is simply finding new uses for ‘junk’ like bottle lids, cardboard tubes, cereal boxes and yogurt pots to make models. This is a way to use more sustainable resources to lower costs and the environmental impact of your setting. Adding tape, glue, or string will allow children to connect different elements in order to create their model experimenting with the way that different items interact with one another, or hold together.

What you need:

  • Clean ‘junk’ materials e.g. cardboard boxes, cardboard tubes, plastic pots, bottle lids
  • Fastening equipment suited to the age and stage of children, e.g. masking tape, sellotape, glue sticks, PVA glue, glue guns, staplers, split pins.

How you do it: Junk modeling is best as part of continuous provision, so children are allowed to access these resources as and when they freely choose to do so. When this is the case children are more likely to construct with a purpose in mind.

For example, they may be engaged in role play and decide they want to make a bed for their baby doll, or they may be busy playing with cars and want to make them a garage. Being able to access junk modeling materials means that they can get started on this project right away, whilst the spark of creativity is still fresh!

8. Connecting different objects with latch boards

Family Handyman- Build a Toddler Busy Board

Latch boards allow this baby to explore the connecting play schema

The connection schema idea: Children with a connecting play schema typically like to experiment with different ways of connecting, so latch boards are a fantastic resource for them. Latch boards can be purchased from a range of different retailers, including all the usual early years providers, but they can also be made which means that they are customisable and may be less expensive. These resources sometimes get called “Montessori boards” or “Montessori busy boards” as they are linked with the pedagogical approach of Maria Montessori.

What you need

  • Premade latch board OR;
  • Large wooden board
  • Door handles, knockers, latches, locks, light switches etc.
  • Screws and drill/screwdriver or strong adhesive

How you do it: If you’re making your own latch board, consider the kinds of activities that the children in your care will engage with readily and find appropriately challenging. If you secure the items using screws, then it’s relatively simple to change out the activities to keep this resource fresh and to be responsive to children’s growing abilities. You may find that you already have some resources to hand, or can pick them up from families who work as tradespeople. If you communicate what you’re looking to create and why you may even have a handy parent who offers to make this for you. This can really help you with balancing your budget, and it also helps to engage parents in their children’s learning and invest more personally in your setting.

9. Outdoor weaving on a large-scale loom

Creative Star Learning- Outdoor Weaving Inspiration

A plastic bag woven through a fence engages the connecting play schema

The connection schema idea: Young children have a natural fascination for anything big and enjoy the chance to operate on a large scale, so providing a large loom outdoors is a great way to tap into this and support children with a connecting play schema who can experiment with ways of joining and the concept of creating something new through joining.

What you need:

  • Weaving frame, purchased or made
  • Ribbons, fabrics
  • Natural resources

How you do it: In your outdoor area, provide or create a large scale loom. You can create one fairly easily by screwing together pieces of wood or branches in a square, or rectangular, shape and tying strings in between the top and bottom pieces (Some good instructions here).This gives children a basis for creating with a range of different resources. You might choose to provide ribbons or fabrics, which could be selected based on their texture or their colour, or you may choose to go down a more natural route and have children use resources that they find in the outdoor area like leaves, grass or twigs

10. Joining things through story: social story-telling and drama

Helicopter Stories

Social story telling can activate the connecting play schema

The connection schema idea:  Helicopter stories are a learning opportunity in the early years in which practitioners allow children to make up, dictate and act out their own stories.

Working with children in this way can help to build their confidence with telling stories, which lays down important foundations for literacy. Helicopter stories are also good for boosting creativity and imagination as well as encouraging social development by letting children work together to create a story.

What you need:

  • Paper
  • Pen
  • Children’s imaginations!

How you do it:  All you need as a practitioner is a sheet of paper and then you can let a child dictate their story, the practitioner should write down the child’s story exactly how they tell it, word for word. You can then create a stage area for children to perform their story.

The child who created the story chooses which part they’d like to play, you can then invite other children to play characters and objects. The practitioner reads the story out loud, one line at a time, and the children act out the story. The practitioner should narrate only and let the children take control and perform it any way they like.

The big ideas

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Official Danish Government Reopening Advice

Guidance from the Danish Health Ministry, translated in full to English.

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UK Nursery Covid-19 Response Group Recommendations

The full recommendations from a working group of over 70 nursery chains in the UK.

Please note: here at Famly we love sharing creative activities for you to try with the children at your setting, but you know them best. Take the time to consider adaptions you might need to make so these activities are accessible and developmentally appropriate for the children you work with. Just as you ordinarily would, conduct risk assessments for your children and your setting before undertaking new activities, and ensure you and your staff are following your own health and safety guidelines.

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Find out below how Famly ensures the Kindred team keeps the communication going with parents so they can feel included in their children's life at nursery.