Teaching and learning

Putting play schemas into practice: 10 enclosing schema play ideas

Part five in a nine-part series on schematic play activities
A child engages in the enclosing play schema
October 18, 2022
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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 enclosing 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 ‘enclosing’ play schema?

Children with an enclosing schema are interested in borders and containing. They are often also interested in categorizing and organizing different resources. You may see children with an enclosing play schema:

  • Putting items into containers
  • Constructing fences or walls around items
  • Making borders
  • Enclosing their own bodies by hiding or wrapping themselves up
  • Filling buckets with sand or water (and emptying them too!)
  • Drawing circles or drawing around items

The enclosing schema is similar to the enveloping schema, but is distinctive in that an object doesn’t have to be completely hidden from sight in this schema! A child using an enveloping play schema may wrap a doll up completely in a silk scarf, whereas a child using an enclosing play schema may build a fence or wall around the peg doll.

The difference here has to do with which concepts children are exploring through their play. In an enveloping schema, children are experimenting with object permanence, i.e. does an object cease to exist when it is out of sight. But in an enclosing play schema, children learn about placing objects into categories, separating objects from one another and how to form enclosures.

Children using an enclosing play schema are learning about the properties of objects, developing and refining their spatial awareness, making sense of their experience by ordering and experimenting with how things work in relation to one another.

Like all schematic play, these patterns of repetition occur naturally. We don't need to force them — only support children in their own explorations. But if Early years practitioners understand the characteristics of different play schemas, they can provide opportunities for children to play in ways that extend their learning.

So, here are 10 ways to engage children in enclosing schema play:

1. Experimenting with tubes and pipes

Nursery World: Little Adventurers Nursery in Upminster, Essex- Exploring Tubes

The schematic play idea: There are lots of ways that children can use tubes in an early years setting, tubes can be balanced on a box or a shelf, or held in the water and sand tray. Block sets can also be used to support play with tubes and pipes.

Rolling items down these tubes and pipes allows children with an enclosing schema to work within their interest, watching how items fit within other items.

What you need:

  • Lengths of pipe, these can be plastic drain pipe, cable pipe or flexible plumbing materials.
  • A selection of items to fit into the pipes; balls, toy vehicles, natural resources like conkers.
  • Water, sand, messy play

How to do it: It’s great to involve children in the whole process of setting up the pipes and tubes as there’s a lot of learning opportunities along the way. Children can help you to select pipes based on how long they are, how wide their openings are or how bendy they are, and adults should take advantage of teachable moments post down the pipes, observing the way that different items fit.

2. Get involved in the muddy kitchen

Pebbles Childcare: Mud Kitchens

The schematic play idea: Muddy kitchens are the perfect resource for children with an enclosing play schema, and are also the ideal open-ended resource for outdoor play. You don’t need a purpose-built ‘muddy kitchen’ for this kind of play, just some space and ideally some surfaces for children to use.

Children with an enclosing play schema can choose to fill the containers, mix different items and substances within the containers and experiment with different amounts, categories and choose to play in their own way.

What you need:

  • Muddy kitchen- or just a space to play
  • Lots of loose parts and natural resources
  • Pots, pans, jugs, and other containers
  • Mud!

How you do it: Source and provide a range of different objects for children to use in their muddy kitchen. Think different sized pots, pans, jugs, baking trays, checking that they are safe for children to use, and allow the children to access these as part of your outdoor provision.

Some children will enjoy role-playing cooking, whilst others may enjoy experimenting with mixing different substances. Children who are using an enclosing play schema may also stack containers in containers, or demonstrate a fascination with seeing how much mud they can fit into each!

3. Organising things through loose parts play

TTS- Transient Art

The schematic play idea: Loose parts play is valuable in its own right, and it can also be a lovely art project when it is recorded. Using picture frames as a prompt is great and this also really engages children who are interested in an enclosing play schema, because they are able to experiment with loose parts within a confined space.

 What you need:

  • Empty picture frames
  • Selection of natural loose parts
  • Camera to record creations

How you do it: With a strong focus on natural loose parts, this would make an ideal forest school or beach school activity but you could just as easily use loose parts items found in your usual classroom, like sequins, counters, cut up cardboard tubes and so on.

Encourage children to record their art as they go along, using cameras, and ask them open-ended questions about their creations so that they can explain their own ideas. Many children will naturally begin to experiment with size, shape, patterns, colour, tessellations and symmetry through this activity.

4. Fine motor skill play with tweezers and pom poms

The Imagination Tree- Colour sorting pom pom drop game

The schematic play idea: This activity builds on the idea of using tubes and incorporates ideas about colours, sorting and categories whilst building fine motor skills. Fine motor skills are those we use for small scale movements, usually with the fingers, hands and wrists and they are the skills that we must build up, as well as developing muscle tone in these little muscles, before we are able to control a pencil and write.

What you need:

  • Large plastic tub
  • Cardboard tubes (painted different colours, or labeled for older children)
  • Masking tape
  • Coloured pom poms or small items
  • Plastic tweezers or tongs (optional)
  • Bowls/ containers (optional)

How you do it: Take a large plastic tub and secure some cardboard tubes to the side with masking tape. It’s best if the tubes have a little space underneath so that anything posted in them can come back out, or bowls and containers can be placed underneath for items to fall into.

Children can use a pincer grip to pick the items up, or you could provide tools like tweezers or tongs to help build their fine motor skills. For children with an enclosing schema, the enclosure of the tube, the enclosure of containers and the ‘enclosing’ items into different categories will feel very satisfying and extend their learning.

5. Playing with patterns through masking tape borders

Creative STAR Learning- Masking Tape Shapes

The schematic play idea:

Playing cooperatively can be managed through the use of enclosing, and this masking tape painting activity is a good example of that, where areas can be allocated and divided up with the use of physical boundaries. An art project like this is a fantastic provocation for children interested in an enclosing schema because it allows them to explore both physical and social boundaries.

What you need:

  • Masking tape
  • A sheet or large sheet of paper
  • Paint
  • Paintbrushes

How you do it: Lay out a sheet or roll of paper, then use masking tape to create different enclosed shapes and areas, tape the whole thing down to the floor or a table so it’s easier to work with. You can then provide paint and paintbrushes and allow children to use these to create art, when the masking tape is removed the borders will remain giving nice straight edges to enclosed areas of colour.

For children engaged in an enclosing play schema, having everything in neat sections between borders and the sensation of being able to remove any ‘mistakes’ by peeling off the masking tape to reveal nice clean lines will extend their learning about categories and separation.

6. Hama bead craft time

The Imagination Tree- Hama Beads 

The schematic play idea: Hama beads are an excellent resource for children interested in the enclosing schema, as they can be used with set templates and designs or children can use them in an open ended way to create their own designs. Using beads to make patterns, and then fill them in will really appeal to a child who likes to ‘enclose’ and will allow them to experiment with categorising and patterning too.

What you need:

  • Hama beads
  • Variety of different hama bead boards
  • Greaseproof paper
  • Iron

How you do it: You can buy hama beads in a range of different colours, and even in different sizes. The ‘maxi’ size are larger, chunkier beads which are slightly easier for younger children, but you will be surprised how quickly some little ones are able to handle regular sized hama beads. Children can then place the beads on a board which holds them loosely in place, creating patterns or images of their choice.

Once the pattern is complete an adult needs to cover the beads with greaseproof paper and then iron over it, pressing firmly. This causes the beads to melt slightly and bind together.

7. Hold a sidewalk chalk art exhibition

Teaching 2 and 3 year olds- Sidewalk chalk activities

The schematic play idea: Mark-making on a macro scale is a brilliant way for children to develop their gross motor skills and using sidewalk chalk has the added benefit of taking place outdoors which can help children to think and play more imaginatively (Check out Linda McGurk’s article on outdoor sociodramatic play to see this in action).

What you need:

  • Sidewalk chalk
  • Outdoor space with suitable surface for drawing on

How you do it: Provide children with a selection of sidewalk chalk and a large outdoor play space. Children can then be encouraged to have a go at drawing different shapes or pictures, they can also be given the time and space to explore and experiment. Children with an enclosing schema will enjoy the whole body experience of placing the chalk to the floor, and moving around in order to draw, especially if this involves creating an enclosure around an item, or their own body.

8. Enclosing water play with dams and locks

PBS Kids- Build a dam and explore water flow

The schematic play idea: Children with an enclosing play schema like to enclose things, and that includes experimenting with enclosing, or containing different substances. Water play is a versatile activity, used frequently by early years practitioners for a range of different developmental benefits and it’s relatively cheap too! Adding the element of making a dam can transform water play into an experiment with enclosing and containing.

What you need

  • Water
  • Cardboard box, aluminium foil and tape OR: plastic guttering OR: an area to dig
  • Crates, boxes or blocks to raise the box or guttering if used
  • Natural resources like rocks and twigs

How you do it: Create a model river by using a long cardboard box, with the inside covered with tin foil, or plastic guttering. If you want to play outside, any soil or sand can be used to make your river by digging a pathway. This could also be used as a beach school activity if you live near the coast. Make sure one side of the “river” is higher than the other so that water will be able to flow.Then you can pour some water into the model river. Children can drop leaves or flower petals into the river to observe the flow of water.

9. Create enclosures with bricklaying play

Learn with play at home- Bricklaying for kids: Invitation to play

The schematic play idea: For a child who likes to play within an enclosing play schema, enclosing and containing items and areas, what’s better than the opportunity to create barriers with which to do this? Building a wall by bricklaying can be done in a number of different ways to suit the skills and resources of your setting, staff and children, but it provides a hands-on construction opportunity and way for children to divide, separate and enclose space. 

What you need:

  • Wooden blocks and playdough
  • Sand and blocks
  • Sand, cement, bricks, protective gloves
  • Trowels

How you do it: There are several different ways that you can approach this activity depending on the resources, space and skills that you have available in your setting. A simple, low-cost way to achieve this is through using wooden blocks and playdough. Children can use playdough to stick bricks together using the correct pattern, and smoothing out any overspilling playdough the way a bricklayer would with cement.

On a larger scale, you could use a tuff tray and sand with larger, outdoor wooden blocks or foam construction bricks depending on what you have available.

10. Meditative creative activities with colouring sheets

Moments a day- How to teach kids about mindful colouring

The schematic play idea: Sometimes we consider colouring sheets to be a big no-no in the EYFS, but this isn’t necessarily the case. Check out our blog here to see why colouring sheets aren’t necessarily a bad thing and might even be a useful resource and developmentally helpful for children in the early years.

For children operating within an enclosing play schema, colouring is an ideal activity. Choose colouring sheets based on their interest, or your current topic, or more intricate designs to promote concentration and mindfulness.

What you need:

  • Colouring sheets
  • Colouring pencils or markers

How you do it:  This can simply be provided as part of your continuous provision, providing a range of colouring sheets and pens and pencils to allow children to explore mark-making. However, it can also be used to bring some focus to children’s wellbeing by making it a mindfulness practice.

Mindful colouring is simply colouring, with a focus on bringing our awareness to the present moment. It is a bit like meditation, and creates a space where we can let go of any worries or thoughts about tomorrow, yesterday, or later. Paying attention to the present moment, through mindfulness, helps humans to feel more relaxed and improve our overall sense of wellbeing.

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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“Every time I ask somebody, ‘How is the system going?’, the thing that always come back to me is that staff say ‘You should have done this a long time ago.'" - Neil Leitch, CEO, Early Years Alliance

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Find out below from Neil Leitch about the impact of Famly at the Early Years Alliance, and see what we can do for you in a personal demo.