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You might have already heard of schematic play, and maybe you’ve seen it in action. But what does it really mean – and how does it help children develop skills?
That’s exactly where Lynnette Brock comes in. As an expert in schematic play and co-director of SchemaPlay, it’s about looking at what children enjoy and are able to do, and giving them as many chances as they can to explore that in different ways.
“It’s a bit like spinning a plate in the air. When the plate is in the air spinning, children are in flow and are able to engage in their own learning. Sometimes the plate begins to wobble slightly, and that’s when you, as a practitioner, can give it a little nudge to start it spinning again. But no more than that.”
But what does the right kind of nudge look like? Let’s take a look at some examples of schematic play in action, and break down what you can do to help support it in your own setting.
Heads up! You might have heard these ideas being called ‘schemas’ before, but Lynnette prefers the term ‘schemes’, so that’s what we’ve gone with for the rest of the article.
Simply put, schematic behaviour is the way a child explores a certain idea while they play. This is often seen as repetitive behaviour that may not always make sense to the adult, but it’s a way for children to really dig into the idea and try to understand it.
We call them schemes, and each scheme involves particular behaviour, like throwing objects to the ground repeatedly or unscrewing lids over and over again.
There are so many different schemes, but let’s look at some of the most common ones below:
To give you more of an idea, let’s take a look at how a trajectory scheme (an interest in how things move) might change over time. We’ll go into specific cases of other schemes, but it’s important to understand that schemes continue over time even if the behaviour changes – they follow us well into adulthood.
Once you understand this, it’ll be much easier to identify schematic behaviour in children of all ages.
The main takeaway from this – schematic behaviour can show itself in many, many different ways. There is no single behaviour for each scheme, because every child is unique.
Now that you know a bit about how schemes can develop, let’s take a closer look at a containing scheme in action and why a little help from you makes a massive difference in helping them develop new skills.
This shows how a practitioner extends a child’s learning without interrupting the flow of their schematic play. The key takeaway here is that Charlie is challenged within the limits of what he already understood, and then applied this to other things around him.
He starts gaining skills in counting as he counts out tokens, and starts to understand different sizes and measuring – maybe ‘medium’ is a completely new word for him. He then applies this to something different the next day, and starts showing a counting scheme in a completely different activity.
The result? The activity introduced new ideas built on ideas he could understand, and his practitioner extended that learning just enough for him to build on his know-how himself.
If his practitioner hadn’t stopped to think about why he was interested in the popcorn maker, they may have tried to roleplay a circus and completely missed an opportunity for a shared learning experience. Let the child lead the activity, as they should be the driving force of the learning.
It’s all very well to say ‘This particular child is showing a trajectory scheme. You should try and engage with them to extend this.’ But how do you know what the actions mean and what should you be on the lookout for during play?
“Practitioners are really, really hardworking and amazing at their job – their planning is so thorough. But sometimes actually drilling down to what the child is doing gets lost in this planning.” It’s not about creating an environment hoping that it will get children to explore and engage in schemes – it’s about drawing out what they’re interested in, observing what they’re doing and building on it.
“It’s not just about finding out what they’re interested in – it’s about asking yourself why they’re interested in it in the first place.”
If a child is placing dinosaurs repeatedly inside boxes and taking them out again, the dinosaurs might just be the closest objects that help children carry out the idea that interests them. That’s why we need to look at the actionthey’re doing – not just the thing they’re using to do it. Then you can extend it in as many ways as you can think of.
The child could simply just love dinosaurs, of course! Remember that you’re on the lookout for repetitive actions and behaviour.
So you’re starting to notice certain behaviours, and are ready to engage with a child in schematic play. The next step is all about interpreting those behaviours – and making sure we understand where the true interest lies.
To understand what might happen if you misunderstand a scheme and what that means for the child’s learning journey, let me introduce you to Lucy.
Lucy loves playing in the Post Office area. In particular, she likes to sit there with dozens of paperclips, connecting them all together to make a long line.
The question is – what is Lucy’s true interest? Well according to Lynnette, this is a classic example of a connecting scheme, and has absolutely nothing to do with the post office.
“If, as a practitioner, you assume that because she’s in the Post Office it interests her, you might then introduce delivery routes, zones and stamps,” Lynette says. “But Lucy was a connector. The best thing would be to give her beads, magnetic trains that stick together or perhaps building with lego. For Lucy, she was fascinated about why things became one – the Post Office was irrelevant.”
To see this in your own setting, it’s helpful to think about an anchor – an action that’s driving the behaviour. To find it, you can ask yourself questions like:
Remember: all schemes are verbs – they’re ‘doing’ things. It’s not simply an interest in an activity. But if a child does like a certain activity, think about how you can use that to develop their scheme – not the other way around.
If you’re really getting into the swing of things and want to involve the whole setting, role play is a fantastic way for you to get all the children involved. Not only will this allow them to explore and spark their curiosity, but you’ll be able to see their schematic behaviour in action!
One top tip to remember here: children have to understand the role play so they can really engage with it. If you try to introduce a bakery-shop roleplay and you haven’t ever talked about a bakery, or about baking bread or cakes, then the children won’t be interested.
You can really let your creativity loose here, as there are so many ways for you to engage children with completely different schemes. Think about the different types of schematic behaviour and how it would work in a big roleplay.
Let’s take a look at a building/construction roleplay and how this could work in your setting:
Role play is a fantastic opportunity to help children build on ideas they already know. Just remember to base it on things that the children really enjoy and what they can already do – don’t introduce anything that’s too complicated, as they won’t be able to build on the skills they do have. Slow and steady wins the race.