Teaching and learning

What’s the right way to help children with schematic play?

Breaking down the right way to help children engage in schematic play
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February 3, 2021
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In a rush? Here's the quick run-down.

  • Schematic play is when a child repeats a certain action or behaviour because they are exploring an idea that interests them.
  • You play a big part in helping children learn. The observations you make while children play are important to help you introduce challenges and develop their existing know-how.
  • To make the most out of schematic play, you need to give children the chance to play out what they can already do and understand in lots of different ways. They’ll become confident and start building on what they already know, all with a little helping hand from you.

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.

What does schematic play mean?

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.

It's generally agreed that there are nine key play schemas:

  1. Trajectory scheme: One of the earliest schemes you might see in babies, children love seeing how things move. They might throw things up in the air and back down again, or how far things go when they’re thrown.
  2. Positioning scheme: Lining things up in a row, stacking objects on top of each other, or sorting toys by colour are classic examples of the positioning scheme.
  3. Enveloping scheme: It might be that the child loves to envelop themselves in blankets or make tents with chairs to hide under, or they might like covering every inch of a piece of paper in paint.
  4. Rotating scheme: Children will love things that spin and turn. They might turn taps on and off, trace circles round and round or wind string. They may also love twisting and turning their own body or riding bikes in circles.
  5. Enclosing scheme: Putting toys in a box, building the walls of a sand castle, or using blocks to create an enclosure around an area will show up in this play schema.
  6. Transporting scheme: An interest in moving objects back and forth, often in different containers. They might use small trucks, pushchairs and wheelbarrows, and enjoy putting things into piles. Some children love filling their pockets to the brim with toys.
  7. Connecting scheme: Interlocking bricks like LEGO, the links between carriages of a toy train, or crafts using tape and glue will be big here. This is for children who love joining objects together, and seeing how different objects relate and connect.
  8. Transforming scheme: How can we change the state, shape or colour of an object? Disassembling toys, mixing paints, or melting ice can all be fixations for children with this play schema.
  9. Orienteering scheme: This is for children who love to experiment with perspective by moving themselves around. Climbing, rolling somersaults, and hanging upside down can be especially exciting here.

The big ideas

How do children develop play schemas?

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.

  • As a baby, things may be repeatedly thrown from a highchair. The child is interested in how far the object will go, and where it will land.
  • As a toddler, the child might enjoy throwing balls in the air or down ramps, pushing and watching cars roll down slopes, jumping up and down and pulling tissues out of a box and throwing them.
  • When the child goes to a setting, the child might run up and down slopes, go up and down slides repeatedly, build high structures, create long lines of objects and love throwing and emptying things out onto the floor.

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. Furthermore, it's not your job to try to bring this out in children, it happens on its own. It's your job to notice these patterns as they happen, and structure other activities that encourage and engage with children's fascinations.

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What does schematic play look like?

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.

  • Charlie has a containing scheme. Whenever he can, he sits inside the sandbox, in the wendy house, and contains animal figures in bags and trucks. His practitioner makes sure he can explore this in as many ways as he can.
  • Charlie’s parents bring in a picture of Charlie and a popcorn seller at the circus one morning, and he can’t stop talking about the popcorn seller. The practitioner realises it’s because popcorn is ‘contained’ in a large glass box.
  • His practitioner has a fantastic idea: They’re going to roleplay and Charlie is going to be a popcorn seller. His practitioner creates paper corns for him to fill up with popcorn. This is a classic example of understanding schematic behaviour and then using scaffolding to extend the learning process. The practitioner acknowledges the behaviour and introduces something new within Charlie’s capabilities.
  • They decide together to create a price for the popcorn, just like he saw at the circus. They decide on 1 token for a small cone of popcorn, 2 tokens for a medium and 3 tokens for a large. The practitioner then suggests he sell his popcorn to other children in the setting.
  • Charlie starts to count out the tokens as the other children enter his play, and he sorts the cones between small, medium and large. His motivation to engage in containing enabled him to apply other schemes like sorting.
  • The next day, Charlie starts lining up animals in rows according to size and counting how many there are.

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.

How to identify play schemas

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 action they’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.

What people get wrong about schematic play

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:

  • What action is the child carrying out?
  • Have I seen the child doing this somewhere else? For example, if the child is ‘containing’ in the mud kitchen, have you observed ‘containing’ in the sandplay, at the playdough table, in the block play area?
  • What containing activities can you introduce that the child hasn’t explored yet? This could be some new props or role plays, for example. Think about what they’ve enjoyed and what has already helped them develop skills and use that as a building block.

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.

Including the whole setting

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:

  • Create a roleplay scenario the way you usually would, with lots of different props, objects and activities relating to building and construction. Maybe you have hard hats, fluorescent vests, building blocks and little warning signs. Now take a moment to think about how you can really maximise the roleplay to encourage the different schemes.
  • For the child who likes to connect – think about how this works in a building site. Why not try some big blocks that act as bricks that they can join together to build?
  • For the child who likes rotations – think about cement mixers, as they are continually spinning. What can you use to mimic a cement mixer – maybe a children’s pottery wheel with some rough clay.
  • For the transporters – try some pulley systems that the children can pull this way and that to and from the ‘building site’, or small trucks that they can load and push.

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.

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Lynnette’s top tips for schematic play

  1. If children are in flow and completely immersed in their play, don’t interrupt them. Lynnette recommends around 3 hours of uninterrupted free flow play – and if an occasional helping hand or a little bit of sustained shared thinking is needed, that’s completely okay. The most important thing is that you don’t interrupt and take over their play.
  2. Children need to develop confidence in the skill they’re exploring. If they don’t, you won’t be able to then offer small nudges to extend their learning. Focus on what the child can already do and think about what you can introduce to build on that . Don’t give them too much, as it will overwhelm them and they won’t be able to make those steps to progress.
  3. Don’t worry that you’re not doing ‘enough’ if you let a child wallow in an activity. It may seem as though you should be engaging a lot more, but they need the time to explore independently. If you step in when the child hasn’t invited you, and say “What a lovely house you’re building,” this can be enough to interrupt the flow and throw the child off-track. Wait until the child has completed the activity or invites you in with a question that you can use to extend the play.
  4. Follow the child. If we think back to Charlie and his popcorn maker, it’s all about letting the child pull the idea. Really break it down and let the child be the driving force. Their motivation is key to introducing new learning opportunities and making the most out of schematic play.

Interested in reading more about SchemaPlay? Click here to find out more.

If you want to know why we think schematic play is so important, head on over to the piece we wrote with Cathy Nutbrown on just that.

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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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