Teaching and learning

What are play schemas and why do they matter?

Everything you need to know, plus activities for each of the 9 schemas
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May 8, 2024
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In a rush? Here's the quick rundown:

  • This article literally has everything you ever need to know about schematic play. It is the ultimate guide to play schemas in early childhood education.
  • The 9 schemas are: trajectory, positioning, transporting, connecting, transforming, rotating, enclosing, enveloping and orientation.
  • You will learn about each schema. You will also learn about the typical behaviours related to each schema. Additionally, you will discover what each schema reveals about the child's interests and how they learn.
  • Plus, activities for each of the 9 schemas for you to use in your classroom.
boy and girl climbing on wooden toys

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.

Schemas: how children learn through play

So, let's start with the basic question: 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 schemas, and each schema involves particular behaviour, like throwing objects to the ground repeatedly or unscrewing lids over and over again.

The big ideas

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

  1. Trajectory schema: One of the earliest schemas 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 schema: 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 schema: 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 schema: 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 schema: 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 schema: 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 schema: 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 schema: 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 schema: 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.

What does schematic play look like?

Now that you know a bit about how schemas 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 schema. 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 role play 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 schemas 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 schema 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.

boys and girls throwing balls

How to identify play schemas

It’s all very well to say ‘This particular child is showing a trajectory schema. 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.

How to identify schematic play in children of all ages

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 schemas, 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 schema, 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 children's fascinations.‍

boy playing at preschool

What people get wrong about schemas in children's 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 schema 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 schema, 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 schemas 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 schema – not the other way around.‍

infant climbing on wooden play structure

Why is schematic play important in early childhood development?

Schemas matter because they give us clues for what excites individual children most about their world. Ultimately, play schemas can help give us more ideas for how to build up key skills in early education by encouraging patterns in play.

Children can be engaged with more than one schema at a time, or tend to favour multiple schemas in their free play. But it's not necessarily children's repeated behaviour that's so important — it's what they're exploring through that behaviour.

All play schemas occur naturally, so it’s not something you need to teach children. But, when we understand the characteristics of different play schemas, we can then provide opportunities for children to play in ways that extend their learning.

Some behaviours might come off as reckless at first glance, like throwing objects in the trajectory schema. But, understanding play schemas helps us see the experimentation and learning occurring when children engage in these forms of play. Observing and developing children’s play schemas is a fantastic way for practitioners to tune into the voice of the child, because play schemas by their very nature demonstrate children’s thoughts, preferences and interests. In terms of child development, they are a way that children explore their own ideas and thoughts and express their thinking through play.

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 the play schema.

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.

Seen in this light, play schemas are a stepping stone toward developing key skills later in life, and a motivating factor in early childhood brain development.

It's not your job to make schema play happen. Rather, observing the schemas children are naturally experimenting with, and operating within, allows you to provide meaningful play activities that support their learning and development.

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.
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Activities for all 9 play schemas

What is the trajectory play schema?

The trajectory play schema reflects an interest in how objects move through space. This sort of action is present in all sorts of play, but you'll certainly notice it in activities like:

  • Throwing objects
  • Dropping things, or pushing something off a ledge
  • Rolling balls or other objects down an incline
  • Swinging on a swing set, or pushing someone else on a swing set
  • Playing with the flow of water

Trajectory schema play activity ideas

1. Become a test pilot for paper planes

Source: Early Impact learning & Kids Activities Blog

A pink paper airplane

How it connects to play schemas: Children who engage with trajectory schema play will be fascinated by the movement of paper planes as they fly. Paper airplanes are easy to put together with materials you’ve already got on hand, and watching their motion can also be a miniature physics lesson for little ones.

What you’ll need:

  • Paper
  • Scissors
  • Tape

How you do it: There are lots of different ways to make a paper plane. You might start by showing children an example you made as a child, and then let them experiment with their approach. To make it more interesting, you can make a flying distance challenge where you can use tape for starting and finishing lines, and children can fly their planes towards the finish line while enjoying the soaring plane.

2. Paint a masterpiece with rolling marbles 

Source: Busy Blooming Joy & Art for Kids Hub

How it connects to play schemas: Rolling marbles in paint on paper draw out children’s creative, artistic impulses while exploring a medium that’s extra fascinating due to the trajectory schema. With its artistic process, this activity allows children to explore different materials, colors, and textures by the rolling movement of the marbles and enhances their ability to understand the cause-and-effect phenomena.  

Paper laid on a table with bowls of paint for children's art

What you’ll need:

  • Paint
  • Marbles
  • Jars
  • Spoons
  • Cardboard box

How you do it: Start by placing your paper inside the cardboard box, to help contain your marbles and your mess. Prepare jars with different paints and add marbles to them. Put the lid back on and shake them around in the paint. Use the spoon to bring them out. Have your child start rolling the marbles in the cardboard and create a beautiful pattern. 

3. Splishing and splashing through a water pipe maze

Source: Early Impact

How it connects to play schemas: Water splashing and manipulation can fall under different play schemas, but is relevant for the trajectory schema as well. It allows children to enjoy the interesting irregular movement of water through different pathways of pipes, and if presented properly, can boost their experimental and problem-solving capabilities.

Alphabet signs stuck in a grassy lawn

What you’ll need:

  • Water
  • Pipes or tubes
  • Balls
  • Tape
  • Pallet

How you do it: Attach a pallet to a wall and create a pathway with pipes or tubes. Secure the pipes with tape. Make sure the tubes are movable, so children can create their pathways to manipulate the flow of water. They can also pour balls with the water and predict their path through the pipelines.

Image Source: All For The Boys

4. Toy car derby: Ramp rally racing

Source: The Toddler PlayBook

A cardboard ramp for racing toy cars

How it connects to play schemas: Ramps can be a key tool for engaging children with trajectory schema play, as it allows for all sorts of options for rolling objects. Using toy cars can give this activity some more structure, and turn the activity into cooperative play with one another.

What you’ll need:

  • Cardboard box
  • Tape 
  • Glue
  • Pens

How you do it: Take an empty cardboard box to use as the base for the ramp, by folding the cardboard into an angled surface you can set it on the floor. If you like, you can cut rectangular pieces out of another cardboard box and glue them on the ramp, to create separate lanes for your cars. Once it's complete, let children roll their cars or balls down the lanes. 

Image Source: Pinterest

What is the positioning play schema? 

A ‘positioning’ play schema will often express itself in the desire and drive to line items up and position objects in space, like sorting things by category or stacking them one on top of the other. If you've got a child who can spend hours lining up objects in a row, that's likely the positioning schema in action.

At its most fundamental level, this has to do with children exploring the concepts of order, alignment and sequencing. These children are often also interested in shapes, classification and categorising, which forms the foundations for later mathematical concepts. But to grasp those concepts later on, children learn the basics through play.

Positioning schema play activity ideas

In short, the best activities to support a positioning play schema are those that do not necessarily appear to be ‘activities’ but instead offer resources, ideas or provocations for children to continue driving the play in ways that are meaningful to them. 

1. Positioning parts with tinker trays

Source: Tinker Trays- Little Miss Early Years- TTS

 How it connects to play schemas: Tinker trays are the perfect activity for children who use a positioning schema. They are an expression of loose parts play (learn more about this here) which allow children to follow their own motivations and engage in a very open-ended type of play. Tinker trays are an ideal part of continuous provision or a provocation for learning, rather than a set activity.

Tinker trays allow children to engage in positioning schema play

What you'll need:

Popular items to include in tinker trays include:

  • Natural items: pine cones, leaves, stones, sticks
  • Mechanical items: Nuts, bolts, screws
  • Craft items: lolly sticks, foam shapes, sequins, buttons

How you do it: You can take a tinker tray in whichever direction you like. Some practitioners like to add numbers or play dough, or to theme the tray around children’s current interests or topic learning.

Simply leaving this out in a range of learning spaces will encourage positioning schema play as children will be able to line the items up, stack them, categorise them and explore in a way that suits their current needs. It's open-ended play at its best, and opens the door for developing many key skills for early childhood.

2. Experimenting with symmetry through mirror books

How it connects to play schemas: The positioning play schema is a way that children can develop their spatial awareness and reasoning (read more about spatial reasoning in our blog here), and this activity is a fantastic way to support the development of those concepts. Mirror books, are the perfect resource for allowing children to use their positioning schema and explore concepts like symmetry.

A child plays with mirrors

What you'll need:

  • 2 safety mirrors
  • Tape

How you do it: To make a mirror book, you just need to tape two safety mirrors together so that they form a ‘book’. Then take some time to show children how this book can be opened up and positioned to show objects from lots of different angles. Children can use the book to examine objects, explore reflection and symmetry, or to create beautiful patterns using loose parts.

3. Decorating your own nature crown

How it connects to play schemas: Nature crowns are a popular Forest School activity, but it’s also great for supporting a positioning play schema because it allows children to arrange and rearrange small objects and parts.

A girl wears a crown made of natural materials

What you'll need:

  • Length of card
  • Double sided tape
  • Tape or stapler

How you do it: Provide children with a strip of card with a piece of double sided tape. The children can then be encouraged to look out for interesting pieces of nature whilst playing outdoors, or going on a walk and placing these onto the tape. When they feel they are finished you can staple or tape the ends of the card together to create a crown that fits the child’s head.

4. Build your own bracelets with threading activities

How it connects to play schemas: Children who love to use the positioning schema also typically like patterning, because it’s just another way for them to experiment with the way in which different things are positioned with very visual results. It's a great complement for a child who's engaged in positioning schema play.

Plastic beads allow children to engage in positioning schema play

What you'll need:

  • Beads
  • String
  • Coloured pasta
  • Threading sets

How you do it: Threading is a fantastic activity for supporting positioning and  patterning. You can provide children with beads and string, or coloured dried pasta to make jewellery, or you can allow them to thread in a range of different contexts; this nature threading activity is ideal for supporting positioning schemas and patterning interests. 

5. Practice positioning with toy car parking

Source: Car Parking Montessori Activity 

How it connects to play schemas:  Observing a child lining up their toy car, or setting them out as though they were in a car park might be your first clue that a positioning schema is at work. You might notice that a child pays careful attention to the exact placement of cars, or categorises them in different ways.

Positioning schema play represented through lined up toy cars

What you'll need:

  • Cars
  • Paper
  • markers

How you do it: Ensuring that cars are made available may be all that you need to do for some children. If you want to take a more adult-led approach perhaps you could number cars or have different coloured parking spaces for the children to match up.

6. Simple stamping for positioning play

Source: Maths- Stamping Activity

How it connects to play schemas: For children using a positioning play schema, simple stamping activities are ideal. They give children the opportunity to experiment with position, alignment, space and pattern. This activity allows children to build the mathematical concept of patterns and can help to improve fine motor skills.

A child's hand stamps ink on a paper

What you'll need:

  • Paper or card
  • Purpose made stamps
  • Ink pads
  • Sponges
  • Playdough cutters 

How you do it: Provide children with a range of stamping resources. You can allow them to select something that takes their fancy from your resource cupboard or select items that fit with a theme or topic you’ve been exploring. You could discuss patterning with older children and see if they pick up on the invitation, or create your own stamped pattern work as inspiration for them.

What is the transporting play schema?

A transporting schema is one of the most common play schemas. As a practitioner you’re likely to see this one a lot! We tend to notice it because it involves children carrying objects around the play areas. So if we’re finding dolls’ prams full of cars, buckets full of conkers, LEGO pieces and blocks, or, yes, sand in the book corner, we are probably witnessing a transporting play schema at work.

Some of the common interests of children with a transporting schema may include:

  • Moving and carrying items with prams, trolleys or wheelbarrows
  • Filling buckets and containers and walking around with them
  • Playing with mud, sand, or sensory materials
  • Making collections of small items that they take around with them
  • Filling their pockets with objects and moving them to another place

It’s likely that all of this sounds very familiar if you’ve been working in Early Years for a little while. But it’s important to consider what children are learning through this play schema.

Transporting schema play activity ideas

1. Sorting objects with pom-poms and tweezers

Source: Busy Toddler- Pom Pom sorting

How it connects to play schemas:: Pom pom and tweezer activities are great for developing fine motor skills and building up the muscles in the fingers, hands and wrists ready for children to learn to write later on, however, they are also a fantastic way for children to develop their transporting play schema on a small scale. Here, everything is still quite contained, but there is still the opportunity for children to experiment with moving objects from place to place.

What you'll need:

  • Pom poms or other small items
  • Tweezers, tongs or pegs to move the items
  • Bowls or small containers
  • A tray to keep everything together 

How you do it: Use a tray to keep everything contained, and give children a discrete area to work and set up a selection of different containers. Place pom poms or other small items into one of the containers and provide children with tongs, giant tweezers or even clothes pegs to grip and move the items from one container to another. Items like conkers, small pine cones or acorns could be ideal for children exploring natural resources, or you could use shells, stones or buttons depending on what you have available.

Depending on your children's ages, you could place numerals in the containers and ask children to sort the corresponding number of items into that container.

2. Transporting play with tubes and pipes

Source: Illinois Early Learning- Investigating Pipes

How it connects to play schemas: Pipes and tubes help children explore the way in which substances can be moved from one place to another. Rolling items down tubes and pipes lets children with a transporting play schema to work within their interest, watching how items or substances move from one place to another. This can then become the site for lots of experimental learning, where children can test out the properties of different items. This problem solving process allows children to explore lots of STEM learning as they build an understanding of different ways to move objects around.

What you'll 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, and messy play resources

How you do it: 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 encouraging children to experiment with speed and distance. Making use of open ended questions in this way will help to extend and expand children’s thinking.  Some children may want to record their results through mark making or writing, or using technology to record videos or take photos of their experiments. 

3. Get outside for a nature scavenger hunt

Source: LEAP Lambeth: Nature scavenger hunt

How it connects to play schemas: Getting children outdoors more and keeping them active to meet the physical activity guidelines is a priority in the Early Years. operating within the transporting play schema are investigating the concepts of journey, moving and distance.

What you'll need:

  • Outdoor area or planned outing
  • A list of things for children to find (try the Woodland trust for inspiration)
  • Containers for children to keep their treasures in!

How you do it: Provide children with a checklist of things to find, these might be specific items like ‘a pinecone’ or ‘a chestnut leaf’ (use photos!) or you might simply provide colours for children to match objects to depending on their age, stage, interests and needs. Help children collect things matching those on their lists and provide children with baskets, boxes or buckets too, so they can transport their treasures back to nursery.

4. Taking a trip to the postbox

How it connects to play schemas: Writing a letter or card and then taking a trip to the postbox supports a real range of skills and can also support transporting schemas too, as children can use the sending or receiving of a letter as a means of understanding the concept of a journey.

What you'll need:

  • Envelopes
  • Variety of paper and card 
  • Pens, pencils, crayons
  • Stamps

How you do it: The basic idea is that the children are going to send a letter on a journey. You might choose to pair up with another setting in a different part of the country and exchange letters, or perhaps write to someone influential, you could post letters to the children’s homes or even post letters straight back to nursery! The key concept is that children make a card or write a letter, put a stamp on it and go on an outing to the nearest post box or post office to see the letter sent on its way.

5. Construction play tray

Source: Pre-school Play- Construction Tray

How it connects to play schemas: Construction vehicles are designed with transporting in mind so they’re easy to load up with mud, sand or other sensory materials, and little transporters will be happy to play for an extended period of time, moving things around, going over bridges or around the edge of the tray and experimenting with building piles and clearing areas.

What you'll need:

  • Tuff tray, or builders mixing tray
  • Sand, mud or sensory materials
  • Toy diggers and dumpers
  • Extra elements like guttering or bridges

How you do it: Fill a tuff tray or builders mixing tray with sand, soil, gravel or another sensory material like porridge oats or lentils and provide children with toy diggers, dump trucks, small spades or spoons and some enhancements like bridges or pieces of guttering. Children can then engage in lots of transporting play, moving mud from one area to another, and moving the diggers and dump trucks around too.

6. Water play with pipettes

Source: Nurture store- Water play with pipettes

How it connects to play schemas: As we’ve looked at previously, the transporting schema doesn’t just apply to solid single objects — many children also like to transport substances like sand or water. Lots of children will enjoy mixing different coloured water together and experimenting with how colours combine and change. Using pipettes is a fantastic way to build fine motor skills and develop the small muscles in the fingers that children need for pencil control and writing.

What you'll need:

  • Water
  • Food colouring
  • Paper
  • Pipettes

How you do it:  Set out jars filled with water and food colouring. Provide children with paper and pipettes and allow them to play in ways that are meaningful for them, using the pipettes to “transport” the water onto the paper. The activity can also be adapted to suit children's particular interests, needs, age and stage of development by choosing the colours that are set out, or perhaps by adding different implements to transport the water with things like cotton buds or paint brushes.

What is the connecting play schema?

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

Connecting schema play activity ideas

1. Constructing with magnetic tiles

Source: Making Danish- Activities and Play ideas with Magnetic Tile

A child

How it connects to play schemas: 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'll 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

Source: Famly- LEGO in EYFS Development

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

How it connects to play schemas: 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'll 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. Using woodwork tools (safely)

Source: Pete Moorhouse - Learning through woodwork

Woodworking can allow children to engage in the connecting play schema

How it connects to play schemas: 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'll 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.

4. Colour sorting activity using velcro strips

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

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

How it connects to play schemas: 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'll 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.

5. Getting creative with junk modelling materials

Source: Nursery World- All about junk modelling

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

How it connects to play schemas: Junk modelling 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'll 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 modelling 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 modelling materials means that they can get started on this project right away, whilst the spark of creativity is still fresh!

6. Outdoor weaving on a large-scale loom

Source: Creative Star Learning- Outdoor Weaving Inspiration

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

How it connects to play schemas: 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'll 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

‍What is the ‘transforming’ play schema?‍

The transforming play schema focuses on how substances or objects change. Often, this involves mixing, mashing, or disassembling. Sometimes the transforming schema is mistaken for ‘bad’ or destructive behaviour. But when we look closely at what children are doing, the transforming schema helps us understand this play as a form of experimentation.

The transforming play schema may also incorporate destruction. Children may break items into their component parts, or just break objects to see how different materials respond to force. If you’ve noticed children who seem intent on breaking things, and you don’t think there are any additional safeguarding issues, you might be looking at a transforming play schema.

Some common things you might see in a child working within a transforming play schema include:

  • Mixing different substances, making potions or mud pies
  • Making substances and items wet
  • Breaking items into their component parts
  • Enjoying covering items in various substances during messy play
  • Painting their own hands, or colouring on their skin with felt tips!

Children using a transforming play schema are experimenting with cause and effect. They are also exploring the concept of change over time, and being able to effect change.

Transforming play schema activity ideas

1. Transforming fruit by making healthy smoothies

Source: Children First Hackney- Making Smoothies

How it connects to play schemas: Smoothie making offers children with a transforming play schema lots of opportunity to smush, slice, peel, blend and mash. Plus, it's a nice way to encourage children to try new foods and encourage healthy eating. There are also numerous opportunities for developing new vocabulary as you teach children the names of fruits, describe textures and tastes, or discuss what peeling, juicing, or blending means.

What you'll need:

  • Fruits
  • Yogurt, milk, or dairy free alternatives
  • Ice
  • Blender
  • Cups
  • Recipes optional, children usually enjoy making their own!

How to do it: Preparing ingredients to go into the blender can present learning opportunities, so invite children to help. They can count the fruit, negotiate quantities and practise fine motor skills in cutting. When everything is in the blender, encourage children to notice what is happening, how the ingredients are changing and how the technology works. When the smoothie is ready, you can support children to taste the smoothie, describing the smell, taste, colour and texture and discussing what they like, dislike, or might do differently next time.

2. Cooking different kinds of foods

Source: Teach Early Years- Recipes to get children cooking

How it connects to play schemas: When we allow children to cook, we offer them an invaluable, rich, holistic learning opportunity. Cooking helps children get in touch with where food comes from and how it's made. This gives us opportunities to talk differently about food, and may help children who are selective or anxious eaters. For children with a transforming play schema, cookery is perfect: just think of all the ways that food changes throughout the creation of a recipe!

What you'll need:

  • Child friendly recipes
  • Ingredients
  • Confident practitioners

How you do it: What you decide to cook is going to depend on the confidence and skills of your practitioners, the equipment you have available, and the children’s preferences. You might create parent partnerships here, by asking children to bring in family recipes from home. This can be a lovely way to value the cultures, traditions and tastes of different families, and to connect home and the setting for children too. You'll need to work alongside children and manage risk as appropriate, but many preschoolers can do a fantastic job at cutting vegetables if given the chance.

3. Experimenting with scent by making perfume

Source: Children First- Queen's Nursery-Perfume Making

How it connects to play schemas: Children learn best through experiential learning, getting hands-on with resources, touching and feeling them, and often breaking them down into their component parts to see what things are made of. For children with a transforming schema, the chance to experiment with flowers and herbs and change them so that they release their scent even more is invaluable.

What you'll need:

  • Pestle and mortar
  • Bottles
  • Labels
  • Water
  • Flowers and herbs

How you do it: If you have your own garden or wild area, children can select and gather their own ingredients, otherwise you can provide them with a selection. They can then be encouraged to explore the different flowers and herbs using their senses: touching, examining and smelling them. Children will then need to use the pestle and mortar to grind the herbs and flowers to release their fragrance even more, when the flowers and herbs have been ground into a paste you can mix this with water, strain or sieve it, and then put into bottles.

4. Mark-making with melting ice paints

Source: Easy Peasy and Fun- Painting with Ice

How it connects to play schemas: Ice melting is great for the transforming play schema. Children will delight not only in watching the ice melt, but also in causing it to do so, thereby experimenting with cause and effect, and notice what causes ice to melt more quickly. Ice play is always popular because it’s such a tactile and sensory experience, and therefore taps into the way that children love to learn through their senses.

What you'll need:

  • Water
  • Red, yellow, green, and blue food colouring
  • Short lolly sticks
  • Ice cube tray
  • Old newspaper/wipeable tablecloth
  • Paper

How you do it: Pour water into an ice cube tray. Then, add a drop of different coloured food colouring to each of the cube sections. Place a short lolly stick into each ice cube section and freeze. When the ice cubes are completely frozen, pull on the sticks to remove them from the tray. Cover a surface with a wipeable table cloth, or old newspaper for stain protection. Then allow children to hold on to the wooden sticks and use the ice cubes to paint with. As they begin to melt, they will leave a lovely watercolour effect on the paper.

5. Mixing up ingredients with potion making

Source: Hygge in the Early Years- Create STEM Opportunities with potion making

How it connects to play schemas: Potion making is a fantastic activity to support the development of early science skills as children experiment with mixing and transforming ingredients. All the while, they build up their abilities to make predictions, try things out and observe the results. As well as building STEM skills, potion-making is also an ideal provocation, inspiring children to play in all sorts of different ways.

What you'll need:

  • An area to play; mud kitchen, outdoor area, tuff tray, table
  • Bowls, pots, pans, cauldrons to mix potions up in
  • Spoons, ladles and whisks for mixing
  • Potion ingredients: Water, bubble bath, food colouring, porridge oats, whatever you have to hand!
  • Bottles to put potions in

How you do it: Children should be allowed free access to a range of suitable materials to make potions with, like water, bubble bath or washing up liquid, glitter, food colouring, oats, whatever you have easy access to and are willing to let them experiment with! As children play practitioners can observe their learning, either formally as a recorded observation or ‘in the moment’ and consider ways that they could extend it, for example by encouraging children to record their recipes.

What is rotation schema play?

A rotating play schema can often be very physical. You may see it expressed in children who love to:

  • Spinning in a circular motion
  • Twist and twirl their own body
  • Roll themselves down hills
  • Play with rolling objects
  • Spin the wheels on bikes or toy cars
  • Turn taps on and off
  • Run in circles
  • Ride bikes round and round. 

This can be a very energetic play schema, making it a more common schema for practitioners to notice. 

Children experimenting with a rotational play schema often love to move, because they are exploring the concept of movement around a fixed point. They will naturally want to explore this in depth by trying out different ways of moving, different speeds, directions and sizes of movement.

Children working within a rotating play schema are developing an understanding of moving objects, and feeling the different ways in which their own bodies can move too. They're developing their sense of balance, coordination and understanding how their body is positioned. Rotating play engages the proprioceptive and vestibular senses, helping to build children’s bodily awareness and can support sensory processing too.

Conceptually, children engaging in the rotational play schema may also be investigating infinity, as they appreciate the ongoing nature of a circle by turning it around and around repeatedly. This builds many key skills needed for much higher level mathematics, and even philosophy later in life. In that way, children's schemas feed into the big picture of child development, and the growth that follows us our whole lives.

Rotation play schema activity ideas

1. Winding with wool

Source: The Budding Artist- Making yarn sticks with kids

How it connects to play schemas: Using wool to wrap up different objects can be a lovely art project and it also really engages children with a rotation schema, because they are able to experiment with rotating either the wool or the object in order to achieve the wrapping effect. This activity is also brilliant for building fine and gross motor skills that children will need later on for writing. Many children find this kind of play very soothing and calming, and it’s also great for building children’s ability to focus on one activity for a significant period of time.

Winding wool yarn around a stick can fulfill rotation play schemas

 What you'll need:

  • Balls of wool
  • Sticks
  • Selection of natural loose parts.

How you do it: Loop some wool around an object and tie a knot, show children how to wind the wool around the object to cover it. You can choose natural items from your outdoor area, and use this as a forest school or beach school activity or use items found in your usual classroom. As you wind you may need to push the wool closer together in order to achieve complete coverage of the item. Children will also be able to experiment with how taut they need to pull the string to get a good wrapping technique, which activates and develops proprioception.

2. Tool time play with screwdrivers

Source: How we Montessori- Montessori Bolt/Screw Activity Board

How it connects to play schemas: Getting children into woodwork and allowing them to experiment with a range of tools has plenty of benefits in the early years. Children can hone their fine motor skills and control which will greatly benefit their handwriting when the time comes, they can build a deeper connection to issues of sustainability by valuing making and repairing items, and lay down early foundations for mathematics by problem solving, measuring, estimating and counting as they work.

Using a screwdriver with screws in wood can express a rotation play schema

What you'll need:

  • Cardboard boxes of different sizes
  • Blankets
  • Enhancements like marker pens, or paint.

How you do it: How your setting decides to implement this will depend largely on the age, stage and needs of the children, as well as the skills of the staff and the ethos of the setting itself. Some settings may decide to run this as a specific activity time led by a member of staff and specifically supervised, whilst others may be happy to set up this area as part of their continuous provision offer. Children can use large screwdrivers to try and put screws into soft balsa wood or something like pumpkins, or use something like the Montessori screwdriver boards available to try out different tools.

3. Salad spinner art

Source: The Imagination Tree- Salad spinner art

How it connects to play schemas: Salad spinners are designed to have salad leaves placed in the middle after they have been washed, the user then turns a hand which spins the inside portion of the device, spinning water off of the leaves. But in the context of rotation schema play, salad spinners can be used to encourage a whole range of different learning. Using them for art gives a fantastic opportunity for colour mixing, produces a splatter effect on paper and demonstrates a value on process over product.

Bottles of food dye on a table

What you'll need:

  • Salad spinners
  • Variety of different coloured paints
  • Large paper e.g. wall paper, flip chart paper
  • Paper cut into circles

How you do it: If you’re using an enclosed salad spinner then cut out paper circles the same size as the tub in advance so children can use these as their canvas, then simply pop the paper into the tub, pour in the paint, close the lid and turn the handle. Children will enjoy making the spinner go faster and faster, and watching the paint mix colours inside the tub.

If you’re using an open salad spinner, things are going to get messy! But that’s okay in early education. It’s all part of the fun and allows children a rich sensory experience as well as the opportunity to work on a large scale. In this case you’re going to want to cover a large area of the floor with large pieces of paper like wall paper or flip chart paper. Then pour lots of different coloured paint into the spinner, and spin away.

4. Messy play with bubbles and whisks

Source: The empowered educator online-Toddler Fine Motor Whisk and Sieve

How it connects to play schemas: Whisks are brilliant tools to enhance a variety of different learning experiences. They’re great for messy play, water play, sand, painting and an ideal, authentic addition to a muddy kitchen area too. Children can use whisks to mix up mud, ripped-up leaves, water and so on. There are also a variety of different kinds of whisk available, making for different learning experiences and the opportunity for children to experiment with different effects. You can get whisks where you turn a handle to make them spin, and these are particularly ideal for children with a rotating schema. 

Whisking food dye into soapy water can fulfill the rotation play schema

What you'll need:

  • Tub or tray
  • Water
  • Liquid dish soap
  • Food colouring
  • Selection of whisks

How you do it: 

Provide water and liquid dish soap in a large tub or tray and a selection of whisks, demonstrating to children how whisking the water will create foam and bubbles. Adults can support children’s play by engaging in sustained shared thinking with them (find out more about sustained shared thinking here) allowing children to work out how to do things, and what will work and what won’t. The adult can model problem solving, curiosity and contribute ideas as well as listening to and drawing out the children’s ideas.

5. Rotational art with paint rollers

Source: Teaching 2 and 3 year olds- Easy toddler easel activity

How it connects to play schemas: Opportunities for mark-making are vital in early years provision, and many of us think that means paper, pens and writing, but there is so much more to mark making than simply trying to write. It’s important that children are given opportunities to try out different kinds of mark making, with a focus on the process rather than the product, because it is the process that provides the learning opportunities. A simple activity to engage children with a rotation schema is to provide an easel and paint rollers to work with.

A child expresses the rotation play schema by rolling a paint roller on a wall

What you'll need:

  • Easel
  • Paint rollers
  • Paint
  • Paper

How you do it: Provide an easel, or board mounted on a fence, or paper taped up on a vertical surface. Set out paint and rollers and allow children to get creative with them. They might cover the paper entirely, or try to create shapes, it’s likely that they will mix colours together or try layering colours. Children with rotating play schema will like the physical rolling and rotating sensation of the paint roller and enjoy seeing a physical mark left by this movement too.

What is the ‘enclosing’ play schema?

Children with an enclosing schema are interested in borders and containing. They are often also interested in categorising and organising 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.

Enclosing play schema activity idea

1. Playing with patterns through masking tape borders

Source: Creative STAR Learning- Masking Tape Shapes

How it connects to play schemas: 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'll 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.

2. Hold a sidewalk chalk art exhibition

Source: Teaching 2 and 3 year olds- Sidewalk chalk activities

How it connects to play schemas: 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'll 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.

3. Enclosing water play with dams and locks

Source: PBS Kids- Build a dam and explore water flow

How it connects to play schemas: 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'll 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.

4. Create enclosures with bricklaying play

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

How it connects to play schemas: 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'll 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.

What is enveloping schema play?

An ‘enveloping’ play schema will often express itself in the desire to wrap up items like dolls, teddies, small figures and loose parts, covering them completely from view. 

Some children also love to wrap themselves up in blankets, make dens or hide away from view. At its most fundamental level, this has to do with children exploring the concepts of shape, space and measure, experimenting with volume and building their own bodily awareness. 

Conceptually, children are investigating the concrete nature of objects, how something or someone does not cease to exist when they disappear from view, they may also be interested in whether objects maintain the same form when they are put into different contexts. As well as all of this, these children are often experimenting with sensory input and what they find soothing in order to build their capacity for self-regulation.

Enveloping schema play activity ideas

1. Make some ooey-gooey oobleck goop

Source: Early Years Careers- Making Gloop

How it connects to play schemas: Children with an enveloping play schema are typically fascinated by burying their hands, feet or other objects in different substances. Sand and water play are great opportunities for this, but messy play activities like making gloop or oobleck can help to keep this kind of play fresh. Most children are really entranced by oobleck, and it is particularly good for supporting children with an enveloping play schema.

Children engage in enveloping schema play by covering objects in goop

What you'll need:

  • A tray  
  • Cornflour
  • Water
  • An area that can be easily cleaned
  • Aprons or old clothes

How to do it: To make gloop, all you need to do is mix water and cornflour (the ratio is around about 1 part water to 2 parts cornflour). You can add food colouring too if you want to spice things up a bit. Mix until the desired consistency is reached and then allow children to experiment with the gloop. Many children will be happy to play with their hands, others might prefer the addition of spoons, cups, or small objects to bury and uncover.

2. Enveloping objects in ice

Source: Play of the wild- Toy ice rescue

How it connects to play schemas: Perfect for outdoor play in the winter or for cooling down on a hot day, children with an enveloping play schema will love playing with items frozen, or enveloped, in ice. As children work to get the objects out, they are exploring lots of different scientific concepts, like heat, friction and change, as well as playing in line with their schema. This activity also works for children with a transformation schema, as they get to explore the properties of different materials.

Enveloping schema play can involve freezing toys in ice

What you'll need:

  • Containers in which to freeze items
  • Water
  • Selection of objects to freeze, e.g. sequins, beads, food colouring, small world figures, natural loose parts.
  • Brushes, small jugs, tools to get items out of the ice.

How you do it: To set up this activity you just need to freeze objects so that they are completely encased by ice. Children can then use brushes, cups of warm water or tools to try and break the items out of the ice. Practitioners can either provide all of these tools or set the activity up as a problem-solving challenge to encourage teamwork and critical thinking skills.

3. Think out of the box with cardboard boxes

Source: MSU- Out of the box

How it connects to play schemas: It’s a long standing joke that children don’t need presents because they just play with the box, but there’s so much truth in that! Box play is a great open-ended activity for all children in the Early Years, simply adding different sized boxes to your provision can lead to all sorts of learning opportunities. Children are able to experiment with construction, imaginative play and shape, space and measure through playing with boxes.

A boy hiding in a cardboard box is a good example of enveloping schema play

What you'll need:

  • Cardboard boxes of different sizes
  • Blankets
  • Enhancements like marker pens, or paint.

How you do it: Simply provide a good selection of boxes, including ones that are big enough to climb into and close up and stepping back to allow children to lead play and learning will have the best results. Children often take activities in a way that we wouldn’t have thought to (see our blog on child-led learning here). Adults should encourage exploration, letting children be creative and play in their own way, and keep the focus on the process rather than the product. 

You could introduce paints, markers, blankets, soft toys, or cardboard tubes into the play and see what happens. Allow the play to keep growing and flourishing by holding on to the boxes, so that children can revisit and reimagine the project.

4. What’s in the bag?

Source: The SLT Scrapbook- What's in the Bag?

How it connects to play schemas: Children who love to use the enveloping schema may also like mystery activities and guessing games, because it touches on the same concepts of things continuing to exist in the same state even when out of sight. The "what's in the bag" game is utilised in a variety of different kinds of therapies because it helps to build trust, interaction and communication as well as building problem solving and critical thinking skills.

Hiding toys in a bag can engage the enveloping play schema

What you'll need:

  • Opaque bag
  • Variety of different items: could be sensory toys or familiar objects

How you do it: Simply take an opaque bag and put an object or some objects inside. Children then take turns putting their hand inside the bag (ideal for children with an enveloping schema!) and feeling the object inside. Older children can be encouraged to use language to describe what they can feel, and guess what it might be, whereas younger children can simply feel the objects and be given processing time. The object can then be removed from the bag and the child can check their guess, or be encouraged to use the correct vocabulary about the object.

5. Building blanket forts, dens and hideaways

Source: Pentagon play- Why our children need to build dens

How it connects to play schemas: Making dens and playing in them fits really well with an enveloping play schema. Children with this kind of schema typically love to see the types of spaces they can fit into and to envelop themself in both materials and spaces. They will particularly enjoy dens where they can be completely hidden inside. Providing den-making materials and allowing children to make their own spaces allows children to experiment with creating different spaces and ways to envelop themselves.

The enveloping play schema can also involve hiding oneself in a fort or den

What you'll need:

  • Large sheets of material
  • Washing line, pergola or trees to hang materials from
  • Pegs or clips to secure materials

How you do it: 

Provide open-ended materials such as large sheets, blankets or camouflage netting, a space to build dens such as over a washing line, between trees or even just under tables and perhaps some pegs or clips to keep material in place and then let the children get to work! Adults can support children’s play by engaging in sustained shared thinking with them (find out more about sustained shared thinking here).

6. Enveloping with envelopes: Post office play

Source: Nurture Store- Pretend Play Post Office

How it connects to play schemas: How about taking “enveloping” very literally and transforming an area of your classroom into a post office? Writing letters and putting them into envelopes, posting them into a box, and wrapping and unwrapping parcels is a fantastic way to support children with an enveloping play schema. It also supports a whole host of other skills, for example allowing children to engage in meaningful mark-making or perhaps writing for older children.

An envelope is an obvious way to engage enveloping schema play

What you'll need:

  • Pens, pencils, crayons
  • Paper, envelopes
  • Ink, stamps
  • Boxes, wrapping paper, string or tape
  • Post box

How you do it: Some children may need to be introduced to the real world concept of a post office before they are able to engage in this kind of imaginative play so you could take a trip to the post office to send a parcel, or go to the postbox to send a letter. You may need to scaffold (learn more about this here) children’s play to support this role play scenario. This could be a temporary enhancement to a role play area or you may choose to make this kind of play a more permanent feature of your room.

7. Parachute playtime

Source: Kidadl- Best Parachute Games

The schema play idea: Parachutes are perfect for the enveloping schema as many of the games and activities that we use them for involve running, sitting or hiding under the parachute. You can also encourage the children to use the parachute as a kind of tent, with one child acting as the pole in the centre and everyone else sitting around the edge of the parachute to form the tent. Especially for children who like being enveloped, the novelty of being enveloped with all of their friends will really appeal to them.

Hiding under a parachute satisfies enveloping schema play

What you'll need:

  • Parachute
  • Teddies, balls, small toys
  • Sufficient space to play

How you do it: There are plenty of games that you can play with a parachute, but for children with an enveloping schema, ‘Washing Machine’ is brilliant. For this game, children can choose items to place in the middle of the parachutes. You can use teddies, balls or small toys, but it's best to pick things that are soft and unlikely to cause injury if they fall or bounce off the parachute. The children then each take a handle of the parachute and walk around the edge of it in a circle, holding the parachute handle at waist height. The material of the parachute will begin to wrap up the teddies or toys, enveloping them. The idea is that the children are acting as the washing machine; they can move faster, slower, and change direction, building listening skills as the adults give directions.

What is the orientation play schema?

The orientation play schema is often a very physical one! It's an interest in seeing how things look from different angles, and how things might change when oriented, or directed, in different ways.

This is heavily connected with activating the vestibular system. The vestibular system is a sensory system that helps us get our bearing, and a sense of space. Its main role is to process and categorise incoming sensory information ,and pass this information onto the correct regions of the brain. This can help to prevent humans from becoming overwhelmed by sensory stimuli, and also plays a role in emotional regulation.

Some common things you might see in a child working within an orientation play schema include:

  • Hanging upside down over the edge of the sofa
  • Playing laying on their tummy, with their head sideways
  • Turning items over, upside down, sideways
  • Experimenting with balance
  • Turning themselves upside down or fidgeting

Children using an orientation play schema are experimenting with perspective. They're exploring the concept of perspective, and having control over changing their view of how things look. Children may begin to make connections between different orientations and different views, which builds their understanding of cause and effect, and may support their understanding of symmetry and mathematical patterns.

Like all schematic play, the orientation play schema occurs naturally. When we identify that our children are using this schema, we can and then provide opportunities for children to play in ways that extend their learning.

Orientation play schema activity ideas

1. Experimenting with orientation through yoga

Source: My Teaching Cupboard - The Orientation Schema

How it connects to play schemas: Practising different yoga positions allows children to experiment with getting their bodies and heads into unusual positions and see the world from a different perspective. Yoga has been shown to have many benefits to children, and one of these is helping with sensory processing. It also helps to develop strength, flexibility, balance and coordination and gives practitioners a chance for a much-needed stretch!

What you'll need:

  • Yoga mats, or the carpet
  • A yoga video, or a willing practitioner to play instructor!

How to do it: There are plenty of yoga videos available online, and many designed particularly with young children in mind (think Cosmic Kids or GoNoodle). However, a confident practitioner instructing is always best! If they can watch through a few videos and learn a few poses then they will be able to offer children a basic yoga session, and can undertake training to improve and develop as time goes on. A few poses that may be beneficial for children with an orienting schema include downward-facing dog or the forward fold pose.

2. Using ladders for problem solving

Source: Nursery World- We've Explored crossing Mud

How it connects to play schemas: Ladders are a fantastic resource for supporting children with an orientation play schema, but they are also great for supporting all children’s development of physical skills including balance and coordination. They can also add an element of risk to children’s play, which presents the opportunity for children to risk-assess activities for themselves. Children with an orientation play schema will particularly benefit from using ladders as they can offer different heights and perspectives from which to view the world.

What you'll need:

  • A range of ladders
  • Space to play, preferably outdoors

How you do it: Make ladders available as part of your provision and watch how children decide to use them. You may choose to set the ladders up and have them fixed in place, or have them available for children to move around. If you opt to allow children to move them then it may be worth teaching children how to do this safely, and how to ensure that a ladder has been set up safely too. Ladders are fantastic when used as part of an obstacle course, or to access different areas (like trees, or climbing frames) or to support the use of different equipment like ramps and spouts.

3. Messy splatter painting

Source: Artful Parent- How to do splatter painting with kids

How it connects to play schemas: Experimenting with different ways of using materials can be of great interest to children operating within an orientation play schema. It allows them to consider how things look, work and behave from different angles or perspectives. Splatter painting focuses on the process rather than the product, allowing children to develop their own ‘how’ and ‘why’ for the activity.

What you'll need:

  • Runny paint in cups
  • Paper, canvas, or sheets
  • Spoons or brushes

How you do it: This is an activity where you have to expect mess! For this reason it might be good to do your splatter painting outdoors where you can simply lay your paper, canvas or sheet down on the ground and let children get on with their art. To splatter paint, children just need to dip their spoon or brush into the paint and then flick it across the paper. They can experiment with speed, motion, force, direction as well as shape and colour through this activity.

4. Mark-making on mirrors

Source: Learning and Exploring Through Play- mark Making Mirror Tuff Tray

How it connects to play schemas: This activity is fairly simple but it allows children to explore mark-making and experiment with patterns that pave the way for handwriting, all while viewing their own marks from several different angles. This builds a strong visual and mental picture of the way their own movements create effects.

What you'll need:

  • Large safety mirror or mirror lined tuff tray
  • Pens or mark making resources
  • Messy play materials

How you do it: On a large safety mirror, or in a tuff tray lined with a mirror, children can use markers to mark-make. You can encourage them to create patterns including horizontal and vertical lines, circles, zigzags, wavy lines or spirals. Whiteboard pens are ideal as they can be wiped away as children experiment with different mark-making. You can also use messy play substances like gloop, shaving foam or paint to mix things up and encourage children to mark make in a range of different ways.

5. Upside down mark-making

Source: Free Rangers- Michelangelo Mark Making

How it connects to play schemas: This is a very simple but effective activity that supports children’s mark-making skills and coordination. Children lay underneath a table, reach up and draw or write from their lying position, the same way that Michaelangelo would have painted the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel. For children with an orientation play schema, it offers the obvious benefit of being upside down, viewing mark-making and writing from a different perspective and feeling different sensations as they draw.

What you'll need:

  • Table
  • Paper
  • Tape
  • Pens

How you do it: Tape paper to the underside of a table and provide children with mark-making implements. Children will happily direct their play as suits their interests. They might make a den under the table, draw maps of the stars or refer to the table as a bat cave. Practitioners can support with supplying resources to extend play.

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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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