Teaching and learning

Play schemas in practice: 10 transforming schema activities

Part eight in a nine-part series on schematic play activities
A child demonstrates the transforming play schema
July 4, 2023
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This series of articles explores the 9 main play schemas, and offers activities to support and develop each one. In this article, we’re looking at the transforming play schema.

If you'd like to see the other articles, or read about play schemas more generally, you can do that here. Or, to go straight to the next one in the series, just click here.

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What is the ‘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. Like all play schemas, the transforming play schema occurs 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.

Here are 10 ways to engage children in the transforming play schema:

10 transforming play schema activities

1. Transforming fruit by making healthy smoothies

Children First Hackney- Making Smoothies

In a nutshell:

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 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 practice 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

Teach Early Years- Recipes to get children cooking

In a nutshell: 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 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. Transforming ourselves by dressing up

Nursery World- Role Play: Home and Away

In a nutshell: Using costumes helps children to take on the role of another person and explore what it might be like to be them, experimenting with different social interactions and norms and testing out ideas. Children with a transforming schema may enjoy the experience of adding something to themselves in order to change or transform into something or someone else.

*What you need*

  • A selection of dressing up costumes and/or:
  • Open ended dressing up resources like hats, scarves, shoes or lengths of different materials.

How to do it: Provide children with costumes or open-ended dress-up materials and allow them to engage and play as they want. You can enhance the play by providing large mirrors for children to see themselves in or adding props to the play as needed. Some settings may want to provide role-play and dressing up opportunities based around a particular theme, or something that children are really interested in, for example superheroes.

4. Experimenting with scent by making perfume

Children First- Queen's Nursery-Perfume Making

In a nutshell: 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 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.

5. Transforming play in the mud kitchen

Early Years Staffroom- Keep it fresh

In a nutshell: There are a whole host of benefits to mud kitchens and they can be relatively simple to source too. Mud kitchen play allows children to engage in role-play and try out different social situations, and making sense of their own experiences. There are also plenty of opportunities for building vocabulary, experimenting with mathematical concepts and early scientific thinking too!

*What you need*

  • A mud kitchen area
  • Pots, pans, bowls, containers
  • Utensils; spoons, whisks, ladles
  • Enhancements like glitter, pinecones, conkers, porridge oats etc.

How you do it: For children with a transforming play schema the opportunities are endless; they can mix mud with all sorts of different substances (think sand, soapy water, glitter, porridge oats, bark chippings) to examine the ways it changes. They can use the mud in different ways: putting it into a bowl, pouring it out, or rolling it into balls! All of this helps children to learn through experimenting, trial and error, testing out their ideas and observing results.

6. Mark-making with melting ice paints

Easy Peasy and Fun- Painting with Ice

In a nutshell: 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 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.

7. Cooking over a real campfire

Mammas School- Children and Campfires

In a nutshell:

Children and fire is a terrible idea right? Not necessarily. There are plenty of health and safety issues to weigh up — and in fact, the risks of fire actually present valuable learning opportunities. For children with a transforming play schema, fire speaks to their current learning preferences. Watching a fire burn will fascinate most children, but particularly those with an interest in change and transformation as they watch how materials burn.

*What you need*

  • A safe area to create a fire, this could be a clearing in which you create a bonfire, or a purpose made fire pit or fire basket
  • A means of cooking
  • Cooking ingredients
  • Safety equipment

How you do it: Building campfires can be a part of your forest school provision, or your outdoor area. Children can help to build your campfire, or set up your fire pit. Explain what goes where, and how to collect kindling. There are lots of things that can be cooked over a campfire, but a nice treat to start off with is toasting marshmallows. Children can hold their own skewer and be responsible for turning it, ensuring their marshmallow doesn’t burn. Then they can allow the skewers to cool and eat the marshmallows from them, or make s'mores.

8. Making and using your own playdough

Famly-10 Easy Playdough Recipes

In a nutshell:

Making playdough can be a great opportunity for children engaged in a transforming play schema to see the way that ingredients change when combined. As well as being a wonderful opportunity for messy play, making and then using playdough can really help to strengthen children's fine motor skills.

*What you need*

  • 2 cups plain flour
  • 2 tablespoons vegetable oil  
  • 1/2 cup salt
  • 2 tablespoons cream of tartar
  • 1 to 1.5 cups boiling water
  • gel food colouring (optional)

How you do it: When you’re making your own playdough, consider the needs and interests of children in your setting and the kinds of activities that the children will engage with and find appropriately challenging. Our post has several different kinds of playdough that you can make, so you can follow one of the recipes found here. As well as being a great activity for children with a transforming schema, making your own playdough can really help you with your budgeting and journey towards sustainability.

9. Mixing up ingredients with potion making

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

In a nutshell: 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 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.

10. Making Gloop and experimenting with different states

Early Years Careers-Making Gloop

In a nutshell: Gloop, also known as oobleck, is a non-Newtonian fluid, this means that it does not obey the same laws of physics that other fluids do. Gloop is liquid when touched slowly and gently, but solid when struck with force. Most children are really entranced by this, and it is particularly good for supporting children with a transforming play schema because it transforms as a result of their actions.

*What you need:*

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

How you do it: Typically gloop is made by adapting the amount of ingredients in order to achieve the desired consistency so there’s plenty of opportunity for problem solving and building on the concepts around transforming. 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). 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 to use utensils like spoons, forks, or whisks.

The big ideas

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Official Danish Government Reopening Advice

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

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UK Nursery Covid-19 Response Group Recommendations

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

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

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Find out below how Hungry Caterpillars got started with Famly so easily, and see what we can do for you in a personal demo.