Putting play schemas into practice: 10 positioning schema play ideas

March 2, 2023

Part two of a nine-part series on play schemas

Part two of a nine-part series on play schemas
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This article is the second of a nine-part series exploring the nine primary play schemas, and how you can help children engage with them through play. To read part one, about the trajectory schema, click here. Part three is coming soon!

If you’ve been in Early Years a while then it’s likely that you’ve heard about play schemas: they're repeated patterns of play-based behaviours that children tend to favour. We’re not sure exactly why play schemas occur, but they seem to be a naturally occurring play disposition which help children to learn and develop. 

In this article we'll look at the positioning play schema. This is one of the more common schemas, but there are typically considered to be 9 kinds of play schemas.

Here are the nine major play schemas, and examples of how they appear as children's repeated behaviors:

  1. Trajectory: Creating lines in space by climbing up and jumping down, dropping items, throwing or rolling objects
  2. Positioning: Lining items up and putting them in groups, stacking, sorting by color
  3. Enveloping: Covering themselves or objects, wrapping items up, or placing them in containers
  4. Rotating: Spinning items around, running in circles, or being swung around.
  5. Enclosing: Adding boundaries to play areas, like fences around animals. Adding borders to pictures, or creating and following set paths.
  6. Transporting: Carrying or moving items from one place to another; carrying items in containers or bags.
  7. Connecting: Setting out and dismantling tracks, constructing, and joining items together with tape or glue.
  8. Transforming: Exploring the changing states of materials, transforming them from a solid to liquid state and back again, or mushing around with clay.
  9. Orienteering: An interest in positioning themselves or objects in different places or positions, or climbing and navigating in space.

Why do play schemas matter?

This series of articles will explore each of them in turn, providing practitioners with ideas of the kinds of activities that would support and develop each one. 

Children can be engaged with more than one schema at 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. Schemas matter because they give us clues for what excites individual children most about their world. Using that, we can scaffold lesson plans and creative activities in a way that's most engaging for the child in question. Ultimately, play schemas can help give us more ideas for how to build up key skills in early education by encouraging patterns in play.

As we look to respect the voice of the child more and follow their interests, practitioners may consider observing children to determine which, if any, schemas are being used.

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 — whichs down the foundations for later mathematical concepts. But to grasp those concepts later on, children learn the basics through play.

You shouldn't expect to make schema play happen. It is not advised that practitioners become fixated on “Schema activities,” and hem children’s play into these narrow categories. But observing the schemas children are naturally exhibiting, and providing meaningful play opportunities based around these is a way of following children’s current interests and dispositions.

So, here we offer 10 ways to engage children in the positioning play schema.

1. Positioning parts with tinker trays

Tinker Trays- Little Miss Early Years- TTS

 The schema play idea: 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.

The idea is to provide children with a collection of different materials that they can ‘tinker’ with. The word tinker simply means “to repair, adjust, or experiment with,” and it’s gaining traction as part of the Makerspace and STEM movement, so it should come as no surprise that some of the benefits of tinker trays include developing mathematical concepts, engineering skills and scientific thinking. 

Tinker trays allow children to engage in positioning schema play

What you 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 playdough, 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. Making nature mandalas with found objects

The schema play idea: Mandalas are ideal for children with a positioning play schema, they are beautiful symmetrical patterns made from different objects. Children with a positioning schema will enjoy the opportunity to experiment with lining the items up creating shapes, lines or spiralling patterns. Carrying out this activity you could use items found in nature and make natural Mandalas like these or choose more traditional craft items.

Making mandalas engages children in positioning schema play

What you need:

  •  Leaves
  • Twigs
  • Conkers
  • Flowers
  • Pinecones 
  • Buttons
  • Gems
  • Wood slices

How to do it: This can be simply provided as loose parts play, where you might explain the concept and then let the children lead the play from there. Alternatively you may want to provide a bit more structure by adding basic templates like a shape drawn out on a large piece of paper, a placemat for the child to work on or even, if your setting is all about The Curiosity Approach, a crocheted doily so children can work with the spaces in material.

3. Experimenting with symmetry through mirror books

The schema play idea: 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, like these shown by Happiness is Here have a range of different uses and are the perfect open ended resource for allowing children to use their positioning schema and explore concepts like symmetry too.

A child plays with mirrors

What you 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 or to create beautiful patterns using loose parts, this is a great way for children to play, experiment and build their understanding of symmetry and pattern.

4. Decorating your own nature crown

The schema play idea: 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. There are a range of ways that you can put nature crowns together, but the activity as shown by The Empowered Educator is a simple and effective way.

A girl wears a crown made of natural materials

What you need:

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

How you do it: Provide children with the a strip of card with a piece of double sided tape on. 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. The activity allows children to preserve their artwork and explore differences and similarities between objects whilst exploring nature.

5. Structured counting using tens frames

The schema play idea: Ten frames are a really powerful structure to support early math helping children to build a concept of number and composition, that is how numbers are made up. A tens frame is simply a grid of ten boxes, in the form of two rows of five, and they are ideal for supporting a positioning play schema when combined with loose parts.

A child engages in positioning schema play with a number grid

What you need:

  • Loose parts
  • Premade tens frame, Or;
  • Created tens frame; drawn/painted/eggbox/lolly sticks

How you do it: The concept is demonstrated well here, where tens frames are presented more as a resource, rather than a set activity. This is the best way to approach schema play really, as this kind of provision builds on and respects children’s self-chosen play. Tens frames can be used to explore patterns, adding, counting, ordering, number bonds or subtraction.

6. Build your own bracelets with threading activities

The schema play idea: 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. Children grow similar skills from this pattern play, so 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 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 jewelery 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. 

7. Practice positioning with toy car parking

Car Parking Montessori Activity 

The schema play idea:  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. This is a good activity to revisit, especially if you've got toy cars already in your play area.

Positioning schema play represented through lined up toy cars

What you 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 whilst others may appreciate further enhancements like a parking-lot drawn out on paper or 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, continuing to build on that desire for categorisation.

8. Terrific tesselations

Tessellating shapes activity

The schema play idea: Tessellating is incredibly satisfying for children who are using a positioning play schema. Simply explained tessellating or tessellation is an arrangement of shapes closely fitted together, in a repeated pattern, without gaps or overlapping. It helps to build children’s spatial awareness and is very satisfying for children operating within a positioning schema, making this an ideal pick for early childhood brain development.

Positioning schema play can be tesselating paper shapes

What you need:

  • Patterning blocks
  • Tesselating tiles
  • Cut out shapes
  • Black backing paper

How you do it: Whilst patterning blocks or tessellating tiles are ideal for this activity, resources for tessellating can also be made in-house by cutting out shapes from coloured card or sugar paper. Again, this activity is best left as a child-led exploration but if you feel the need to provide some structure a large sheet of black backing paper is probably all that is needed to spark some creativity.

9. Simple stamping for positioning play

Maths- Stamping Activity

The schema play idea: 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. 

A child's hand stamps ink on a paper

What you need:

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

How you do it: Provide children with a range of 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. As well as serving a positioning play schema thai activity allows children to build the mathematical concept of patterns and can help to improve fine motor skills.

10. Large-scale positioning play with outdoor obstacles

Rope Play-Creative Star learning

The schema play idea: How about loose parts place on a macro-level? Allow children the time and space to create with a range of different play resources like cones, crates, ropes, planks of wood or balls. Ropes are an underutilised play resource in many Early Years settings because of health and safety fears, but managed correctly they have the potential to transform outdoor play.

Children exploring the positioning play schema through outdoor play

What you need:

  • Outdoor play area
  • Large, long lengths of rope
  • Other outdoor equipment optional

How you do it: Children may need some encouragement or “permission” to play this way, but you’re likely to find plenty of creativity emerging and the ability to create on a large scale has a particular appeal to children who enjoy and use a positioning play schema. In terms of safety you can set some ground rules before children start to play, discussing how ropes can hurt us if we swing them around, and that they should never be wrapped around necks.

To sum up, 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. Remember to look out for the rest of our series on play schemas and activity ideas to help support children to engage in these.

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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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