Teaching and learning

Play schemas in practice: 10 rotating play schema ideas

Part four of a nine-part series on schematic play activities
A child spins a globe, expressing the rotation play schema
October 10, 2022
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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 rotating 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 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. Observing children to determine which play schemas are at work helps us as practitioners to understand which concepts children are experimenting with at the moment and to provide worthwhile play activities that support this exploration. 

Here are 10 ways to engage children in the rotating play schema.

1. Rotating play with rolling ramps

Iowa regents center for early developmental education- Ramps & Pathways

The schema play idea: There are often lots of ways that children can make ramps in an early years setting, simple ramps can be created using sections of wood, balanced on a box or a shelf. Block sets can also contain ramp like structures, and when outdoors, children might use planks of wood and crates to create a ramp. Rolling items down these ramps allows children with a rotating schema to work within their interest, watching how items move as they roll down that ramp, rotating and turning as they go.

A child rolls marbles down a ramp, which satisfies rotation play schemas

What you need

  • Lengths of wood, boxes, crates etc. or ramp blocks
  • A selection of items to roll down the ramps; balls, a toy car or two, or natural resources like conkers.
  • Paper and pencil or tablet with camera if children want to record their results

How to do it: Children can help you to select wood based on how long it is, how smooth it is, how strong it is, and adults should take advantage of teachable moments along the way. Then once the ramps are made, children can select what they would like to roll down the ramps, observing the way that different items roll and rotate, how balance and speed are affected by different gradients and forces. Some children may want to record their results through mark making or writing, or using ICT to record videos of their experiments.

2. Outdoor tyre play for rolling good fun

Tyres in School Grounds- Creative Star Learning

The schema play idea: Tyres are the perfect resource for children with a rotating play schema, and are also the ideal open-ended resource for outdoor play. Children with a rotating play schema can choose to roll them around the space, experimenting with movement, speed and observing how much force is needed for the tyre to roll and balance, choosing to play in their own way.

A tyre swing can fulfill rotation schematic play

What you need:

  • Tyres of various sizes
  • Lots of space to play
  • Optional: Loose parts like planks and crates for building ramps
  • Optional: Rope to secure the tyre to a swing frame or tree.

How you do it: Source and provide a range of different sized tyres, checking that they are safe for children to use, and allow the children to access these as part of your outdoor provision. Some children will enjoy rolling them around a path or creating their own course for the tyres to follow,  whilst others may enjoy experimenting with ramps. They might use crates and wooden planks to roll the tyres down, exploring the different kinds of forces needed to ensure the tyre stays balanced and rolls some distance.

3. Winding with wool

The Budding Artist- Making yarn sticks with kids

The schema play idea: 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 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.

4. Tool time play with screwdrivers

How we Montessori- Montessori Bolt/Screw Activity Board

The schema play idea: 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 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.

5. Water wheel challenge

Science Sparks- DIY Water Wheel

The schema play idea: Water play is a real tried and true staple of early years practice and there are lots of rotation schema opportunities in water play too. Water wheels are a popular resource for use in the water tray and support rotating play schemas in a fairly obvious way; adding water wheels to the water tray is an excellent provocation for children interested in this schema.

Rotating water wheels are a clear example of the rotation play schema

What you need

  • A wooden skewer – take care with the sharp ends
  • A cardboard cylinder shape – we used an empty gravy container
  • 4 small paper cups
  • Hot glue gun
  • A frame to hold the wheel
  • Jug or container
  • Water

How you do it: Provide the materials needed to make a water wheel, you can work alongside the child giving instructions or for older, more capable children who are used to working independently this could be used as a project-based learning opportunity where they approach the task almost entirely independently. Allow children to lead the design process as much as possible, as there are great learning opportunities here.

6. Salad spinner art

The Imagination Tree- Salad spinner art

The schema play idea:  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 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.

7. Messy play with bubbles and whisks

The empowered educator online-Toddler Fine Motor Whisk and Sieve

The schema play idea: 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 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.

8. Rhythmic Gymnastics

Super Simple- Ribbon Movement Sticks

The schema play idea: Children with a rotating play schema are often found twirling, spinning or running in circles, so why not enhance that play with the use of props? Rhythmic gymnastics is also the ideal sporting activity to build gross motor skills, spatial awareness, balance, coordination and rhythm. As well as enjoying the rotating motion, many children will find that this feels very soothing to them and they will learn more about the different ways that they can move their bodies.

Ribbons and a wooden dowel on a table

What you need

  • A wooden dowel
  • ribbon, one or multiple colours
  • scissors
  • swivels
  • small eye hook

How you do it: If you have use of a screen in your setting, try searching for some clips of beautiful rhythmic gymnastic routines to inspire the children. Then explain that you are going to create some equipment so that children can create routines of their own. Adults may need to help with making the ribbon sticks. You will need to place one small eye hook into the middle of the top of your wooden dowel. Apply pressure and slowly turn it, screwing it into the wood. When this is secure, you can attach your swivel to the eye of your hook and then attach ribbons in the colours or lengths you have decided. You can also make a simplified version using large curtain rings and tying ribbons on, or even buy resources like this from early years suppliers. 

After you have the equipment you need you can turn on some music and let children dance, play and create gymnastic routines.

9. Rotational art with paint rollers

Teaching 2 and 3 year olds- Easy toddler easel activity

The schema play idea: 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 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.

10. Parachute Play

Early Impact- the 40 greatest parachute games for kids

The schema play idea: Parachutes are perfect for developing a rotating schema, as many of the games and activities that we use them for involve moving around in circular motions as a group. Parachute play also encourages cooperation, sharing and turn taking, important social skills in the early years, and can develop skills across the curriculum. For example, many of the games played with parachutes encourage gross motor skills and muscle development as well as involving elements of mathematics.

A children's play parachute lays flat on the grass

What you need:

  • Parachute
  • Sufficient space to play

How you do it: There are plenty of games that you can play with a parachute but for children with a rotating schema ‘Merry Go round’ is ideal. This game is simple, but involves lots of rotating, developing bodily awareness and the need to not bump into others! Children hold the handle of the parachute, and the adult plays some music. While the music plays children walk around in a circle and then freeze when the music stops. Children can take a turn to choose how the group should move around the circle, for example skipping, dancing, jumping, or hopping. Being able to move around in a circle, whilst holding onto a parachute, in all of these different ways without tripping or bumping into anyone is actually quite a difficult task for young children but it really does help to build their physical skills, cooperation and spatial awareness, as well as tap into a rotating play schema.

The big ideas

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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 Famly ensures the Kindred team keeps the communication going with parents so they can feel included in their children's life at nursery.