The Child

Putting play schemas into practice: 10 trajectory schema play ideas

August 9, 2022

Part one of a nine-part series on play schemas

Part one of a nine-part series on play schemas
Boy dropping a ball reflecting trajectory as one of the major play schemas
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This article is the first of a nine-part series exploring the nine primary play schemas, and how you can help children engage with them through play. Stay tuned for part two, coming soon.

What are play schemas?

Schematic play refers to patterns in children’s play, as they repeat a particular action while exploring their environment. You might notice this as a fascination with some particular phenomenon, like running water — or, children might express this through a repeated behavior, like dropping a ball or a cup over and over. 

Play schemas, then, are the central mechanisms that make certain forms of play so engaging for children. Perhaps you love to watch objects spin — or maybe you love to throw and drop things. Children learn through play, and these schemas underpin their preferred forms of play. They can of course gravitate toward multiple schemas, but often, children tend to have a few favorites.

When we start to appreciate play schemas in the context of child development, it gives us a better insight into a child's actions, and what excites them most about their world.

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 schemas matter in early childhood?

As an early educator, play schemas can help you engage with children in the ways that work best for them. It’s not necessarily the play schemas themselves that are important — rather, noticing these interests can give you clues as to new ways to help structure and support an individual child's growth.

So how do you make schema play happen? Well, the best way to do that in early education is through creative activities. And to put this idea into practice, we’re going to start by looking at the trajectory play schema. 

In focus: the trajectory play schema

Children who engage in the trajectory play schema show interest in movement. They’re fascinated by moving their bodies, watching moving objects, and setting things in motion. 

If you’ve got a runner or a little one who loves to throw things, odds are that they’re expressing the trajectory play schema. So let's look at activities that can help you put those interests to constructive use, and help children get engaged in deep-level learning.

1. Become a test pilot for paper planes

Source: Early Impact learning

Kids Activities Blog

Image Source: One child

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. It’s time for the little golfers in the house

Source: What do we do all day

Image Source: Homesthetics

A box cut up for mini golf practice

How it connects to play schemas: This activity connects to the trajectory schema by engaging children with aiming and rolling balls. You can add some competitive element as well, or simply keep it as unstructured fun. Along the way, this skill game will help boost children’s fine motor skills, too.

 What you will need:

  • Cardboard box
  • Scissors
  • Marbles/ ping-pong or golf balls

How you do it: Take an empty cardboard box and cut a few holes on both sides. Position the holes on different levels with a varied distance between them. Use ping-pong balls, golf balls or marbles and roll through the holes. You can add point cards above the holes and turn the game into a competition, or you can also decorate the box if you’d like to bring out some artistic creativity along the way.

3. Paint a masterpiece with rolling marbles 

Source: Busy Blooming Joy

Image Source: 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. 

4. Get outside for water play sponge toss

Source: Early Impact Learning

Children playing with water outside

Image Source: Puddle Wonderful Learning

How it connects to play schemas: This activity is another skill-based throwing game, activating the trajectory play schema by requiring children to gauge their toss towards specific targets. While the throwing works on children’s motor skills, you can add numbers, shapes, or letters to your target for a new dimension of learning.

What you’ll need:

  • Sponges
  • Water
  • Bucket
  • Play tray
  • Chalk

How you do it: Place your play tray against a wall, or use chalk to draw throwing targets on the ground. Then, line your children in front of them with buckets of water and sponges and let them toss their sponges. You turn this activity into a number recognition or phonics game by adding values to your targets — ”Who can throw their sponge at the number nine?”

5. Launching squishy pom-poms with a handmade catapult

Source: I can teach my child

Simple catapults made with popsicle sticks, cork and a spoon

Image Source: Pinterest

How it connects to play schemas: This activity harnesses children’s interest in throwing things and keeping an eye on where those things land. The repeated pattern of slinging the pom-poms in the air causes the ball to fly in different trajectories, and allows children to explore the physics behind their throws. Plus, constructing your mini catapults is a crafts adventure all in itself.

What you’ll need:

  • Cork
  • Wooden popsicle sticks
  • Spoon
  • Tape
  • Pom-poms or cotton balls

How you do it: First, build your catapults. Secure a spoon to one end of popsicle stick with glue or tape, and at the other end, use a rubber band to create a ‘hinge’ joining point with another popsicle stick. Wedge a cork in between the two popsicle sticks to create some tension, giving you the spring action you’ll need. Then, decorate your finished catapult however you like. Let your child put the pom-poms or soft cotton balls on the spoon, and watch their faces as they watch their mini catapults launch the pom-poms across the room.

6. Create a domino effect with blocks

Source: Worms Eye View

Image Source: Worms Eye View

Children playing with dominoes outside

How it connects to play schemas: Lining blocks in a straight line to create a domino effect is another great way to introduce trajectory play schema in the early years. Transfixed by the falling blocks, children will also have to consider the physical properties of the blocks, and why they fall the way they do. The movement of the falling row of blocks creates excites any child who’s enthusiastic about the trajectory schema!

What you’ll need: 

You only require building blocks and lots of space to create the long lines of blocks. 

How you do it: Let the child build long horizontal lines with blocks by themselves and knock them down, creating a ripple effect movement of the blocks. For younger children, you may need to demonstrate the process first — but after that, let children branch off in their own play.

7. Jump and bounce along with the alphabet

Source: The Imagination Tree

Image Source: The Imagination Tree

Children jumping on a trampoline

How it connects to play schemas: With their fascination with how things move, trampoline jumping is another activity that helps activate trajectory schema play in early years. It helps children understand how their own body moves in space, and how gravity pulls them back down for another bounce on the trampoline. It also develops gross motor skills and balance in children as they use the brain and body simultaneously. 

What you’ll need:

  • Trampoline
  • Chalk (optional)

How you do it: Draw alphabets or numbers on a trampoline with chalk so that children can jump from one spot to another. You might try a sequence of numbers, different animals, or another relevant theme from your curriculum and learning goals. Set up the trampoline outdoors, or inside in a safe location, and let the children have their fun. 

  

8. Soar high on a tire swing

Source: Early Impact

A young girl in a tire swing

Image Source: Early Impact

How it connects to play schemas: Swinging is another classic example of trajectory schemas in play. The repetitive, pendulum-like movement develops motor skills and coordination in children, and engages multiple muscles at once. This simple swinging is extremely rewarding for children, and helps them learn how to hold their bodies to work with the momentum and gravity of their motion.

What you’ll need:

  • Tire
  • Rope

How you do it: An outdoor tire swing can be easily created in an outdoor area of an early-year nursery by reusing an old tire and rope. Suspend the tire from a rope and tie it around a tree branch or a well-built, horizontal post. 

9. Splishing and splashing through a water pipe maze

Source: Early Impact

Image Source: All For The Boys

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.

 

10. Toy car derby: Ramp rally racing

Source: The Toddler PlayBook

Image Source: Pinterest

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. 

The big ideas

Official Danish Government Reopening Advice

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

Picture of a Guidance document
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 helped Tenderlinks in recording child development, and see what we can do for you in a personal demo.

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