What is a Schema in Play?
Schemas are mental models which we develop through a process of trial and error, to find the best and most efficient way of doing something.
We use schemas all the time as adults as a way to organise knowledge. Schemas aren’t always right. They represent our learnings at a particular moment in time. When we gain new information, we can adapt our schemas to accommodate that new information.
Jean Piaget, a Swiss psychologist, introduced the term and the concept of a Schema and its use was popularised through his work.
He noticed that children of similar age all make the same kind of mistakes. This led him to speculate that learning happens in stages and that schema play enables the transition from lower to higher levels of learning.
Related: What Is Play-Based Learning?
Why are play schemas important in early years?
Schemas are important in early years because they provide the initial structure that is necessary for us to make sense of the world. That is, they are the building blocks of cognitive models that enable us to form mental representations of the world.
Once a child is able to understand the physical manifestation of a schema, they can then consider more abstract applications of the same schema.
For example, if they can understand that objects can move from one place to another (eg. by rolling a tennis ball across the floor), it becomes easier for them to understand how a photo can be emailed to Grandma who lives in another country.
It is useful for parents to be aware of the concept of schemas because it helps them to:
1) Understand that it is natural for children to engage in certain activities (which we may otherwise interpret as disruptive); and
2) Plan learning environments that support the development and mastery of certain schemas.
What are the types of schemas in play?
As parents and educators, it can be very rewarding to identify the schema your child is interested in, and to offer toys and activities to help with their investigations.
Here are some different types of schemas in play.
See if you can spot your child operating within any of these schemas or engaging in any of the following activities.
If you spot your child dropping food from their high chair onto the floor, they’re probably working within their trajectory schema. They may drop, throw, kick or swing objects.
Examples of trajectory schema activities include throwing at a target, chasing games (like tag), pushing things off the table, and rolling cars down a ramp.
Popular toys for investigating this schema: cars, balls, wooden railway, marble run.
The transporting schema involves moving items from A to B. Children find it very rewarding to complete a task and to see something happen as a result of their hard work.
Common transporting schema activities may involve moving objects with baskets, wheelbarrows, buckets, pockets, boxes or their hands. Gardening and water play often involves this schema. You may wish to invite your child to help you with unpacking the groceries and putting things in their proper place.
Popular toys for investigating this schema: baskets, bags, wheelbarrows, water and sand play in kids table.
The positioning schema is all about arranging things (usually toys!) just so. It provides the early foundations for key skills and activities in later life such as setting the table for dinner, creating patterns in maths and producing neat work in their school books.
Positioning schema activities may involve lining up toys, putting things into order, turning cups upside down, or ordering items.
Popular toys for investigating this schema: shells, pebbles and sticks from the garden (to create patterns with), threading beads, balancing blocks.
The enveloping schema involves children covering themselves or objects. You may see them wrapping toys in paper, laying fabric on top of dolls as blankets, playing peek a boo with silks, climbing into boxes or hiding keys in drawers!
Your child wants to know what happens when they hide an object.
Popular toys for investigating this schema: nesting toys, shape sorters, sock or glove puppets, wrapped up parcels.
Learnings from the rotation schema form the foundations for everything from rotational symmetry in maths to magnetic fields, to dancing.
You may see your child investigating this schema by twirling streamers, rolling down the hill, using a screwdriver (with supervision!), making pinwheels, playing ring a rosey or mixing cake ingredients.
Anything circular are all experiences of rotation.
The connecting schema is all about joining things together, whether that’s in building towers with Lego or blocks, or your child joining hands with you.
It also involves disconnecting (eg. building a tower and then knocking it over!)
Connecting schema activities may include holding hands, taping things together, paper chains, joining train tracks or collages.
Popular toys for investigating this schema: lego, octons, connecta straws, tape, glue.
The enclosing schema is very similar to the enveloping schema. The difference is that the focus is on creating boundaries rather than coverings. An enclosing schema may involve creating a farm fence for toys, or drawing circles around elements.
Through participating in these activities, children learn that objects or ideas can be enclosed in a discrete space and that things outside that space may be considered a separate entity. This also paves the foundation for letter formation when they start their writing journey.
Enclosing schema activities may include building a fence, drawing circles around objects, or moving food to the edge of the plate.
The transforming schema is all about change. Phenomenons such as how materials can change their state, mixing substances together, and changes in seasons.
Transforming schema activities may include melting ice, or experiencing the rain.
Popular materials for investigating this schema: play dough, sand, mud, soil (for mixing and discovering how materials change consistency when wet or dry).
When investigating the orienteering schema, children are discovering how things look from a different point of view. It builds their confidence in physical activities and games, and helps them to learn to anticipate how another player may move.
Orienteering schema activities may include swinging upside down, gymnastics, trips to the park or sitting in a supermarket trolley facing the wrong way.
Popular toys for exploring this schema: twister.
Early years learning is most effective when it supports children’s natural learning behaviours and patterns. When you observe your children experimenting with various schemas, consider how you may offer resources or plan experiences that will motivate them to explore further.