How I support schematic play at home.

As I sit down to drink my coffee and write up this post my two-year-old daughter is pushing a dolls pram filled with onions around the kitchen. Meanwhile my eldest daughter at 3.5 year old is carrying an armful of spice jars leaving a trail of yellow powdery turmeric in her wake. She adds them one at a time to a long line of spice jars before going back for more. 

I imagine you too have observed these repeated and coherent patterns of behavior or ‘forms of thought’ that are known as ‘schemas’ or what I like to refer to as ‘play urges’. For my youngest it is transportation, for my eldest it is transportation and positioning. There is a whole list of schema’s that you might have observed in your childs play: trajectory, containment, enclosure, enveloping and rotation. These very repetitive patterns of behaviour can often seem quite strange, pointless and sometimes massively inconvenient, but, whilst wiping up the trail of yellow and tripping over another onion in the process, I remind myself how important they are for our children’s development.

Knowing about schemas helps us understand and make sense of our children’s behavior and it also helps us see the value in providing our children with opportunities for uninterrupted, child-led play with open-ended toys or materials.

Van Wijk et al (2006) came up with this helpful description of schema’s

“Children’s schemas seem to make them alert to certain events and properties of objects in their environment. Schemas seem to be part of their motivation for learning, their insatiable desire to move, represent, discuss, question and find out. Children seem to take from the environment the elements that make sense to them and that match their schemas at the time” (van Wijk et al. 2006)

As an Early Years educator and a parent I spend time observing children in ‘child-led’ play (this is play that is self-initiated and self-directed compared to play which is introduced by the adult). By allowing children to choose what and how they play we begin to see these schemas unfold and we are able to better design an environment that allows children to express and explore these natural play urges.

So how do I support my children’s schema development at home?

Make time for uninterrupted, child-led play – children need the time and space to express and explore their play urges. I am careful not to over schedule them with structured activities. Young children need opportunities everyday to become engaged and engrossed in play of their own choosing. I try to make sure that we spend part of our day at home with no agenda so that the girls are free to just play.

Observe our children in ‘child-led’ play – child-led play is when they are most likely to express these play urges.  I often see lots of different activities that seem to have nothing in common, for example A might play on the slide, she might then head off to play with the vehicles, they might then climb up on to the sofa and practice jumping off. When we look a little closer at these activities and apply our knowledge of schemas we notice that all of these activities involve trajectory, which refers to all forms of movement taking place in all directions either with objects or with their own bodies. Once we know that our child is working on a particular schema we can provide more opportunities for them to explore it. For example I might leave a piece of cardboard and a basket of cars out for them to roll the cars down or look for more opportunities to explore trajectories with their whole bodies such as soft play or a playground with climbing equipment.

Create a ‘yes’ space where play can take place – I believe that if we keep interrupting play because we are concerned about safety then children will become discouraged. Everyone’s yes space looks different and will evolve as our children get older. It might be a whole room with a safety gate and plug sockets covered and a soft mat or it might be a large playpen. As long as its safe and allows children to explore without interference from us then that’s fine.

Realise there is no right or wrong way to play with toys and materials – another way in which I think we tend to interrupt and interfere with children’s play is when we hold preconceived ideas about how something should be played with or used. As long as the way the my child has chosen to play with something isn’t putting them or another child in danger, it is ok with me. In fact it’s better than ok, it’s creative and its their way of expressing and exploring their play urges.

Provide open-ended toys and materials -We use a lot of loose parts in play at home. These are everyday objects, found or bought that can be used in many different ways or represent many different things. They provide a great opportunity for children to work on their schemas. For example some corks are transported (carried from one place to another), contained (placed inside boxes or bags), enveloped (wrapped up in silk scarves) or lined up (positioning).

Look for inspiration based on schemas and not your child’s age – There are so many beautiful Instagram and Pinterest posts labeled as ‘activities for 16 month olds’ but I have noticed that, when replicated with my own 16 month old they showed next to no interest or they didn’t use the materials in the intended way. This is likely because my child and the child the original activity was intended for are not working on the same schemas. Rather than looking at inspiration categorized by age, looking at inspiration based on schemas can be very helpful.

Ultimately, I believe we need to hold an image of the child as competent and capable protagonists in their own learning, with an innate ability and drive to learn. We need to trust that their play is not meaningless and respect their play choices. When play is always parent/adult-directed we are aren’t allowing our children the opportunity to play in ways that meet their current developmental needs. By sitting back and observing their play unfold we can identify their interests and play urges and better support them.

Van wijk. N., Simmonds, A., Cubey, P., and Mitchell, L., with Bulman, R., Wilson, M., and Wilton playcentre members (2006) Transforming learning at Wilton Playcentre, New Zealand Council for Educational Research

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