Have you ever spent hours preparing a beautiful invitation to play only for your child to play for approximately 6.35 seconds? Maybe you’ve spent a small fortune on beautiful open-ended toys for your child to show absolutely no interest. Or maybe you keep finding your toddler playing in the dogs water bowl or throwing their toys across the room.

You are NOT alone! So often we think we’ve stumbled across an amazing idea but our child just isn’t interested…and it can be so disheartening!

But in this post, I’m going to share with you the secret to preparing a successful invitation to play…and it’s a little something called play schemas. If you’re a member of my Little Play Club membership, you’ll already know all about them because we have an entire masterclass dedicated to them inside the club! But if you’re new around here, I’m going to share some of the basics with you!

What are play schemas?

When you sit back and observe your child at play throughout the day, you’re probably going to notice them seeking out similar stimulus throughout the day. You’re probably going to notice them repeating similar patterns of behaviour over and over and over.

These patterns of repetitive behaviours are called schemas and they allow children to express and explore their ideas through play. They allow our children to repeat a pattern of behaviour over and over forming their most basic scientific understandings. This helps them to make sense of the world around them!

Through these explorations, they will be manipulating objects and exploring how they work. This kind of play connects previous understandings with new understandings, filling gaps in their knowledge all through child-led play! You’ll likely notice your child totally engrossed in their play when they’re exploring a specific schema.

You might notice your child exploring some of the following patterns:

  • Continuously throwing cups of water onto the ground
  • Playing in the running water in the bathroom
  • Lining up their toys across the floor
  • Carrying their toys in little bags or pushing them in boxes
  • Spinning the wheels on their car over and over
  • Moving toys from one place to the next
  • Covering their hands in paint every.single.time
  • Wrapping their toys in blankets
  • Hiding toys inside boxes or containers
  • Climbing into small spaces, baskets or hiding under beds

These are all related to play schemas. These behaviours are allowing your child to build a really solid foundation of scientific understandings as they play. They’re repeating the behaviour over and over to make sense of the world around them.

So what ARE the different play schemas?

We explore each of these schemas in more detail over in the Little Play Club with play ideas for each but in this blog, we’ll briefly explore what each schema is all about!

Trajectory – This one seems to appear most commonly and is all about exploring movement – how objects and their bodies move! You might notice them throwing a toy across the room and playing with taps or running water.

Rotation – This schema is all about turning and rotating objects or our bodies. You might notice your child exploring toys with wheels or spinning around and around in the backyard.

Transporting – If you notice your child transporting their toys from one room to another with a basket or bucket, they’re probably exploring the transporting schema. This one is all about moving things from one area to another.

Enveloping – This schema is all about covering themselves or objects. You might notice your child wrapping their toys or covering their hands in paint.

Enclosing – If you notice your child filling containers or bowls with food or building fences around their toys, they’re likely exploring the enclosing schema.

Connecting – This schema is all about joining things together and you’ll likely notice your child taking a keen interest in puzzles, construction toys and gluing or exploring sticky tape.

Positioning – You’ll probably notice your child lining their toys up across the floor, balancing toys on top of one another or sequencing and sorting toys. This one forms loads of early mathematical understandings and is fascinating to watch!

Using Play Schemas to inform your Invitations to Play

Once you’re able to identify a play schema appearing in your child’s day, you can then begin to develop invitations to play that allow them to explore that schema further.

For example, our almost-2-year-old Audrey has just started exploring the positioning schema. I’ve noticed her lining up our animal figurines and just yesterday spotted her placing her biscuits along the arm of the lounge in a very straight line.

I will use these observations to inspire the types of invitations I might set up for her over the coming weeks or even months so that I can provide resources that will allow her to continue exploring this schema. Loose parts will be a really useful tool for exploring this schema. I might also add a set of coloured plates and cups to the play kitchen which could inspire her to sort them between her dolls for a tea party. Lilly often loved using some wooden blocks and insects which almost always led to some positioning style play!

These play schemas are not the be all, end all when it comes to childhood development…but they certainly make quite the difference when you’re able to spot them! These play schemas give parents and educators a wonderful insight into the inner workings of our little learner’s brains. They also help us to reframe those frustrated feelings when our toddler tips their dinner straight onto the ground…again!

Have you noticed your child exploring schematic play? Tell me about it below and then grab your FREE Play Schema Cheat Sheet by filling in your details in the form below!

About the author

Casey is an early years teacher turned homeschooling mum of three who passionate about helping other parents create a play-filled home. She loves adventure days outside in nature and loves a good sensory tub. You can follow Casey on Instagram right here.

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  1. This is great, Casey! Now that you mention it, my kids are really into the "Transporting" schema. They put blocks into empty gift bags, and carry them all over the house, even to the washroom. What kind of play can I add to this? They're 2 and 4, and the four year old plays that she's going grocery shopping with the blocks, and then she's a restaurant delivering food (Yay COVID for changing the definition of a restaurant), then she's a farmer spreading birdseed… And then she gets bored, and the blocks are all over the kitchen floor. Sigh.

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