I don’t know how atypical I am as a parent, but I do like to watch my children play rather more than I like to join in. I find it fascinating to watch them evolve their own little worlds of play and to see what unfolds in their minds.

I’ve ascertained that I feel guilty about most things and occasionally think that I should get more involved. I’m just not exactly sure what I would do – am I meant to guide play by bringing out set toys? Perhaps set up a scene for them to exist within? Or tell them what certain objects are for and what they should act out? I’m just not sure I have the capacity to sit and push a train back and forth.

That’s not to say that I’m not around whilst they are playing; I just like to stop and observe from afar. I’m happy to act on instruction and set things out, and I find that this usually results in a day of play that’s varied and fun. For example, today Katie has played with her playdoh, played with her Sylvanians, and is currently scooting round the house with her rucksack on playing ‘ambulance driver who also runs coffee shop.’ I’ve had to facilitate this by occasionally fetching things or setting things up in a certain way, but I have a feeling that if I had to tried to interfere it would’ve resulted in some severe reprimanding.

Thomas is also really interesting to watch at the moment because he doesn’t particularly gravitate towards a type of toy. In fact sometimes, he would be happier playing with wires and plugs. In honesty he would actually be in heaven sitting up high and dropping things on the floor.

I was thinking about these patterns of play and reminded of something that I read at University on ‘play schemas’:These are really just patterns of repeatable behaviour that are noticed in young children’s play. I think we all know that children learn a huge amount about the world around them through play. Indeed, I would be happy for school to be far more play based for a lot longer; so why bother thinking about exactly how they are playing?

I’ve found it useful to think about schemas for a number of reasons. Firstly, I like to understand what motivates my children so I can best facilitate them in exploring the world how they would like to. Secondly, I don’t want to waste money on toys that are thoroughly unlikely to interest them. For example – Katie was obsessed with Thomas the Tank Engine as a toddler but utterly uninterested in pushing trains round a track. It was just not her thing. By understanding the schemas that she showed, I could really aim to provide toys that she would enjoy the most.

I also think it’s helpful to remember that not all children will follow all schemas; some children with show a strong preference and some will show a preference for several at once. Others will show a really strong preference that may be quickly replaced with another.

I try to remember this when I am looking at that child who can sit and build blocks for hours, whilst mine has used the blocks to climb on something perilously high up – it’s actually not that one is better behaved or ‘more developed’ – they are just displaying different schemas!

So what are the schemas and how can you facilitate them?


Building blocks, laying track, and of course … breaking them up again. This has been a mainstay with Thomas over the last few months as we stack his Ikea cups repeatedly as he laughs maniacally as they fall down. He also loves putting lids on things and taking them off repeatedly or playing with latches (and often trapping his fingers.)


This is probably the easiest schema to provide for given you could just let them play with the contents of the Tupperware cupboard. However, given my Mum still owns our 35 year-old Brio train track – I would recommend this as it really is a toy that lasts! I’ve lost count of the children who have played with it over the years and whilst Thomas’ preference is for destruction right now – it’s a toy that can easily cope with this type of play!

Enclosure and enveloping

This is essentially just covering things up, whether it’s themselves or other objects or posting things through spaces.

Katie has a strange game she likes to play that encapsulates this perfectly called ‘Christmas present’. The essence of which is you take it in turns to be wrapped up in a blanket. Sometimes, if you’re particularly unlucky it involves being ‘taped and labelled’ which just seems to translate as being patted enthusiastically.

Thomas of course adores hiding under a blanket and playing ‘keek-a-boo’ but equally would spend hours posting things through the bars of the gate to the playroom for no apparent rhyme or reason!


The simplest way to enable this scheme of play in my mind is to facilitate den building. Whilst I’m not a fan of having a messy house, this was always a favourite of Ben’s too. We have a large array of blankets, big mesh nets, and the ability to move furniture.


Do you know what it’s like to hang upside down?

If you think about it – you do, but probably not from a recent experience. Rather it’s something we do as children to learn about orientation. Whether it’s viewing things from underneath or perhaps up high – some children really like to do this.

Thomas particular has taken to pushing Katie’s Tripp Trapp chair round the kitchen in order to climb up it as high as possible to view different things. This of course alarms us gravely and I’m certain will result in tears eventually, but he seems to want to view the world from a great height!


His nursery have tried to facilitate his climbing by bring a climbing frame into the room – which is is enjoying greatly – but we’ve also made an effort to embrace his one by finding toddler friendly parks and by embracing the horror of soft play – where at least everything is padded and you’re meant to climb!


This one often manifests itself with children picking up and moving objects all over the house. Perhaps shoving a random selection in a bag or bucket and taking it all to some unknown spot – in my house this would inevitably include my car keys.

This has always been an absolute favourite for Katie and she will absolutely utilise a range of bags, her dolls pram, and her wooden push truck.


In my mind this Wooden Doll Pram by Brio would perfectly fit the bill for this one – easily spacious and robust enough for lots of stuff but equally could be used in a variety of ways.


This is being interested in anything that turns or spins. With this one I always think of my friend’s little boy who was definitely more amazed by the washing machine than anything CBeebies could provide!

Whilst Katie seemed to bypass this one, I can see this being of growing interest in Thomas right now as he’s begun to take more interest in toy cars and trucks. He has particularly focused on the wheels and pushing them back and forth whilst his head is glued to the floor to get the best look at the motion!

Obviously it’s easy to spin kids round or find a roundabout at the park – but I think toy cars etc. are great as they can be used in so many different ways.


Thomas has been really taken with this Playmobil 1.2.3 Coach at Grandma’s house. Obviously it has great wheels, but has a space for suitcases you can open and close – and can of course transport things. The little play figures are great to throw about (and aren’t aerodynamic enough to get that far) which brings us on to…


Throwing, climbing, jumping, spraying water by shoving hands under the tap…? Whilst these things could be described as naughty behaviour they actually all fall under the trajectory schema! Thomas would happily sit in his highchair for hours and just chuck stuff on the floor. Whilst trying behaviour for me – at least he’s learning?!


Are you ever grossed out by your child putting their dinner into their cup of water?

I hope it’s not just me – but Katie has always had a tendency to try and either tip her drink into her dinner or add things to her cup. Whilst I’d like to discourage this version of ‘transforming’ it is obviously a way of learning!

‘Potion making’ might best be reserved for a bucket in the garden, but an obvious way to facilitate this one is obviously baking! Always a favourite in our house – here’s a really simple recipe I shared that only uses a yoghurt pot to measure out the ingredients.

Whilst obviously there are more schemas, and others that display later on in childhood – it’s definitely something I would recommend on reading up on – and facilitating even if it’s in a bit of a haphazard way!

I’m no child psychologist but even on a basic level, I think it’s fun to try and understand the crazy world that seems to exist in my children’s mind and just go with it! I can’t imagine it’s an experience I’ll ever get to have again. Do you recognise these patterns in your children? I’d love to hear your experiences!

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