Dumping out containers or hiding objects in random cabinets may seem like just quirky toddler behavior, but there’s much more to it. When your toddler repeats certain actions and behaviors again and again, they’re doing something called “schema” play.
A schema is a cognitive framework that helps your toddler organize and interpret information. Once a schema is established, your child is able to use it as a blueprint to process similar information. This means they don’t start with a blank slate every time they face a new situation or object—previous repetition and trial and error offers them valuable clues.
“Connection,” for example, is one type of play schema. You may notice your toddler jam together two pegs from the Wooden Peg Board until they finally connect. In doing so, they construct a model in their mind of how objects physically fit together. Later, they’ll use that knowledge to connect two puzzle pieces or snap a buckle.
8 common types of schema play
Most of these forms of schema play start to appear in early toddlerhood, with the exception of positioning, which typically emerges closer to age 2.
- Enveloping: covering or hiding objects or their own body from view
- Enclosing: containing objects; creating boundaries for objects or themselves
- Orientation: viewing things from different vantage points, like from above or upside down 🙃
- Trajectory: moving objects by throwing, dropping, or rolling; moving their own body
- Connection: connecting, joining, and attaching objects together—and taking them apart again
- Rotation: spinning, twisting, rolling, and otherwise rotating objects, as well as their own body
- Transporting: moving things from one place to another, often using a container
- Positioning: creating order by putting things in order, in their correct place, obsessing over where they belong.
How to support your toddler’s schema play
Give your toddler chances to practice
If you notice your toddler working on a particular schema, you can offer toys and activities to encourage their exploration. If they love carrying things around, for example, they’re in a “transporting” schema—give them a small bucket with a handle to carry objects.
Offer appropriate alternatives
Schema play can sometimes feel frustrating to parents and caregivers. You may be at a special outing and all your child wants to do is spin the wheels on their stroller. Whenever possible, allow them to continue their play.
If their behavior is disruptive or inconvenient, try giving them an acceptable alternative. For example, if they keep hiding your car keys, see if they’d like to hide a child-safe version, like the Stainless Steel Jingle Keys.
Resist the urge to show them how to do it “right”
Schemas are developed through seemingly endless repetition that can include lots of trial and error. If your toddler is struggling to do something, let them keep trying on their own as long as they aren’t getting too frustrated.
Learn more about how Lovevery’s toys for 1-year olds can help with “schema” play.
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