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Schema Play is a science-backed way to keep your child learning without too much supervision. If you're trying to balance working from home and taking care of kids right now, this approach could be a game changer.

While repetitive play can get boring for parents of young children, doing the same thing over and over again actually keeps kids engaged. The trick is to identify the patterns in your child’s behavior — or their Schema — and match activities accordingly. Then, you can let your child enjoy the activity on their own and hopefully get some work done yourself.

Think of Schemas as specific actions children tend to repeat. They can include things like: connecting, transporting, or positioning. ”Schema Play allows children and babies to construct knowledge through their self-driven play and exploration,” explains Emily Owen, PhD, a Cleo Family Guide trained in developmental psychology.

“When teachers and parents can identify and capitalize on children's natural play patterns, we see increased focused attention.”

According to Emily, Schema Play allows a child to interact with the environment based on internal, intrinsic motivations. “When teachers and parents can identify and capitalize on children's natural play patterns, we see increased focused attention, as well as improved shared attention.” Emily has helped Cleo Families implement Schema Play with positive results.

The evidence from developmental and educational psychology research suggests strongly that Schema Play is essential for a rich and powerful learning experience. It’s also an important tool for parents looking to engage their children for longer periods of time while they work from home.

Below are patterns typically seen in Schema Play and some ways to encourage them. Remember, it won’t work to just apply any Schema activity. You will need to match the activity to the Schema your child is currently working on themselves.

8 Schemas and How to Use Them

Transporting Schema: moving objects from one place to another.

  • How it might show up: stuffing things in pockets, carrying many objects all at once.
  • Play you can encourage: using a wheelbarrow; collecting objects and moving them to areas of the room; rolling cars.

Rotation Schema: twisting or turning objects or yourself.

  • How it might show up: spinning around in circles.
  • Play you can encourage: twirling while dancing; twisting fabric; mixing baking materials together.

Connecting Schema: joining things together.

  • How it might show up: fascination with the buckle on a car seat or highchair.
  • Play you can encourage: making paper chains; tying toys with a ribbon; connecting legos.

Enclosing Schema: building round, square, or rectangular enclosures.

  • How it might show up: putting stuffed animals in enclosed spaces.
  • Play you can encourage: drawing frames around art; building a fort; playing in a cardboard box.

Positioning Schema: ordering and arranging objects.

  • How it might show up: lining up their food in specific ways at meal time.
  • Play you can encourage: lining up toys; balancing games.

Enveloping Schema: covering yourself or objects with something.

  • How it might show up: hiding objects, including themselves.
  • Play you can encourage: stuffing objects into pillow cases; playing with socks on hands; playing bedtime and wrapping dolls in blankets.

Orientation Schema: looking at things through different viewpoints.

  • How it might show up: bending over to look up.
  • Play you can encourage: playing with magnifying glasses; using mirrors.

Trajectory Schema: moving objects or yourself in horizontal or vertical directions.

  • How it might show up: dropping food at meal times; pouring water in the bath.
  • Play you can encourage: clapping hands back and forth; stepping up and down a stool; playing with water in different containers.

As a parent, you likely have an idea of what repetitive behavior — or Schema — your child gravitates to. If you offer activities that encourage those behaviors, there’s a good chance they will play on their own. It’s a win-win for everyone. To learn more about Schema Play, check out these resources.

More Schema Play Ideas