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Schemas – How To Understand And Extend Your Child’s Behaviour
What are Schemas?
A Schema is a pattern of repetitive behaviour, which is very common in young children's play. The repetitive behaviour is familiar and comforting to young children, and allows them to explore new experiences with a sense of familiarity.
For example, a child may repeatedly carry toys from one spot to another in a bag, or spend a lot of time pushing another child around in a toy pram. This would be the Transporting Schema. The child may be used to Transporting toys in the comfort of home, and upon entering a new environment, like a friend's house, the Transporting Schema will allow the child to remain in a comfort zone despite being somewhere new.
Please note that I am talking about Schematic Behaviour, not to be confused with the more popular understanding of the word Schema by Piaget.
In brief, Piaget’s definition of a Schema is firstly a way of categorising knowledge and the process of obtaining and modifying that knowledge. For instance, a child may have a Schema about dogs, whereby he categorises dogs as anything with four legs and a tail. Then a cat comes along, and he calls it a dog, to which his mother says no, it’s a cat, see? Meow. So he will then modify his schema of dogs to be animals with four legs and a tail that do not meow, and cats as animals with four legs and a tail that do meow.
How are Schemas useful?
Understanding schemas are useful for helping to understand a child’s motivation for doing something. From there, we can extend their learning by matching learning opportunities based on their individual interests
For example, take a child who’s interested in transporting and exhibits the Transporting Schema. During sand play, you’d have greater success at engaging his interest by having him move sand in buckets and trucks, as opposed to asking him to dig or bury objects.
Do all children follow schemas?
Although children often show particular schemas in their play, not all children will follow schemas. In addition, some will show one particular schema particularly strongly and others will show several at once. Sometimes one schema which has been particularly strong will even seem to fade, possibly to be replaced by another.
I think my child is exhibiting a schema! He’s obsessively repeating his behaviour! Should I be worried?
Calm down, there’s nothing to worry about. Your child is not abnormal, and his behaviour is not a result of any wrong-doing or neglect on your part.
What should I do? Should I ignore it, or discourage it?
There is no need to try to remove schematic behaviour from your child. Schematic behaviour is not something negative. In fact, think of it as a way of better understanding and predicting your child’s behaviour. Use this knowledge and understanding to connect with your child and drive his learning.
If he likes transporting things, get him a container to collect his toys off the floor and transport them to be tidied after play. If he likes enveloping, get him different materials she could use to cover things with, and ask him what he understands about the materials and what he’s doing.
My boy likes rotating things. Shouldn’t boys be more interested in connecting and constructing things?
I’m not going to get into an argument on gender neutrality and male/female rights. In my personal opinion, every child is a unique individual, and should be cherished as such. If a boy wants to play with dolls, or a girl likes pretending to be Ben 10, I say as long as nobody is being harmed and the child is happy, GREAT! The other children will not say things like ‘Boys shouldn’t play with dolls’ unless they pick it up from an adult.
Of course most parents might be concerned if their boy spent a lot of transporting things in women's handbags. In which case, if they so choose, they could just extend the Transporting Schema to a different carrying container, i.e. a box or a brown bag, which the adult may find more 'sociably acceptable'.
Table 1: Some Easily Identifiable Schemas
A child may carry all the bricks from one place to another in a bag, the sand from the tray to the home corner in a bucket, push a friend around in a toy pram.
A child may cover themselves in a flannel when washing, wrap dolls and toys up in blankets and fabric, cover their painting with one colour.
A child may put their thumb in and out of their mouth, fill up and empty containers of all kinds, climb into large cartons, sit in the tunnel, build 'cages' with blocks.
A child may gaze at your face, drop things from their cot, make arcs in their spilt food with their hand, play with the running water in the bathroom, climb up and jump off furniture, line up the cars, bounce and kick balls, throw. Rotation A child may be fascinated by the
A child may be fascinated by the spinning washing machine, love anything with wheels, roll down a hill, enjoy spinning round or being swung around.
A child may distribute and collect objects to and from a practitioner, spend time joining the train tracks together, stick the masking tape form across form the table to the chair.
A child may put things on their head, prefer their custard next to their sponge not over it, lie on the floor or under the table.
A child may add juice to their mashed potato, sand to the water tray, enjoy adding colour to cornflour or making dough.
Table 2: Child's Possible Preferences According to Schema
Train track, construction, string, sellotape
Enveloping (covering, surrounding)
Dens, things in boxes, envelopes, dressing up, wrapping 'presents'
Circle games, wheels, roundabouts, spinning tops, kaleidoscopes
Trajectory (straight lines)
Throwing games, woodwork, percussion, football, playing with running water
Transporting (moving things)
Shopping bags, buggies, trailers
Do you notice any schematic behaviour in your children? Please share your thoughts in the comments section!