The Play Schema Gift Guide


Ever since he was able to manipulate objects, my son, Wayland has loved to line things up. We noticed it very early on in his life, and my in-laws made comments about how my spouse did the same thing as a child. We'd have playdates with Hannah and her girls, and I used to get pretty discouraged watching my son insist on dumping every toy bin out into separate piles instead of engaging in the imaginative story the girls were creating. At 3.5 years old, he is just beginning to play pretend and personify his toys, but it seems like nothing will ever beat making little sorted piles or lining up every hot wheels car we own.


At the beginning of this year, I joined a mom group on Facebook (ridicule all you want, but there's a lot of things I've learned from mom groups. You just gotta find the right ones without all the mama drama) that focused on limiting screen-time. I loved this group for all the creative play and activity ideas I got from it, but I figured it was a good place to bring up Wayland's interesting play style. I posted a picture of Captain Tiny himself with one of his classic car lineups and asked if any of the other parents had seen their children play this way versus the typical "play pretend" type of thing. I got an overwhelming response of "YES", but more importantly, I got an overwhelming response of, "HERE'S WHY", and thus, I was introduced to the world of schemas.


Since I'm not trying to reinvent the wheel and write an entire blog post centered around schemas, what they are, how they came to be, etc., I'll simply pass along a link to Nature Play's website that gives the general gist of schemas. Basically, it's like the framework in a child's brain that tells them how to do something. It's the reason a person might feel they need to get dressed before they do their hair, or tie the left shoe before the right. Kind of like an instinctual set of internal instructions that might not make sense to someone else.


Connecting these schemas to our children's play is an indicator of early cognitive and behavioral development. I'd also like to note that sometimes kids do things we don't want them to do, like throwing food or breaking apart their toys. It's very comforting and nice to understand that these behaviors are driven by schemas, and neither you nor your child are doing a bad job. For me, it helped me understand Wayland a bit more clearly, and I was able to let go of the "why doesn't he play like other kids?" feeling in the back of my mind. I wasn't ever majorly upset or concerned by his play, but it's always nice to take any "why's" that you go through as a parent--so much of our role consists of uncertainties. Instead of sitting back and wondering why he interacts with the world in the way he does, I am now able to encourage his development and have more meaningful play time with him. I was really excited about this shift, and that's why I'm sharing with you!


I honestly had never heard of schemas before 2020, and it has changed the way we play and shop for our son immensely. I can look up whatever schema Wayland is involved in on Pinterest and get a million DIY ideas or toy recommendations right then and there. Of course, we try not to constantly be buying new toys, but whenever birthdays or holidays come around, I like having this knowledge to make sure whatever we do purchase is meaningful and actually holds his attention longer than 5 minutes. I feel good knowing I am assisting in his development and putting our money to good use. So here's a basic list of schemas, interests your child might have in relation, and some accompanying links to a toy or activity that can support your child in each one (we may earn a small commission from these links, but we never recommend anything we don't think you'll love):


  1. Connection - Joining things together or breaking them apart. Making bridges, putting train tracks together, working on jigsaw puzzles, tying, wrapping, taking things apart. Make paper chains, or maybe some string spider webs for Halloween. Notice what objects around your house your child likes to take apart. Wooden Train Set | Waffle Blocks | Lacing Boards

  2. Enclosure - Containing objects inside boundaries, borders, boxes, etc. Creating fences with food or toys. Enclosing themselves in boxes, tunnels, cabinets, etc. Making forts, making tiny homes for dolls/fairy gardens, putting things into containers with lids, framing art. Stacking dishes/Tupperware, moats in the sand, sitting in laundry baskets. Tissue Box Toy | Dino Terrarium Light Kit | Nesting Food Storage Containers With Colored Lids

  3. Enveloping - Hiding or covering objects or themselves. Playing dress up, stashing objects in secret places, wrapping presents, burying toys in sand or water, painting over the entirety of themselves or an object, papier-mâché crafts. Focusing on object permanence, tracking, and spatial awareness. They might like baking things that involve stuffing or filling where one ingredient is covered by another. Six Foot Play Parachute | Kinetic Sand | Object Permanence Box

  4. Orientation - Interest in different viewpoints, angles, or alignments. Hanging upside down, walking along walls, rolling or spinning, climbing, getting underneath or on top of tables, couches, chairs, etc. Interesting things might include yoga, mirror play, coloring in different positions, hopping from one object to another. Wooden Climbing Triangle | Helper Kitchen Stool | Trapeze Swing Bar

  5. Positioning (Here's Wayland!) - Lining up or arranging objects or themselves. Sorting items into color, size, shape, etc. Stacking and balancing items, making piles, arranging flowers, matching, setting the table, stacking books, dominos, buttons sorting. Lite Brite | Wooden Rainbow Stacker | Mosaic Sticker Art

  6. Rotation - Interest in things that spin. Circles galore! Twirling themselves or objects, twisting, rolling cars, watching objects roll along a track, merry-go-rounds, mixing or stirring, gears and cogs, staring at the washing machine, pinwheels, tops, spirals, etc. Design & Drill Kit | Adjustable Hula Hoop | Sit n' Spin

  7. Trajectory - Interest in the movement of objects or themselves. Throwing, dropping, rolling, pushing, etc. The more movement, the better. Jumping off of things, bumping into things, drumming or hitting things, feeling running water or rushing air, letting go of food or utensils while sitting in a high chair, throwing balls or toys, etc. Kitchen Play Sink | Foam Bowling Set | Dino Bean Bag Toss Game

  8. Transforming - Combining objects/ingredients. Mixing foods, paints, mud and water, etc. Making slime (I know, we're all tired of it), assisting with mixing in the kitchen, helping with laundry (throwing lots of things into a basket), DIY science experiments, food coloring activities, sensory bottles, rice bins, tie-dye activities. Tie-Dye Kit | Science Experiment Kit | Wooden Mud Kitchen

  9. Transporting - Moving objects or themselves. Carrying objects in hands, pockets, tote bags, backpacks, buckets, etc. Pushing strollers or carts at the store. Dump trucks and diggers in the sand/dirt. Wagons, pulleys, levers, transferring objects from one container to another. Gardening is a great bonding activity (although I know we're headed into colder weather here). Realistic Mini Shopping Cart | Construction Truck Toys | Counting Bears

So there you have it! Of course, just by looking at the list, we can all infer that my little guy is involved with the positioning schema. I would add that he also holds Trajectory very near to his heart, which my constantly shattered phone screen can attest to. Truth be told, I have observed almost all of these different schemas in his life at different times, and I love having this knowledge in my back pocket to be able to direct his play in a direction that will keep him engaged and support his development. For all you visual-learning people, check out this activity chart and list of schemas at the end of this post, created by the amazing Montessori-Minded Mom.


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