Play is important for a child’s learning and social development. It helps them to understand about the world around them, how to interact with others and how to expand their creativity and imagination.
Play also helps a child grow its levels of maturity, by encouraging skills associated with mental and physical growth. As a child plays, either alone or with others, that child learns to copy and to question why. The child will gather information and by processing this information into play gains knowledge without realising it.
In a society so concerned with pushing academic achievement, it is interesting to consider just how important play is in a child’s learning. Young children can often learn more through exploring and play than they can through textbooks.
For parents, our child’s play can sometimes be confusing however. It may seem pointless and quite often more than a little tedious when we are asked to read the same book at bed every night until we can repeat the words without even looking; or when we are expected to play the same games over and over, building towers out of bricks and knocking them down, each time having to perform the same enthusiastic laughter.
This will sound only too familiar for a lot of parents. However, when we understand a little more about our child’s play we can take heart that our time invested in this repetitive play is helping our child to develop their schemas.
A schema is a mental concept that helps a child to learn what to expect from certain experiences or situations.
Psychologist Jean Piaget (1896-1980) called the schema the basic building block of intelligent behaviour – a way of organising knowledge. When Piaget talked about the development of a child’s mental processes, he was referring to the increase in the number and the complexity of the schemata that child had learned.
Each schema can be seen as relating to different aspects of a child’s world. Many children will develop a preference for a certain schema and you may see your child repeating and enjoying certain activities more than others. The following are some of the main schema you may observe.
Playing with toys that have wheels such as cars or trains, using them to transport objects from one place to another. Carrying things with their hands, trying to carry as many things as possible at one time. Filling up buckets, jars or similar containers.
Climbing inside boxes, making dens or cages and climbing inside. Putting toy animals behind a fence, or all the cars in the garage. Squeezing into the tightest spaces such as kitchen cupboards.
This schema includes throwing or dropping toys, climbing and jumping. Sometimes a child who enjoys playing within this schema can be misunderstood and thought to be misbehaving. Also, putting hands under running water, as this is interaction with things that are already moving.
A child may want to hang upside down, just to know what it is like to do so. Some children like to sit under the table or bend down and look backwards between their legs.
This includes playing with jigsaw puzzles or building train tracks; anything that fits together or forms a sequence. Some children like to consistently line up all their cars and parents of children who enjoy playing in this schema have been known to get concerned about the obsessiveness their child can display. It can be really useful in such situations for parents to understand a little about schemas and the reasons for the way their child plays.
Children like to hide under a sheet, or cover other people with the sheet. They also like to wrap objects up like a parcel and deliver it to you as a ‘present’.
In order to develop a schema, a child will repeat the same activities and processes; and that’s the reason you sit and build the tower so many times with them, or play hide and seek over and over (quite often being told where you have to hide!). We are all familiar with the shouts of “Again, again!”.
They do this firstly to learn a schema and then to test it. If something challenges a schema that they have learned they will make necessary adjustments to accommodate that new situation.
So, for example, your child learns that they can put sand in a truck and push it along a path to empty it at the other side. They then try to perform the same action on an unlevelled path and all the sand falls out. The child then learns about smooth and bumpy surfaces and continues to test their theory of sand transportation in a variety of different places.
If you know that your child has a preference for some schema over others, you will stand more chance of connecting with them through play. For those of us with limited time available for play, it can be really helpful to understand what your child enjoys and indeed why they enjoy it, as this can help us to maximise enjoyment both for our child and for ourselves.
In understanding play there is the added benefit of giving our child a self-esteem boost at the same time. If your child thinks you are enjoying the same activities and games that they enjoy they will see them as worthwhile. Helping to increase their self-esteem will in turn increase their learning. It’s only natural that if we believe something we are doing is important and that we are good at it that will encourage us to continue
It is so easy to dismiss our children’s repetitive behaviour as ‘ridiculous’ or ‘tedious’, but if we really try to respect and indulge these activities, what we may just end up with is children who feel connected with us, understood, and supported to continue learning.