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How Kids Get Smart (clue: it involves getting out of their way!)

Updated: Oct 2, 2023

When we say that child’s play is the work of the child, or, that child’s play IS learning, we really mean it. Here’s why.

Does your child seem to play in the same way over and over again?

Has your child spent hours arranging items in a line, all the time?

Does your child seem to spend a lot of time on the swings?

Does your child pour liquid in and out of various containers endlessly?

How about building a tower of blocks just to hit it and cause the tower to tumble down (or better yet, someone else’s tower!)?

We're guessing you've answered yes to a few of these above, and that's because its only natural for children to play this way. These repetitive play patterns are called schemas. It may be tempting to steer your child’s interest and exploration into something different and new but these patterns of play are necessary as your child forms an understanding of the physical world. The repetitive play experiences are stored deep in their memories. When habits form we create a superhighway in our brains (and they say it takes at least 21 repetitions to form a habit). The more we do something, the more it embeds in our brains as something we can do, as we move from incompetent to unconsciously competent. In the words of Dr Dan Siegel, author of The Power of Showing Up, “Neurons that fire together, wire together.” So, it’s great when kids try something time and time again, they’re really working things out!

What are Schemas?

On a basic level, play schemas are deep-rooted urges to do something. In our Forest School sessions, we acknowledge these urges. We recognize that the play urges are strong and come spontaneously with an opportunity which is why it is hard to stop a child to stop throwing things or dropping things from a height. Our nature space is filled with opportunities for children to indulge their urges to play and our Forest School sessions give them the time and the space to do this. Children are allowed to interact with the natural world and feel its vibrancy and diversity.

“Children need diverse experiences to draw on, to create an internal map or schema of how to deal with similar experiences in the future.”

Sara Knight, Risk and Adventure in the Early Years Outdoor Play

Understanding Schemas

If you understand the schemas it will allow you to view play through your child’s eyes and identify how your child is developing. You'll appreciate repetitive play behaviour and begin to trust your child's method of learning about the world around them. It’ll help you to do so much for your child, such as setting up fun play spaces at home, identifying what gifts to buy at the next birthday, and deciding where to take your child at the weekend. It will help you to be respectful of your child’s interests.

To illustrate, when I noticed that my son, 6, was still into building, out of all sorts of materials, and had been since he was a toddler, we made it a priority to provide both of our boys with plenty of room to create, construct, and move. We dedicated a large portion of the living room to their play area. There is a LEGO set, a Woodieboard, blocks and loose parts play items to inspire them.

Accepted Schemas

Check out our gallery for details on the main accepted play schemas you might see in your own child's play.

How can you use schemas to help your child?


The most powerful thing you can do to support your child’s exploration is to observe. Through careful observation without intervention, you will be able to unpack the learning that is taking place and understand your child’s non-verbal cues. It will also allow you to be more aware of what your child is trying to make sense of.

“Stand aside for a while and leave room for learning. Observe carefully what children do, and then if you have understood well, perhaps teaching will be different from before.”

Loris Malaguzzi

Provide a Variety of Materials

When children are given the opportunity to explore with a variety of materials, they develop an understanding of how different materials feel, move and respond to their surroundings. This is something the Reggio Emilia approach is referring to – The Hundred Languages of Children. When children interact with different materials, they will be able to make informed decisions when they have to select materials for their projects or play experiences in the future.

Let the play flow organically

Although many of us are too busy to interfere with our children's self-directed play, but sometimes they ask us to take part when we're free to join in. When this happens do you find yourself suddenly directing what's going on? Jumping in with your knowledge of what you know will happen before your child can see for themselves? It's really important to go at your child's pace and rhythm. Slow down, and let mistakes happen. Your child is intuitive and understands their own needs. Your child will be interacting with the toys/materials in a way that they are physically and emotionally ready for. It will also be repetitive, so be prepared to push that train around that track for as long as needed (warning, this may be years!).

What to do if the exploration of the schema is causing trouble

Sometimes, your child might be making bad decisions when exploring their schemas. For example, what if they keep knocking down other children's towers whilst exploring disconnection? Or how about throwing stones at cars or buildings? If your child is exploring something that is undesirable then it’s ok to intervene, sometimes essential. Always explain why you have intervened and help your child to understand, through your words, understanding, and patience, that actions have consequences. Then move on to provide a sensible alternative, such as throwing stones in the sea, or knocking down the towers that you build. Even better, help your child to identify a more acceptable way to explore their schema.

Take our Challenge!

Can you guess the schema? Have a go at guessing the schemas shown in the video, then set aside some time to join your child at their play and see if your newfound knowledge helps you to view their play in a different way.

Remember that it’s ok to stand back and let your child do the same thing over and over again. You are allowing your child to develop naturally, satisfy their curiosity, and learn at their own pace. Once their urges are satisfied, they will naturally progress and often do so faster than if these experiences were orchestrated or interrupted. Your child is creating superhighways in their brains about how the world works and every revelation will lead to happier and smarter kids!


About Aminah

Aminah is our Senior Teacher in charge of our pre-school program for 3.5-6-year-olds. Aminah has years of experience in educating in a Reggio Emilia setting and is working on her Level 3 Forest School Leader qualification. Aminah is a mum of two young boys and you'll find her in her free time out in nature and practicing mindfulness.


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