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Let 'Em Spin. They're Learning.

by Meghan Fitzgerald

A few years back in a Tinkergarten class, we were helping parents spot meaningful patterns of behavior in their kids' play and what those patterns meant, developmentally. A father in class said that seeing this insight reflected in his twin girls’ play made him feel like a “child whisperer.”

As both mom and educator, I love those moments. They remind us to do what expert educator John Holt says—“Trust children.” It’s easier said than done, though, right? Adult brains and kid brains work so differently—and in this moment we’re more aware of that than ever!   

Kids’ minds are messy, and they need to repeat actions and experiences in order to streamline and strengthen their brains—essentially, that is how early learning works. For us, armed with only an efficient adult mind, it can be easy to miss the incredible learning and development that happens when kids repeat and repeat and repeat the same, simple patterns as they play.

Experts call a certain set of these patterns "behavioral schema" — and you’ll recognize them right away. For example, does your child spin in circles? That’s a schema called “rotation.” Do they line things up in rows? Yup, that’s known as “trajectory.” We call the pattern of packing, moving and dumping objects “transporting.” Without any teaching, regardless of culture, kids all over the world exhibit and repeat these patterns when they play. 


Once you know about these patterns, you’ll notice them all the time. Plus, because they are so engaging, kids will stick with them for long periods. Kids have fun. We get stretches of independent play (and maybe some time to get work done!). And, we can trust that  a natural, brain-building process is happening. Win-win for the team!

What are some of the patterns?

Here are a few more examples of common patterns or schema:

  • Children all over the world demonstrate the “transporting” schema when they fill a container with smaller objects, move that container about, dump and repeat.
  • Kids who line up their action figures in a long, straight line are enacting the “trajectory” schema.
  • Hiding out in forts or other cozy spots can be evidence of "enclosing and enveloping" schema.
  • Does your kid mix and mash the different parts of dinner to make a soupy mess? Yup, that’s “transforming.”
  • Kids who spin, roll or get mesmerized by watching a ceiling fan go around and around are engaged in the "rotation" schema.

Want to take a deep dive into common schema and how to spot them? Click here to download a PDF with even more information.

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The study of "behavioral schema"

I first heard of behavioral schema nearly ten years ago, when I was trained as a Forest School Leader in London. It turns out the name “behavioral schema” is derived from the work of developmental psychologist Jean Piaget. Piaget used the term “schema” to describe how kids, mentally and physically, build mental models of the world around them. . It’s part of children’s natural process of building understanding and knowledge. Repeating the actions help kids develop concepts. For example, if I line up objects now, I build mental models that will help me sequence information later.

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Using schema to better teach our kids

Just learning that these patterns exist, have names and are universal helps any adult see young children’s play as learning. Suddenly, our children are not wasteful as they pile stickers randomly onto a piece of paper (or the new wooden table); they are enacting the “connecting” schema, engaging in a natural, valuable process that results in a stronger brain and greater understanding of their world. When your young child is struggling for selfhood, our “child-whisperer” powers become so precious.

Once we know how to spot schema, we also naturally become more curious. The more curious we are about kids’ behavior, the more we start to do as Magda Gerber advises:

“Observe more. Do less.” 

When adults act as observers, we ease up on directing kids, giving them more space to initiate their own learning through play. Freed from the burden of directing, we are also able to notice and learn even more about a child’s interests and capabilities, giving us new opportunities to support his or her learning.

To support schema, you can start with simply getting out of the way. Then, you can look for ways to give kids even more opportunities to engage in the schema that interest them most. If your child loves to spin (“rotation” schema), let him go for it, even if you fear he’ll pop his cookies. Better yet, if you notice he is really into spinning, invite him to roll down a hill. When he stirs a pot of potion outside, tell him you notice how hard he is working at stirring around and around. Or, flip a bike or stroller over and marvel together at a spinning wheel.

The more opportunities kids have to engage in schema, the better. If you haven’t tried before, make a note to step back and notice schema in a child’s play, then look for ways to honor or support it. There is much to gain from these often unseen glimpses into the growing mind at work. And, luckily, they are right there for the spotting.

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