Let ‘em spin! They’re learning.

by Meghan Fitzgerald

As both mom and educator, I fare better the more I follow John Holt’s two words of advice—“Trust children.” It’s easier said than done, though. Young children are disorderly, ever changing, and focus on the craziest things. To boot, many of us feel extraordinary pressure to raise and educate them in the optimal way—whatever that is—which makes it hard to let kids lead. 

Several years ago, when I was trained as a Forest School Leader in London, I found a framework that makes trusting children easier—something educators in UK called “behavioral schema.” I wasn’t sure what to make of their hefty emphasis on this exact term, since it was unfamiliar to me. In my work since, however, I have come to understand what all the fuss was about.When adults act as observers, we ease up on directing kids, giving them more space to initiate their own learning through play. So what are “behavioral schema?” The term refers to a set of behaviors that young children (roughly 18 months through school aged) exhibit and repeat when they are engaged in self-directed play. No matter culture or environment, and without instruction, children worldwide replicate these same, common actions when they play. For example, 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. Does your kid mix and mash the different parts of dinner to make a soupy mess? Yup, that’s “transforming.” If you have children, you’ll undoubtedly find the list of common schema familiar. In fact, 86% of parents who responded to Tinkergarten’s survey about schema recognized several, if not all, of these patterns in their children’s behavior. In our classes, we see them all the time. 

Really curious? Take our quick quiz to find out which of a few common schema might be dominating your child’s play these days.

It turns out the name “behavioral schema” is derived from the work of developmental psychologist, Jean Piaget. Piaget used the term “schema” to describe both the mental and physical actions involved in building mental models of the world. So, we can think of behavioral schema as part of children’s natural process of building understanding and knowledge. Further, these repeated actions lay pathways for concept development. For example, if I line up objects now, I build mental models that will help me sequence information later. 


Theory aside, just learning that these patterns exist, have names and are universal helps any adult see young children’s self initiated 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 greater understanding. 

A father in a Tinkergarten class once shared that spotting schema in his twin girls’ play made him feel like a “child whisperer.” When your young child is struggling for selfhood, moments of such competence are precious and powerful. Once parents and teachers 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. 

Finding ways to support development is pretty easy to do when you can spot schema. It can start with simply getting out of the way. 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 the 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 that schema. There is much to gain from these often unseen glimpses into the growing mind at work. They are right there for the spotting.