Supporting Development Through Play

‘Play, as a medium for curriculum delivery, is recognised as the most appropriate way for young children to learn’

Neaum & Tallak, 1997

Did you know that this week is Children’s Week?

This is a national program recognising the talents, skills, achievements and rights of young people. Throughout the country there are a range of activities that encourage play (see what is available in your area here).

Psychological perspectives on play vary, depending on the underpinning theory. Social Constructivists (Piaget, Vygotsky, Bruner) view the child as an active learner, reconstructing experiences and combining this with creativity to explore accepted social conventions. Psychodynamic theorists see play as central to emotional development as they express feelings and come to terms with new experiences.

Anyone who has ever played peekaboo with a baby, or any game with a toddler, will probably have noticed that much play is repetitive. This is because the children are seeking to make sense of what they encounter (peekaboo is an important conservation skill that is required for theory of mind and mathematics). Anyone who has ever had a child hide things in the washing machine will know that children can be fascinated by just moving things around. But did you know that children’s play can be helpfully defined in relation to schemas, which can in turn be used to design teaching opportunities that ‘fit with children’s observed persistent interests and explorations’ (Atherton & Nutbrown, 2016).

So what are the schemas, what problems may arise in the home/school, and what opportunities can you provide?

  • Transporting: Children enjoy picking things up, moving them, or pushing objects. You may notice things go missing and objects are moved to new areas (books outside; phones in the washing machine!).

Children will love: trains; cars; shopping play; outside building play including wheelbarrows

  • Transforming: Children enjoy materials which change shape, colour, consistency. You may notice that they enjoy a lot of messy play, or enjoy taking things apart.

Children will love: dressing up; face or finger painting; cutting and pasting; mixing colours; pretend washing play; cooking or mixing textures such as sand and water.

  • Trajectory: Children enjoy moving things up, down, sideways, through the air. You may notice that they bang things or throw things at inappropriate times.

Children will love: construction activities (especially knocking them down afterward); sawing; hammering; energetic painting (maybe try water on concrete if you don’t like the mess); climbing; cooking that involves pouring or kneading.

  • Rotation and Circularity: Children enjoy tings that turn, wheels, balls. You may notice that they turn handles or dials on or off a lot, causing toast to burn or radiators to be turned on.

Children will love: cogs; winding toys; train tracks; paint rollers; parachute or spinning outdoor activities; waterwheels; cooking that involves mixing or whisking.

  • Enclosure and Enveloping: Children enjoy covering things, hiding. You may notice that things get lost or hidden, or that the child carries bags or clothing everywhere.

Children will love: Lego; inset puzzles; Russian dolls; dressing up; making forts or hiding under blankets; wrapping paper or envelopes; painting a page until it is covered or covering objects in playdough; cooking that involves icing or decorating.

  • Connecting: Children enjoy joining things or tying them together. You may notice that they tie things together, such as shoelaces.

Children will love: train tracks; Lego; Jigsaws; gluing or sticking; dot to dots; follow the leader games; marble runs or watercourse toys.

  • Disconnecting: Children enjoy taking things to pieces, scattering parts. You may notice that drawers are emptied, collections taken apart or appliances/toys are taken to pieces.

Children will love: building and knocking down towers; spreading toys across a surface; cutting; undressing; smashing ice or sandcastles; cooking that involves tearing/shredding or making crumble.


Remember that children are just a way of talking and thinking about patterns in play. These may help you plan play experiences that will engage your children, and encourage them to further expand their social and exploratory play. They may also keep you sane as you look for that remote control or those keys, again.

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