Understanding Schemas

Sometimes I think how hard each day of parenting is depends not on our children’s behaviour, but what is happening in our own heads. If I am calm, well rested, and in a good mood, I can handle any amount of tantrums, whining, or limit-testing that Tom decides to throw at me. But if I’m stressed, or have slept badly, or am distracted by other things, the smallest thing can have me at breaking point.

Sometimes, how I see a certain behaviour can have a big effect too. If I see Tom’s constant desire to press the buttons on the washing machine as a threat to my authority, then I lose my temper. If I see it as a schema – a necessary, uncontrollable urge that is a natural part of his development – then I can calmly redirect the urge to something more appropriate, such as the keys on his little keyboard or the buttons on the remote (which hasn’t had batteries in for about 6 months now!)

I’m very thankful that I found out about schemas early on in Tom’s life. In fact, I can’t remember where I first encountered the idea. But if you are looking for further information, the Nature Play website has a great section on it.

In psychology, a schema is defined as ‘a cohesive, repeatable action sequence possessing component actions that are tightly interconnected and governed by a core meaning‘ (source). More simply, this means a set of actions, such as putting things into a container, or dropping bits of food off a high chair, that crop up repeatedly in a child’s play for a time, whilst he or she works out the connecting principles (that small things fit inside big things in the first example, or gravity in the second). A list of the common schemas and how to give your child opportunities to explore them can be found on that Nature Play site and in this article from Cathy Nutbrown at Sheffield University (NB: opens a PDF).

Tom, at the moment, is very involved with working out an enclosure/container schema. This means that he spends a lot of time putting things into containers and taking them out again. He especially wants to investigate putting water into containers and pouring it out again – and this can be a bit irritating, as his favourite way of testing the principle is to pour his cup of water out all over his food. And his lap. And the floor.

If I didn’t know about schemas, I would be very cross about repeatedly having to clean up puddles of water after every meal. But because I know he can’t really fight this urge to experiment, I simply take the cup away before he can pour it out, saying firmly ‘No. Water in your cup is for drinking’. And then I find other ways for him to meet the urge, by providing lots of cups and scoops at bath time and letting him do plenty of water play during the day.

There’s a quote from Norman Vincent Peale: ‘Change your thoughts and you change your world’. I think it must be true. At the very least, it has changed my parenting.


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5 thoughts on “Understanding Schemas

  1. I’ve never heard of schemas, so thanks for introducing me to the concept. I generally believe the idea that “toddlers are annoying, deal with it” is unhelpful for parents and children. It’s good to remember that our children are not being intentionally annoying but simply learning about their world. Thanks for sharing #fromtheheart


  2. This is terrific and so timely for me as my little guy has just started throwing things off the side of the high chair! Love the philosophy of schemas and have never heard of it before, so I’d better check out your links.


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