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Our World of Schema Play

Guest blogger: Diann Gano, M.Ed.


Welcome back! A repeat visit to see me? Is this a schema? Haha, yes! Come visit me again and again and again. I hope that my last blog left you excited and intrigued about schemas. Let’s look at a few more schemas and share ideas about the ways that we can adapt our childcare environments to increase brain development and play value. 

Start by observing. Where are the children playing? What are they playing with and how are they playing? 


Do the kids you care for love to play in boxes, under desks or in small, cozy areas?  

If so, they are exhibiting an enclosing or enveloping schema. These children are filling a need to surround themselves or items within an enclosed environment. These are our fort kids! To support their brain development, bring in tents, tunnels, parachutes, envelopes, egg cartons, fabric and nesting toys. Children engaging in this type of schematic play also fence in their toy farm animals and fill and dump cups and buckets. These kids love to play with stacking cups, play silks and nesting dolls.  


Who doesn’t love our positioning schema friends? They love to line things up, sequence by size, tidy up our play areas and park all of the toy cars in a row! These also might be the kids who hate to have food touching on their plate. Don’t fight it—join them! Positioning helps our children find a sense of place. They may want to walk around things or on the edge of a wall or curb. They may always want to sit in the same place or do something in a specific order. They like order. To support their brain development, bring in sequence and pattern games, pegboards and balance games like Jenga.


Orientation schemas always brings a smile to my face. I often shout out to my children that I can see their brains growing! When a child engages in play that’s driven by an orientation schema, there is also some proprioceptive brain development happening. This is also known as the body schemawhen their bodies are in space. Orientation allows children to explore how it feels to see the world from a different point of view. They hang upside down or climb everywhere. They love hanging from bars or standing on toys or crawling under tables. They love to swing or slide down the slide headfirst or backwards. I often find these children lying on the ground looking up or flat on their stomach peering at an ant.  For these children, bring in binoculars, magnifying glasses, stilts, swings and gymnastic mats. They love to roll and twist. This is great for spatial awareness that will be needed for our math foundation.


Our train set builders, Lego, Bristle Bloc and Magnatile kids tend to be connection schema friends that have the impulse to construct by joining things together. They like threading games and paper chains and a good game of Barrel of Monkeys. They also love blocks!

And our lives would not be complete without one child going through the disconnection schema! You know, the child who just HAS to knock down everyone else’s tower?  You will now understand the true remorse they feel when they just couldn’t resist the urge to deconstruct their best friends castle. Once I realized the beauty of schemas, I came up with this solution. Jonathan and I created the game, CRASH!


Jonathan connects and positions.


Jonathan takes it down! Over and over and over. We are still working out the disconnection schema occasionally, but now I understand it and can redirect Jonathan to a game that causes a little less heartache to his classmates.

With a basic understanding and awareness of schemas, we can better support and understand how children use play to develop deep, logical collections of information through their movement and senses. We can support their play by allowing them time to question, predict, speculate and problem solve. It’s early childhood brain development—and early math learning that will eventually lead to algebra. Let them play!

Interested in learning more about schemas? Take a look at some of my favorite books: 


Diann Gano, M.Ed.

Diann Gano—who opened her family child care program, Under the Gingko Tree in 1986—has long believed that "the earth gives us what we need to learn" and that nature is "the perfect environment for little brains to grow and learn in every day." While conducting research for her master’s thesis on outdoor learning in early childhood settings, she learned about the Nature Explore Classroom Certification Program, which recognizes schools and other organizations that have made a commitment to providing outdoor classrooms and comprehensive programming to help children use the natural world as an integral part of learning. She enrolled in the Nature Explore Classroom certification program after completing her master’s degree in 2010, and Under the Ginkgo Tree was certified as a Nature Explore Certified Outdoor Classroom Program in 2011. A member of the Erikson Family Child Care Portal Project Advisory Board, Gano has also participated in the Erikson Institute’s Early Childhood Leadership Summit and served as a webinar panelist for Town Square Illinois, an online resource and professional development tool for home-based providers. She has presented at the local, state and national levels on topics such as indoor and outdoor learning environments, the importance of loose parts in early math education and the impact of immersion in the natural world on brain development in young children. In 2016, Gano was honored as a recipient of First Lady Michelle Obama’s Let’s Move Child Care Innovator Award for creating a school environment that inspires children to become more active and engaged learners. In May 2019, she received the prestigious Terri Lynn Lokoff/Children’s Tylenol National Teacher Award, which honors 50 outstanding early child care professionals across the nation each year for making a lasting difference in the lives of the children they serve and setting them on a path to success in school and in life. She received her BS in liberal arts from Western Illinois University and her MEd in education from St. Mary of the Woods College in Indiana.

Read more posts by Diann Gano, M.Ed.

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