Toddlers are notoriously tricky, and they can have some quirky behaviour that defies all logic. For instance, why do they always pour their drink all over their dinner? It seems that once isn’t enough, and no matter how many times you keep telling them not to, they just can’t seem to stop! And what is the obsession with turning switches on and off all about? And opening and closing doors?
You might have heard the phrase before that toddlers are “little scientists”, and they learn by discovering things for themselves. Often, they won’t learn that the radiator is hot until they have touched it and found out the hard way. They have a need for repetition, which is their way of learning and embedding new skills. So rather than being “naughty”, a toddler repeatedly throwing their spoon, cup, dinner, everything, on the floor is not intended to wind you up. Instead, it is their way of learning important new knowledge about trajectory, and cause and effect.
This type of learning is referred to as “Schemas”, which you may have heard of. A schema is simply a mental structure which allows us to organise our knowledge of the world around us. They allow us to predict what is coming next, based on past experiences and how we have categorised things.
There are all sorts of schemas, covering different areas, which really come to the fore in toddlerhood, but we continue to use schemas throughout life. Some common ones which apply to toddlers are:
In this schema children learn how to connect things together. They will often be engrossed in building train tracks, sticking building blocks together, or laying pieces of paper on the floor to make a path.
The containing schema occurs when children place objects into a container of some form. For instance they may put all of their crayons into an empty bag, or inside a large box.
In this schema children learn to cover things up. For instance they may cover their teddy bear with a blanket, or cover their food with a napkin.
In this schema children are learning about the positions of one object in relation to another. They will often move their food around to different positions on the plate, or may want to sit in a different position to the one they have been instructed.
This schema is all about objects rotating. Children may be engrossed by the washing machine or the motion of wheels turning. They will often try to turn things that they think may rotate, such as the hands of a clock or rolling a ball along the floor.
The trajectory schema teaches children about movement and direction. They will often throw items to observe their trajectory, for instance food thrown from their high-chair or water thrown into the air.
In this schema the child is interested in changing properties of objects. They may pour their juice into their porridge and explore the resulting transformation with their fingers. Or they may pour sand from their sand pit into their hair, to feel the change in texture.
This schema is used to describe the action of children moving objects from one place to another. For instance moving cans stacked in a cupboard to a different area of the kitchen, or pushing a cart, containing building blocks, from one part of the garden to another.” [Sarah Ockwell-Smith, The Gentle Discipline Book]
Clearly, this can be hugely frustrating for parents when a child is making a mess or behaving in a way that defies our rules and expectations of behaviour. It is important to remember that they are not doing this out of naughtiness, it is a behaviour they cannot control and a necessary part of their development. If you notice your child being particularly drawn to one schema, such as the transforming schema, give them plenty of opportunity to play with this schema in an appropriate way, which might help them resist the need to pour their juice into their food at mealtimes.
What schemas are your toddlers particularly into at the moment? Have you noticed how they have changed over time? I found a great little book on Schemas, produced by Suffolk County Council, in my local library. It’s called Schemas for Parents, and it has some good descriptions of the different schemas and how they change over time. Check it out if you are interested.
If you are having difficulties with your toddler’s behaviour, or just fancy learning some really interesting stuff about brain development, come along to my next Understanding Your Toddler workshop on Saturday 1st February. Only 3 places left! More info here: