Making sense of play

You have probably heard that children learn through play, however as an adult this can be difficult to understand. Their play can sometimes cause frustration too – why does my child just tip up the box of blocks then leave them? Why do my kids end up with more paint on themselves than on the paper? Why does my child insist on throwing everything?

Someone who knows a lot about play is Nikolien van Wijk. Van Wijk has spent many hours observing the way children play and has written a book about some of the patterns in play that can be observed. Her book builds on work done by other researchers in the UK and NZ. By recognising the patterns, parents may gain some insight into what their toddler is exploring or trying to ‘figure out’.

Patterns of play

How many of these patterns of play sound familiar in your toddler?

1. Connecting / disconnecting

Connecting is when your child loves to ‘connect’ or join different things together. They might use glue, string or vast quantities of sticky tape.

Dis-connecting is when children like to separate things, cutting, pulling apart, disassembling or sometimes, scattering.

2. Enclosing / enveloping

This is when your child puts things inside a container or enclosure. Maybe they make fences, build forts or hide objects in containers.

3. Ordering

Some children really love to arrange things in lines or in order. This urge may flow over into meal time when they insist on arranging their food in order and so that nothing touches.

4. Rotation

Things that twist, turn, spin or rotate are a great source of learning for children – and this includes spinning themselves or parts of themselves!

5. Trajectory

Learning through trajectory is learning through movement – kicking, dropping, throwing, climbing, jumping and many more forms of movement.

6. Transforming

Children love to see things change – whether it be instant (mixing paint) or slow (caterpillars turning into butterflies). Older children may enjoy role playing.

7. Transporting

Some children love to take things with them – they are always carrying a toy, pushing a stroller or taking a bag with them. They are learning about how things move from one place to another.

Which one(s) does your child love to do? You can take a quick Clever Play quiz to help you find out.

Supporting their play patterns

Phew – it can be such a relief to know that all that mess, repetition and stubbornness has a purpose and is to be encouraged!

Visit for some great tips on how to facilitate and foster your child’s play.

For more information about play patterns visit

Which of these play patterns does your child/ren like most at the moment? 



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