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Choosing games or toys for young children can be challenging. One child may find a game or toy endlessly fascinating, while another may show no interest in it. Fortunately, there are ways to make choosing a little easier. 

The best way to figure out what game or toy a child will like is to notice what they do with other toys. This is especially true for non-speaking children and/or children under 5 years old. These children are not always able to predict or articulate what they will play with. Instead, step back and observe them with other toys. Do they prefer the box to the toy? Do they line up all the pieces of a game? Do they put game pieces in a bag and carry them around? Children who like boxes often like making things from open-ended materials such as blocks. If they like lining things up, they would probably like toy animals or cars.  

Another helpful tool in deciding what toys and games could be good fits for your child is a concept called schema. Schema are actions children engage in at young ages to understand physical concepts such as trajectory, rotation, and transporting. A young child will physically try these movements over and over. As children develop, they internalize these concepts. For example, a 6-year-old might see a puzzle piece and realize if they rotate the piece, it will fit into the puzzle. They can mentally picture what would happen if they turned the piece. By contrast, a younger child would use trial and error to fit the piece. An 8-year-old playing baseball might track a pop fly, predict the arc, and run to where the ball will land, while a preschooler would lose track of the ball until it hit the ground.  

As children enter their preschool years, they often use schema in the context of pretend play. For example, pegs become food they put in boxes and put on a shelf for a store. Young children are more interested in using a toy in a way that follows their ideas, rather than using it the way they are “supposed” to use it. Knowing about schema can help you appreciate the way children use toys in creative ways.  

Here are eight common schema that children tend to engage in and corresponding activities toddlers or preschoolers might enjoy. While most children engage in all of these, they often gravitate to one or two.  

Schema  What it looks like  Games and toys 
Trajectory  Throwing or dropping objects, jumping, splashing water  Balls, ramps, throwing toys into baskets 
Transporting  Putting objects into bags, wagons, or pockets and moving them or carrying them around  Bags, baskets, toy dump trucks, wagons 


Transforming  Mixing food, putting food into water  Playdough or Oobleck (cornstarch and water), helping with baking, playing in mud or a sandbox 
Connecting  Putting on and taking off lids  Train tracks, Legos, nuts and bolts, tape 
Rotating  Spinning the wheel on a toy truck or bicycle, spinning around  Cars and trucks, steering wheels, bikes or trikes, pinwheels, nuts and bolts, spin art 
Positioning  Lining up objects in a line, stacking objects  Farm animals, blocks, toy trains, sticks, rocks, buckets or dishes in a sandbox 
Enclosing  Climbing into boxes or baskets, creating enclosures for toy animals  Boxes big enough for a child, blocks, dolls with blankets 

By being aware of the way your young child plays with toys and which schema they participate in most frequently, you will likely be able to figure out what other games and toys might appeal to them. Tapping into the game and toy suggestions in the chart above will also be supporting their understanding of concepts such as trajectory and rotation – ideas they will build upon and use over a lifetime. As children start kindergarten and move through elementary school, many of these schema will become internalized. They will be able to imagine the trajectory of the Angry Bird shooting out of the slingshot. They can imagine where the different chess pieces could move before choosing which of the many possible moves they can make. Eventually, they may think ahead several plays, picturing it all internally. But this starts with plenty of hands-on play with open-ended materials. 

If you are ever unsure what direction to turn, it’s always helpful to keep in mind that the more a toy or game allows for independent thinking and creativity, the more it will support a young child’s development. And if they use a toy in an unexpected way (and are not going to break the toy), step back, watch, and appreciate the creativity they are displaying. The toy doesn’t have to be expensive. It doesn’t need to cost anything. What matters is how your child engages with it. 


To learn more about St. David’s Center’s Early Childhood Education program, go to 

Mike Huber, MAEd is the Curriculum Specialist for Early Childhood Education at St. David’s Center. He is the author of Inclusion Includes Us: Building Bridges and Removing Barriers in Early Childhood(Redleaf Press 2022) and Embracing Rough and Tumble Play: Teaching with the Body in Mind (Redleaf Press, 2016), as well as six picture books including The Amazing Erik (Redleaf Lane, 2014). He is the co-host of the podcast, Teaching with the Body in Mind, and a frequent guest on That Early Childhood Nerd.

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