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Understanding Schema Play

Schemas are patterns of repeated behavior that allow children to develop an understanding of the world around them through play and exploration. Schemas are mental models or processes that we create by trial and error through experiences.

Kids are the perfect example of how we build schemas. They are constantly testing out concepts. You can easily notice these patterns of behavior in older infants and toddlers. Things like banging, pulling, pushing, and spinning are all examples of schema play.

Following the Child

The importance of early childhood education is well-established and reaches well beyond the preschool years. In fact, “early childhood” is considered birth to eight years old–so approximately 2nd or 3rd grade.

This time period is crucial for children. I’d even go so far as to say more crucial than post-secondary education. Why? Because how and what they learn during this time period will provide them with a foundation for the rest of their lives.

Education during these early years will help shape social, emotional, and physical health, as well as develop intrinsic motivation for lifelong learning–not just learning to get a grade.

With that in mind, the basis of any early childhood education philosophy should be to follow the child. So, what does this look like?

For more information about early childhood philosophies check out this article on Montessori.

Child Development and Schemas

It starts with newborns. From the time they are infants, we should be letting our children develop at their own pace, not forcing them into sitting or standing positions before they are ready, and observing what things make them feel safe and content–and providing those experiences.

When they are toddlers, it means encouraging their natural curiosity and providing them with a variety of opportunities to connect with people, places, and things around them.

As preschoolers, it means following their interests and not forcing them into learning concepts in order to “prepare them for school.”

As young children, it means allowing them ample free time to pursue their passions–not signing them up for activities because it will “look good” or because it’s something you always wanted for yourself.

In order to better understand your child’s development, it’s important to be aware of the concept of schema.

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Common Schemas for Play

Connecting and Disconnecting

Children in this schema can be seen doing activities such as building train tracks, working with puzzles, joining things, lining toys up, or taking lids on and off. With this type of play, your child is trying to figure out how things fit together.

Ways to support this schema: Train tracks, roadway building, construction materials, building materials that “fit together” like LEGO® or blocks. Even things such as tape, string, and velcro can be used to support kids within this schema.


Playing in this schema involves things like swinging upside down, sitting in a chair the “wrong” way, and turning toys around to see things from different angles. This is children trying to figure out how the world looks through different points of view.

Ways to support this schema: Mirrors, magnifying glasses, binoculars, climbing structures that allow them to climb or hang upside down.


Kids who enjoy moving things from one place to another either use their hands or some sort of toy that can be filled, moved, and usually dumped. Children gain a sense of independence and responsibility when transporting items so you may find them eager to help you do chores that involve bringing something from point A to point B–like unloading groceries or moving clean laundry into the dryer.

Ways to support this schema: Stroller or grocery cart, small boxes that can be easily picked up by little hands, a little backpack or pretend purse. Loose parts are also great in this schema because they are perfect for being loaded, moved, and unloaded over and over. A few pots filled with water or sensory bins that allow for kids to move things from one pot or bin to another are also good ideas for encouraging play within this schema.


This is a common schema that is focused on how things move. Children in this schema are studying how objects (or their body) move through the air. Remember your little one who constantly threw food off their highchair? They were learning about trajectory! Other activities that are a part of this schema are playing with running water, running, playing tag, throwing a ball, sliding down a slide (or watching how different objects slide down a slide).

Ways to support this schema: Plenty of outdoor time and free space to run, throw things, pour water, send items down slides, or drop things from high places.


Children working in this schema enjoy things like making patterns, lining up toys, ordering things in sequences. They will often spend a good amount of time trying to make things just right.

Ways to support this schema: Loose parts that can be used to make patterns like the Grapat mandala pieces, small cars, or dolls.


This schema is all about wrapping things up. You may see them wrapping themselves in a blanket, wanting to put items in boxes, or swaddling their baby doll.

Ways to support this schema: Give them plenty of blankets, pillows, silks, boxes, and anything else that allows them to cover and uncover themselves or their toys. Things like nesting bowls are also good for this schema.


This is similar to enveloping but more about creating a boundary. So for example, children working in this schema will create forts or make a fence for their farm animals. This schema is about containment.

Ways to support this schema: Give children items to use to build forts (we love the Nugget®), large boxes, blocks that can be used to create a fence or boundary in some way.


This schema involves anything that goes in a circular motion and can rotate. Things like wheels, washing machines, merry-go-rounds, and spinning around in circles are all a part of the rotation schema.

Ways to support this schema: Provide your child with plenty of opportunities to play with streamers, spinning tops, and toys that have wheels. Household items like screwdrivers and nuts and bolts are also good for encouraging this schema.

If you’re looking for more information about the importance of play and tips to reorganize your playroom check out my e-book: Simply Play: Everything You Need To Know About The Most Important Part of Childhood which you can buy here for only $4.99.

If you like this post and want to read more like it then check out these articles:The Power of Play

The Ever Growing Importance of Outdoor Play.

Toy for Toddlers: Encouraging Active Play

100 Simple Things to do Outside with Your Kids

What is Montessori–Understanding this Early Childhood Education Philosophy

Reggio Emilia — A Child Centered Learning Approach

What is Waldorf — A Spotlight on Waldorf Education