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Understanding children’s play : What are schemas?
Nov 22, 2020

Watching children at play is truly fascinating. Children may be continuously busy, always on the move and totally engrossed in play of their own choosing. Some will persevere for long and concentrated periods of time appearing to play with a purpose and having a definite vision of what they want to achieve. Whilst other children will appear to be doing the same thing over and over again seemingly aimlessly. Whilst children are playing they may display certain patterns of behaviour. Repetitive patterns of particular behaviours are known as schemas. Children follow their own preferred schemas and may be observed following more than one schema.

What are the most common types of schemas:

  • Trajectory –  an interest in how they and objects move. It is very common and explains why babies will often drop objects from their highchairs or buggies or why some children continuously throw objects
  • Rotation –  an interest in turning or rotating themselves or objects. Children may run and turn in circles or may ride continuously around in circles
  • Enveloping and containing – is an interest in making dens, dressing up in layers of clothing or filling empty containers with lots of objects, dressing dolls, playing vets and using lots of bandages or wrapping parcels
  • Transporting –  an interest in taking objects from one place to another
  • Connection – is an interest in joining objects together, train tracks or building towers and sticking items together with tape. This also includes an interest in disconnecting such as in knocking down towers  
  • Enclosing – an interest in creating boundaries, creating fences for farm animals and drawing circles or faces
  • Transforming –  an interest in the changing nature of materials from wet to dry, from solid to liquid and from small to big
  • Positioning – arranging objects in a particular way, lining cars up in a row or creating scenes and displays and a marked interest in patterns

Why are schemas important

All Ofsted-regulated early years providers must follow the Early Years Foundation Stage, EYFS, which set the standards for the learning, development and care of a child from birth to age 5 years. The value of learning through play and following children’s interests, their schemas, underpins the ethos of the EYFS.

Children experience schemas as strong urges which is why they find it very difficult to stop doing something which may at some times appear to be  inexplicable or in some instances irritating behaviour and which they are unable to control. It is important that children are allowed to satisfy or be able to channel and enhance these urges as they are a strong learning tool which parents and Nursery practitioners can use to develop children’s thinking and understanding.

Professor Cathy Nutbrown states that schemas can be seen as part of children’s motivation for learning and that they represent an insatiable drive to find out, communicate, represent and to make sense of the world around them.

The academic and theorist, Professor Tina Bruce, has written of schemas that, ‘They are part of human development from birth to death but they are not in a constant state, they are always adjusting and changing in the light of experiences. This is why they are such a powerful learning mechanism.’

Involvement in a schema appears to bring deep pleasure to children and (Laevers 2003) stresses the importance of high levels of wellbeing and involvement which are important for learning.

Parents and carers may not have been aware of the significance of schemas but practitioners working within childcare have the opportunity to observe many and repeated patterns of behaviour. Whilst it appears that some children need to create the most chaos by getting every toy out and transporting them from one corner of a room to another a practitioner will recognise this as a schema of transporting. Another child may enjoy putting what appears to be a random collection of objects within bags or containers and, whilst this may be frustrating at the end of the day when repatriating everything, it is clearly a demonstration of enveloping or encapsulating. Adults can observe, support and extend children appropriately using schemas. Through identifying children’s schemas children can access a more broad and relevant range of experiences and materials which will extend their playing and learning. Children may demonstrate different schemas at home and at school or nursery and it can be very useful to share observations between practitioners and between the Nursery setting and home as stages in their play will be reflected in their schematic activity.

As Bill Gates so succinctly puts it, “The first five years have so much to do with how the next 80 turn out.”


Professor Cathy Nutbrown, School of Education, the University of Sheffield

Understanding Schemas and Young Children: From Birth to Three, 2017

Professor Tina Bruce, (2011) Early Childhood Education, Oxon:Hodder

Bill Gates Sr., Co-Chair of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, quote

Leavers, F. & Heylen, L. (2003) Involvement of Children and Teacher Style: Insights from an International Study on Experimental Education. Leuven University Press Belgium

Categories: nursery

Tags: Play, Schemas