A Guide to Schemas

A Guide to Schemas

My son played on the floor while I chatted with a friend, who suddenly interrupted me. “Look what he did!” she exclaimed. He had lined up all the cars according to color. Since that day my son has lined up books, magnets, and other toys.  It looks like play, but he is also exploring how objects compare in size, shape, and color.  Educators call this repeated behavior a schema.  As part of their development process, children go through many schemas to explore the world.  By recognizing this behavior, we parents can build on the natural learning our children are already doing, fostering additional learning opportunities.


Understanding schemas

Our modern understanding of schemas is built on the research of British educator Chris Athey.  Athey was director of the Froebel Early Education Project, which observed children under 5 in order to better understand the child’s thought process.  Athey (2007) defined schemas as “patterns of behaviour and thinking in children that exist underneath the surface features of various contents, contexts and specific experiences” (p. 5. ).  Schema play reflects brain development, and is how children interact with their surroundings. Children use schema differently, some fixating on a single schema or exploring several at once, while others will move from one to another over time (Holmes, n.d.). These behaviors become noticeable from a very young age.


Sanderson and Preedy (2016) explain:

“A child’s play can be misunderstood and disregarded as something frivolous that is not an important part of a child’s development. Without an understanding of the power of play it could be too easy to ignore it or limit it and in so-doing undermine childhood itself” (p.25).  

When my first child was a toddler, I didn’t know about schemas, so while I noticed her repeated actions I did not understand them.  Now that I know the cognitive development behind schemas, I recognize them when my children play and appreciate their importance.  As a parent, our role is to watch and observe so that we can support and build on our child’s interests.


Types of schemas 

While there are many schemas, some are more commonly recognizable in play.



The trajectory schema explores horizontal, vertical and diagonal movement, such as throwing, catching, pushing and kicking.

Does your child like to toss anything and everything within arm’s reach? Toys, cups of water, bowls of food – everything. If this describes your child, it’s highly likely your child is exploring the trajectory schema. As you clean messes off the floor, think about how your child is developing an understanding of how objects and people move!

Try this at home:

-      Experiment with throwing objects of different shapes, sizes, and weights, such as ping pong balls, bean bags and pompoms

-      Explore rolling and tossing motions with objects such as balls, wooden cubes, and beads

-      Encourage body movement by playing games that involve jumping, skipping or rolling

Discover The Trajectory Kit


Connecting and Disconnecting

These schemas explore the idea of how things come together and fall apart. This can include building towers with magnetic tiles (only to knock them down seconds later), sticking tape together, assembling sticky notes into a stretchy accordion, or joining train tracks. A child may even explore the connecting schema through physical touch, such as holding hands or linking arms.

These schemas are significant in the development of problem solving skills, spatial awareness, and cause and effect.

Try this at home:

-      Thread beads on string  

-      Make chains with rings and hooks made from a variety of materials such as wood, metal and rubber

-      Loop, hook and twist ribbons and strings through colanders and fences

Discover The Connection Kit


Rotation and Circularity  

Children who enjoy spinning, turning, and rolling, whether with objects or their own bodies, are experimenting with rotation and circularity schemas. This can include playing with wheels, turning doorknobs, spinning in circles or even watching the washing machine on spin cycle.

This schema helps to develop an understanding of the infinite nature of a circle and is the foundation for basic math and science.

Try this at home:

-      Drawing and painting squiggly lines, spirals and circles

-      Mixing cake ingredients with a wooden spoon or a whisk

-      Experimenting with loose parts such as nuts and bolts, washers, metal rings and short lengths of pipe


Enclosing and Enveloping

When children enjoy surrounding, hiding, covering and wrapping objects or themselves, they’re exploring the enveloping schema. A similar but slightly different schema is enclosing, which can be seen in kids building a wall around their toys or sectioning off a room.  Children with either schema may like building pillow forts or creating structures for dolls or toys.

Through these schemas, children are learning the foundations of capacity, volume and space.

Try this at home:

-      Provide materials with different textures (i.e. tissue paper, foil, and fabric) for wrapping

-      Build indoor forts with blankets and cushions, or outdoor forts with tree limbs, pallets, and tarps



Positioning is the schema that sees children engage in stacking, building and lining objects in a particular order. Positioning helps to develop fine motor skills and is the basis for other life skills including organization and attention to detail.

Try this at home:

-      Create symmetrical patterns with loose parts collected in the backyard or at the beach

-      Stack and build with different sized objects such as label cores, cork tiles and coasters

-      Group and position objects according to shape and color, using buttons, beads or popsicle sticks

Discover The Positioning Kit



Does your child love to carry objects from one place to another? Children with the transportation schema move items in baskets, bags, boxes, or in their hands. Children may also find interest in transportation vehicles such as large trucks and trains.

Not only do children explore the notions of weight, volume, and quantity, but they gain a real sense of accomplishment from this schema.

Try this at home:

-      Fill a box or basket with natural loose parts in varying sizes, shapes, and textures

-      Ask your child to help with carrying groceries, packing backpack, or filling the fruit bowl

Discover The Transporting Kit



Transformation can involve a number of sensory materials. Does your child crush up food and mix it together, make “potions” with different liquids or spend more time mixing paint colors than actually painting? Children with the transforming schema are channelling their inner scientist.

Transforming can also be dressing up in costumes, using body paints and giving makeovers.

Try this at home:

-      Support role playing with costumes

-      Explore mixing raw materials like sand and water or ingredients like milk and flour


Schemas are natural responses that pave the way for future learning and development. Through play, children reveal their patterns of thinking, including correlations, associations, and relationships (Atherton & Nutbrown, 2016). When we notice our child’s schemas, we also notice what our child finds significant.  We see the world through our child's eyes and get to share his or her wonder!


Atherton, F.,& Nutbrown, C. (2016). Schematic pedagogy: supporting one child’s learning at home and in a group. International Journal of Early Years Education, 24(1), 63–79. Retrieved September 2, 2021, from https://doi.org/10.1080/09669760.2015.1119671

Athey, C. (2007). Extending thought in young children: A parent-teacher partnership (Second edition). Paul Chapman Publishing.

Holmes, A. (n.d.).  Schema Theory Resource. Retrieved September 2, 2021, from https://www.elawr.org/uploads/6/4/2/4/6424456/2015_october_schema_theory_resource_by_amber_holmes.pdf

Sanderson, K.,& Preedy, P. (2016). Supporting Parents of Preschool Children to Develop Strategies for Schema-Based Play Activities to Enhance Attachment and Well-being: A Preliminary Study in the United Arab Emirates. FIRE: Forum for International Research in Education, 3(2). Retrieved September 2, 2021, from https://doi.org/10.18275/fire201603021078

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