My daughter had been learning about the world via loose parts all along; I just didn’t know what she was doing at the time. As a toddler she would tear tissue into pieces and stick them into bottles and put caps into boxes. As she got older she started placing small objects in rows. At one point her room looked like a morgue because the stuffed animals would be lined up, all completely covered with hand towels. At the time I just thought my daughter was quirky. Once I started researching Reggio Emilia and learned about play with loose parts, I realized my daughter had simply been exploring the world.
Schemas refers to how children are biologically programed to use repeated behavior to learn about the world. There are many websites that provide overviews of schemas. Common ones include transporting objects from one place to another, throwing things, inserting objects in openings, and many more. When my daughter was covering up her toys, she was using the enveloping schema. Canadian educator Michelle Thornhill put together an amazing chart listing schemas and what loose parts and toys match them.
For an in-depth explanation of schemas and more explanation of British educator Chris Athey’s research on this topic, see the Schemas chapter from Early Childhood Education by Tina Bruce.