Schemas of Play: How to Incorporate These Into Your classroom


child playing with building blocks

As a parent or nursery practitioner, you’ve probably wondered why children do what they do.

For example, even when you’ve said ‘no’ to something several times, children will repeatedly drop a toy on the floor and wait for you to pick it up.

Or, they will sit and empty the entire contents of a lego box just watching as the little plastic shapes fall around them.

Although this might seem like they are disobeying your instructions or misbehaving, this repetition is actually a key part of their learning.

Through this process their brain is developing, and the repetitive action is known as a ‘schema’.

What is a Schema?

“A schema is a pattern of repeated actions. Clusters of schemas develop into later concepts” – Athey, Child Development Theorist

There are lots of different types of schemas (which we’ll come onto below) and children can either show a mix of schemas or none at all.

It depends on what interests them, and some schemas can even seem a little strange or irritating to adults. However, it’s a key part of a child’s development as they learn through doing.

By repeating certain actions it solidifies different concepts in their mind so they know what to do in future situations. Children are exploring what’s around them through actions which is key to their understanding of the world.

Schemas help parents and nursery practitioners understand children better, as it gives them a deeper awareness of their natural interests and curiosities. By observing what children enjoy playing with, you can build these concepts into future lesson plans or activities at home.

For example, does a child keep spinning around on the carpet or playing with wheels on a toy car?

This could indicate that they are exploring rotation and trying to understand how it works. Although these two activities might have seemed a little random at first, by identifying a common theme, you have an insight into their way of thinking. You can then plan activities which support and build on these natural curiosities.

This leads to a better learning experience for children in both classroom and home settings.
child painting a playhouse

What are the different types of schema?

As we’ve covered, schemas are a repeated pattern of behaviour which allows children to explore and learn different concepts.

Schematic play is characterised by an activity being repeated in different areas of a child’s learning from drawings to physical activities to reading books. This helps build up a picture of what the child enjoys and what they are drawn to.

When children are exploring their schemas, they are highly involved and engaged in the activity. This allows them to consolidate their ideas and develop critical thinking.

Below are the most common schemas during the Early Years Foundation Stage (EYFS).


Does your child enjoy blowing bubbles, dropping things from a height, or throwing things across the room? This shows they are exploring the trajectory schema which is the movement of an object or their own body through the air


Children love lining items up and putting them in different groups. Whether it’s cuddly toys, books, or toy cars, I’m sure every parent and teacher has witnessed this. The positioning schema is key for future skills from laying the table to creating patterns in maths.


This refers to children wrapping up items such as their toys or dolls or creating homes for them. They might also place items in containers or repeatedly open up the bin and look inside. By exploring an enveloping schema children are trying to understand what happens to items when they hide them. Can they still see them? Can they still feel them?


Anything circular is an experience of rotation. Whether that’s children spinning items around, rolling down a hill, or twirling their hair around a pencil, these are all examples of children exploring this schema. They might also enjoy running around in circles or being swung around.


Children will often make boundaries around themselves such as a fort or a fence to enclose themselves in. They might also enclose items in boxes or containers as well as drawing borders on pictures. This shows their interest in ordering and organising things and spaces.
children placing plastic shapes in basket

How often has your child carried your handbag? Or have you ever noticed how much they love taking stuff out of your handbag just to put it back in again? Children will often carry or move items from one place to another as well as placing items in containers or bags.


Setting out tracks, constructing lego, joining items together with tape or glue, are signs of the connecting schema. Connecting also includes disconnecting as children will enjoy knocking items down or dismantling tracks they have put together. This helps them understand how certain things come together whereas others fall apart.


Children love exploring the changing states of materials, such as transforming them from a solid to a liquid state and back again. They watch in fascination as different materials take on unusual forms. This is why messy play activities are so beneficial during early years learning.


In a nursery play yard or garden, you will see children in all sorts of weird and wonderful positions. This includes swinging upside down and lying on their side. They also take great pleasure in putting their toys in different places. This shows their interest in positioning themselves or objects in different locations and positions.

The role of a nursery practitioner in schemas

It’s important nursery practitioners support children as they develop schemas and create activities that build on their interests.

Schematic play is very valuable to an early years practitioner as it provides a deep and meaningful insight into a child’s deep-level learning.

According to Chris Athey, a child cognitive theorist who built upon the ideas of Jean Piaget, teachers and parents are key to a child’s progression. Athey believed that schemas evolve from a child’s early actions and interactions with those around them.

Children use their perception of these interactions to make sense of the world and form patterns of behaviour. As a result, this makes the role of a nursery practitioner during early years very important as they shape a child’s future experiences.

When children are exploring schemas, there’s a few things nursery practitioners need to be aware of to ensure learning is supported.

Identifying schemas

Schematic play is play that children are compelled to do. It’s the activities children are fascinated by and truly absorbed in.

As a nursery school practitioner, try to identify these activities and observe how they capture a child’s imagination. Children will be fully engrossed in the activity and will be busy exploring how things work.

Try to find out what it is about the activity that they find so fascinating. Once you understand this, you can incorporate it into future lesson plans. This will increase their engagement in the learning process as you’re setting activities you know they enjoy.

For example, is a child making circles with his fingers when he’s playing with paint? Or is he covering different shapes with the paint so they’re hidden?

These two activities provide two different insights into which schema the child is exploring. If they are making circles then this is a reflection of the ‘rotation’ schema whereas covering shapes with paint shows they are exploring their ‘enveloping’ schema.

child drawing a picture

Finding evidence

Once you have identified schematic play, try to find it in other areas of a child’s learning. As we’ve previously mentioned, schematic play is characterised by an activity being repeated in different areas of a child’s learning.

Look for evidence in a variety of activities including what the child talks about, their interests, what they draw, and what toys they choose to play with.

Extend their learning

Introduce new materials for the children to explore and enjoy as this extends their learning.

Schematic play involves a deep level of learning and participation as children are discovering different concepts for themselves. Therefore, providing toys and activities that support this discovery is highly beneficial to their development.

For example, one you have identified that a child likes to ‘transport’ you could provide them with prams to push, or handbags which they can fill with different bits and pieces.

Similarly, if you have identified that a child enjoys exploring their ‘enveloping’ scheme, you could provide them with paper, wrapping, glue and sellotape which they can use to cover different objects.

Something for everyone

Some activities can inspire a group of children with a range of schemas and are a great way of getting different children involved.

For example, setting up and playing with trains. The process of connecting different pieces of the train track together is fantastic for children exploring their ‘connecting’ schema, watching the trains go round the track is great for children with a ‘rotation’ schema, and being able to push the train around the track is great for children with a ‘transport’ schema.

With one activity, you’ve managed to cater for 3 different types of schema. This not only supports each child’s individual way of learning, but also brings children together to socialise, collaborate, and work together.

When you consider the toys and activities you choose for children from a schematic play point of view, you’re demonstrating your ability to support different needs.

This shows parents you understand their child and their learning requirements. With the Learning Journals platform you can easily record, upload and share observations to demonstrate to parents how you are supporting their child’s development.

Resolving problems

As with any exploration of learning, schemas can throw up some problems.

For example, a child who is exploring their trajectory schema will be fascinated by items moving, particularly when items move from one place to another.

They might explore this by moving objects down a ramp or pushing items down a slide. However, if a child chooses to investigate their trajectory by repeatedly throwing toys across the room, or throwing toys at other children, then this could be very dangerous.

As a nursery practitioner, you can try to resolve this issue by providing safe alternatives such as soft, cuddly toys, or by taking children outside. In the playground they can safely throw bean bags into a bin and still enjoy the process of motion.
parent and teacher talking

Working with parents

By working with parents, you can identify schematic play patterns both inside and outside of the classroom. What items and activities children choose to interact with at home is valuable information when it comes to lesson planning.

This broadens your understanding of the individual child and also helps you build up a stronger relationship with their parents.

By working collaboratively you can both spot patterns of behaviour and build up a bigger picture of the child’s learning behaviours.

You should also encourage parents to take observations of their child at home as this gives you an understanding of how a child interacts in a different environment. At home, they might have access to different resources and toys which broadens their schematic play even further. There could be something here that you can incorporate into the classroom.

With Learning Journals, both teachers and parents can take unlimited observations of children at home and in class. This helps both parties understand children better and tailor all learning opportunities to suit.

Unique children

Not every child will engage in schematic play.

They might pass through different schemas over a short period of time, whereas other children might be stuck in a certain schema for a long period of time.

If you’re concerned about a child repeating a behaviour over and over again for an extended time period, you could introduce other opportunities for play.

For instance if a child is constantly spinning wheels on a car, they might be stuck in the ‘rotational’ schema. You could help them transition to a different schema by introducing a slide where they can push the car down.

This moves the child onto the ‘trajectory’ schema and helps them explore new concepts and ways of doing things.
child playing outside

Why is outdoor play important in schemas?

The outdoors presents lots of great opportunities for children to explore different types of schemas.

From throwing bean bags into a bucket to swinging upside down on a climbing frame, there are endless possibilities for a child to extend their learning.

As a nursery practitioner, it’s your responsibility to provide children with opportunities for outdoor play. You could set up a sand pit and water pit where they can play with different objects and explore how liquid transfers from one container to another.

You could also take them on a nature walk and let them pick up shells, leaves, or pinecones to discover how the different objects feel. They could place these items in bags or boxes to explore their ‘enveloping’ schema.

As a parent, it’s equally important to engage your child in outdoor activities. You could take them to the local park on a weekend and push them in the swing. Or let them push the swings themselves to see how the object moves through the air.

Outdoor play is a fantastic way for children to explore their surroundings and offers so much value by developing their imagination and resourcefulness.

Schemas of Play: How to Incorporate These Into Your classroom

Through their early years development, children learn about different concepts through the action of ‘doing’.

By the very nature of trial and error, children can explore different ideas, figuring out how different things work, and finding solutions for themselves.

This repeated behaviour is known as a ‘schema’ and is crucial to a child’s brain development. By understanding different schemas and how these can be incorporated into the classroom, it ensures children are receiving the best possible learning experience.

You can plan activities that play to their interests which increases their level of engagement. This is key for a child to progress as they learn about new concepts in a way that interests them.

As we’ve covered, the home environment is equally as important when it comes to schematic play. Understanding what children play with at home and what captures their attention in this setting, can help you improve their experience in the classroom.

Being able to communicate and share observations with parents is a key part of this so both parties can create a bigger picture of a child’s learning. With the Learning Journals platform, you can record, upload, and share an unlimited number of observations giving you total flexibility.

Both parties can also comment on observations and easily exchange information allowing you to identify any concerns or areas of play that can be incorporated into the classroom.

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