Young children who seem to enjoy certain repetitive behaviours are often exploring a schema. Schemas help children understand the basic concepts of physics that make the world work - all through play!
What is a schema?
A schema is a pattern of behaviour. As adults we use them all the time, and we don’t really notice we’re doing it. Switch on a light, or make a sandwich, and you are using a schema to do it - a mental model you’ve created through your own process of trial and error to find the best and most efficient way of completing your task.
Children use schemas too. On the journey of discovery that is childhood, they are continually postulating, testing and re-testing theories about physical processes and how the world works, so that eventually one day they too will switch on a light or make a sandwich in the most efficient way possible.
Schemas are what we observe when children are in the throes of these scientific investigations. They’re normal, healthy patterns of behaviour that indicate a child is interested in something, trying to make sense of the world.
Why do schemas matter?
Once a child has understood a schema’s physical manifestation, they are able to consider more abstract applications. For example, the concept of emailing a photo to Grandma becomes easier to understand once we have had the chance to practise moving objects from one place to another, whether that’s rolling a toy car across the floor or taking a doll out of her box and putting her into the doll’s house.
Children also learn by using their own bodies in schema play. The simple act of walking from one point to another helps them understand the idea of trajectory, of moving from A to B.
In this way, schemas help children understand the fundamentals of how things work. Schemas are a child’s earliest lessons in basic physics.
When do children use schemas?
Schema play is especially noticeable in toddlers. It can be incredibly satisfying when you are able to identify which schemas your child is interested in. Once you know that your child is exploring a certain schema, you can tailor their activities and toys to help them get the most from their investigations.
It’s worth noting that children do not always remain interested in the same schemas. They may explore several at the same time and may quickly lose interest once they have mastered a concept.
What are the main schemas?
Here are some of the most commonly recognised schemas in toddlers. They’re mostly based around movement, though in principle a schema can be about anything.
Rotation: children with a strong rotation schema love anything circular, especially anything that rotates. They might love the wheels on buggies or watching the washing in the machine spin around. They might beg to be spun around in circles or always head for the roundabout in the playground.
Trajectory: trajectory schema is all about how things move. Babies who love to drop food from their highchairs are exploring their trajectory schema. Toddlers who like to push and pull things along, or run backwards and forwards or also enjoying their trajectory schema.
Enclosing: enclosers love creating cosy spaces that they can hide their toys or themselves in. They might love tucking toy mice into matchboxes or packing a den under the table with cushions and getting cosy with their teddies.
Enveloping: similar but slightly different to enclosing. Envelopers love to wrap things up in blankets and to wrap presents. They might also like to paint things, including themselves, and might enjoy being in a fancy dress outfit that covers them completely.
Positioning: children exploring a positioning schema tend to position objects or themselves in lines, patterns or sequences.
Connecting: A child with a connection schema is interested in joining things together. Magnets and anything magnetic are very popular - especially wooden trains. Construction toys are also popular with connectors.
Transporting: the transporter moves everything from one place to another. If you have a transporter nothing will ever be in its place. You may find they enjoy delivering things and can be helpful in the garden when things need moving.
Orientation: with orientation schemas children love to look at things from different angles. You’ll often find them in a tree or hanging upside down from the monkey bars.
How to harness the magic of play schemas at home
Schema play is so engaging that once you have identified a schema you are unlikely to have any problems encouraging your child to settle into it. Here are a few tips for getting started:
Spend some time observing your child. Try to identify which of the eight basic schemas they are interested in.
Once you think you’ve identified an interest, think about what other experiences you could offer that would feed it. A child who likes watching the washing machine spin might be interested in the rotation schema. So try other circular and spinning activities - twirling a streamer, visiting a windmill, spinning on the spot, rolling down a grassy slope, using a screwdriver or spanner.
You will be amazed how much interest your child shows in such activities.
Toys and objects for schema play
At the peak of schema play, if you can identify the schema correctly, there’s really no need for any toys at all, since exploring the schema is infinitely more interesting than a toy. Try mixing toys, household objects and items from nature and see what happens.
Trajectory: throwing a ball or stick, playing on a slide, archery/darts
Rotation: streamers, spinning tops, roundabouts
Enclosing: boxes and bottles for filling, dens to hide in, putting dolls to bed
Enveloping: blankets for wrapping up dolls, wrapping paper all-in-one dress up suits, masks and face paints
Positioning: Pebbles, acorns, mandalas/loose parts, small toys like cars or figures
Connecting: Lego, wooden railways, construction toys, paper chains
Transporting: Trolleys, bags, rucksacks, block and tackle
Orientation: Sleeping Lions, treehouses, climbing frames, trees, walls
See The 100 for more on schemas:
Encourage open-ended play for creativity and focus
Independent play and why it matters
Insider Guide: Small World Play and Language
Tell Almost Any Story with Just a Handful of Figures
A simple guide to choosing the right toy