An Introduction to Schemas

Does your child keep lining things up? Do they collect items in piles around the house, or do they keep throwing their toys out of their pram? They may be engaging in schematic play!
What is a schema?

Schemata are clusters of repeated actions that form the basic building blocks for knowledge. As adults, we have a vast range of complex schemata. For example, your schema for washing the dishes would include turning on the hot tap, adding soap, turning off the tap, scrubbing each item, putting them on the dryer, drying them with a dishcloth, and putting them away.

Schemata for young children, on the other hand, are much simpler, as they are still learning how the world works. The very earliest schemata are sucking - when something touches their mouth, they open it and suck - and grasping - when something touches their hand, they open it and grab.

These actions will be repeated until the child has mastered them. Later in life, they will provide the basis for new knowledge and skills. For example, schemata that explore moving up and down, side to side, and round in circles are all important for learning to write.

In the early years, there are nine common schemata that children might explore in their play. Every child is different and, while some may go through all of these, others may only explore one or two, or none at all! This is perfectly normal.

The 9 Common Schemata are:

  • Trajectory
  • Transporting
  • Enclosing
  • Rotational
  • Enveloping
  • Connecting 
  • Orientation
  • Positioning
  • Transforming

Why should I know about schemata?

Have you ever got annoyed or worried because your child kept throwing things, didn’t play with their toys ‘correctly’, or showed zero interest in the wonderful activity you spent hours preparing?

By learning to spot schematic play, you can combat the frustration of not understanding why your child is acting the way they are, and provide them with resources and opportunities to explore safely and fully. 

So, here are the 9 most common schemata, along with how to spot them and support them!


This schema is all about movement! Children will throw objects, play with running water, climb and jump. This schema teaches children all about dynamics… and how fragile objects can be!

To support them, try:
  • Providing soft, unbreakable objects to throw such as foam balls or scarves.
  • Playing on the swings.
  • Setting up an obstacle course.
  • Laying your sofa cushions down so they can jump off the furniture safely.
  • Playing in the bath.
  • Blowing and chasing bubbles.


This form of schematic play involves children moving objects (and themselves) from place to place. They may carry items in bags or buckets, push them along on toy trucks or a scooter, or send them down pipes or slides. This, quite simply, teaches children how to move things - a pretty fundamental skill!

To support them, try:
  • Supplying them with bags, trolleys, toy trucks, buckets, or even your suitcase - anything that can carry something else!
  • Finding a sandpit to play at, or heading to the beach with buckets and spades.
  • Sticking together toilet rolls to make tubes.
  • Collecting items whilst out and about, such as leaves, twigs or pebbles, and coming up with creative ways of carrying them.


Also known as containment, this schema involves children putting objects - and themselves - inside containers. For example, they may like getting inside boxes, building dens, filling baskets, or building fences or walls around their toys! This helps them to learn about proportion and dimension.

To support them, try:
  • Providing containers of all different sizes, from a matchbox to a box big enough for them to climb inside.
  • Playing in tents or tunnels.
  • Providing blocks that can be used to build enclosures for toys.
  • Making dens, either using blankets and cushions or big sticks and leaves.
  • Getting them involved in filling the washing machine.
  • Having a game of hide and seek!


You guessed it! This one is all about spinning! Children may be fascinated by wheels, taps, or simply love spinning in circles, or being spun around. This schema lays the foundations for later learning about circles, cogs, pulleys and magnetic fields - as well as how to play pass the parcel!

To support them, try:
  • Providing toys with wheels, cogs, twistable knobs or wind-up elements.
  • Spooling and unspooling string or yarn.
  • Playing with hoops.
  • Stirring together ingredients.
  • Making pinwheels.
  • Turning keys in locks.


In enveloping schematic play, children may swaddle toys in fabric, wrap themselves up in scarves or towels, or enjoy filling and emptying bags. This can teach your little one object permanence, as well as developing skills for packing, wrapping and dressing.

To support them, try:
  • Providing plenty of fabric and dressing up clothes.
  • Involving them in filling shopping bags.
  • Playing doctors with lots of bandages.
  • Wrapping presents!


This is all about sticking things together! They may enjoy construction toys, tying knots, or glueing things together. This schema teaches your little one loads about how things are put together, and helps them to understand whether something will hold fast or fall apart.

To support them, try:
  • Making collages using glue, tape or blue tack.
  • Making paper chains, or threading beads or pasta to make necklaces.
  • Playing with stackable blocks (such as duplo) or train sets.
  • Pegging up the washing.
  • Holding hands!


During orientation schematic play, little ones love to see the world from different angles. You may find them hanging upside down, sitting the wrong way round, or climbing on top of things to get a different view. This can help them with later physical activities, such as sports or climbing ladders.

To support them, try:
  • Using a magnifying glass or binoculars.
  • Climbing trees or climbing frames, or visiting a soft play centre.
  • Giving them a piggy back.
  • Having a go at some fun yoga poses.


If your little one loves laying out their toys in particular ways, or grouping them together, they may be exploring the positioning schema. This one is important for understanding patterns, staying tidy, and even laying the table!

To support them, try:
  • Collecting natural treasures, and seeing if you can sort them into patterns or groups.
  • Gathering your family together and arranging yourselves as if you were on a bus or around a table.
  • Making necklaces using pasta or beads.
  • Playing with blocks of different colours and shapes.


This one can get messy! It’s all about making things change state or alter appearance. You may find your little one covering themselves in paint, mixing together colours or making mud pies. This schema is important for their creative development, as well as learning to cook and perform science experiments!

To support them, try:
  • Painting!
  • Having a go at using face paints.
  • Baking or cooking together.
  • Making ice lollies.
  • Setting up a messy play area with everything from food colouring to baking powder to oil!

And that’s nine! By learning to recognise the schemata your little one is interested in, you’ll be able to provide them with all kinds of opportunities for learning through play. I hope this helps!

As ever, if you have any questions, want to share your stories, or have a parenting and early childhood topic you’d like to hear more about, drop us a message on our Instagram.

Happy playing!

Content Creator at MEplace

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