Schematic Play in the Early Years




This term we have quite a few of our children displaying schematic behaviour in their play.

Schematic play is extremely fascinating and when observed, it can give you an insight into a

child’s way of thinking.


Parents and practitioners are often perplexed by some of the children’s actions.

For example, we often notice some children are more intent in making marks in spilt food rather than eating their food or;

You may notice a child is more interested in painting themselves instead of the large piece of paper or;

You may have given a child a present and noticed that they are more intrigued by the packaging rather than the toy?


               Schemas can sometimes provide an explanation to all these questions!


Being aware of schemas enables us, as early year’s practitioners, and parents to understand that a child’s repeated behaviour is not deliberately destructive.

The repeated action of doing the same activity over and over again may seem strange or frustrating at times, but children are actually building up their connections in their brain.  They do this by carrying out repeated actions so that children can ‘fix their learning and make sense of it’.


What is a schema?

A schema is a repeated pattern of behaviour a child demonstrates through their actions, language or play.  

The word ‘schema’ simply means the type of natural urge or pattern of repeated behaviour that a child displays as they develop.


How do schemas work?

For example, a child may have an urge to move objects from one place to another or show an interest in filing containers. Some of our children have a constant urge to fill handbags and purses with tiny things they have found and these actions are signs of ‘transporting’.

One of our three year olds is obsessed with wheels and rolling things. He will seek out gradient surfaces to roll his cars down and finds items that he can roll across the floor. The actions he is displaying are signs of ‘rotation’, all these ‘urges’ are examples of schemas.


When do schemas begin?

Schemas begin from birth. However, children from two to five years are especially likely to show these patterns in their play. Initially, schemas are very simple but they will develop more complexly if they are supported. Research highlights that brain pathways develop faster when connections are sustained.


Recognising schemas

Schemas in children’s play are an important concept when it comes to the development of children and it’s worth taking the time to understand them, so you can recognise and support their urges and development.

Knowing about these urges can help you understand why children are so determined to do certain things that we might not understand or make us exasperated.

Within the kindergarten recognising and accommodating children’s pattern of behaviour is useful and effective and enables the key person to plan for individualised experiences and learning opportunities based around each child’s interest.

For example, in the role play area we often see children fill up bags, put things into boxes and dress up.  Knowing these children are interested in the schema ‘enclosing’ (putting things inside) we can plan their learning in ways that interest them. For example, from this information we can provide opportunities for den building, sorting a set of Russian dolls or creating a shop with bags to carry their goods.


The schemas we notice most in children at kindergarten are:


Connecting behaviour example – An urge to join items together, such as fixing train tracks and trains together, Lego and other construction materials. This urge can be connected or disconnected, and some children enjoy disconnecting and dismantling constructions and sandcastles.


Enveloping behaviour example – an urge to envelope or cover oneself, an object or space. Post toys, push items into tubes or enjoy wrapping toys/toys up in paper, fabric etc. Some children cover their paintings up with another colour.


Enclosing/containing behaviour example – an urge to enclose oneself, an object or space. Filling containers and putting objects inside containers, climbing into objects, building fences or borders.


Rotation behaviour example – turning, twisting or rolling oneself or an object in the environment around and around. An interest in anything with wheels, or objects that spin or roll and the child may display an interest in circular objects and draw circle shapes


Trajectory behaviour example – an urge to move oneself or objects in straight lines, arcs or curves. A child may show interest in things already moving e.g. planes, trains and cars. Some children like to climb and jump out of objects or make marks with spilled food using their hands.


Transporting behaviour example – the urge to move/carry items from one place to another, emptying and refilling bags and boxes, moving items using prams, trolleys or bags.



One little girl in the foundation group recent thread of thinking is the schema ‘enveloping’.

At kindergarten she wraps her dolls in blankets and uses the blankets  to cover toys and other children. At home she enjoys making dens and enclosures behind the sofa and plays with her dolls inside her special space.

Knowing about schemas can improve adult/child relationships as practitioners and parents become interested in actions from the child’s perspective.     


What if a child doesn’t appear to display any schemas?

Not all children will show clear schemas, but this doesn’t mean that they will not display urges. Some children can show clear schemas which are repeated over a series of days and months and this can be one type of schema or more than one.

The main thing is to remember to that every child is an individual and will learn at their own pace and interests.


Emily Sargeant

Setting Manager

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