Schematic play

Parents/carers and practitioners working with young children are often puzzled by some of the children’s actions and play.

Have you ever given a present to a child and noticed he/she is more interested in the box rather than the toy? Have you ever noticed a child paint or draw a lovely picture then cover it completely in paint? Schemas can sometimes provide the explanation.

‘Schemas are patterns of linked behaviours, which the child can generalise and use in a whole variety of different situations. It is best to think of schemas as being a cluster of pieces which fit together’, Bruce 1997.

Schemas are the innate repeating patterns of behaviour displayed by all babies and children in their constant quest to learn‘, Threads of Success.

A schema is seen to be a pattern a child demonstrates through their actions, language or play. While a child may play with a variety of toys, a pattern may link these seemingly disassociated activities. Schemas indicate the child’s focus in an activity. Children exhibit schema when they are learning.

In our home corner at Choochoos we quite often see children, fill up bags, put things into cupboards, dress up, load prams with dolls, this focus is called ‘enveloping’. By identifying a child’s schema we can plan their learning in ways that most interest them. Choochoos practitioners will identify children’s schemas while observing them, these will be included and linked within observations on the child in their eyLog learning journey. The child’s key person will then plan to support the interest and schema of the child, in their future activities and experiences.

We form our schemas during childhood as a way to make sense of our world. They are normal and natural reactions to events. Children exhibit schemas when they are playing and trying to find out more about the world.


There are 37 schemas, but the main schemas and schema behaviours we notice most in our children at Choochoos are:

  • Trajectory – vertical, horizontal and oblique, throwing, jumping, dropping, a fascination with the beginning and end of lines.
  • Connecting – a child with a connecting schema is interested in joining things together alone or with sticky tape or other items.
  • Going through – going through or putting objects through things including tunnels, tubes.
  • On top – climbing on top of objects and furniture. Being the highest in the environment.
  • Rotational – going round and round, moving or watching items that go round or spin.
  • Positioning – ordering, arranging and positioning items or themselves.
  • Transporting – a child may move objects or collections of objects from one place to another, perhaps using a pram, bag or truck.
  • Enveloping and containing – covering things up and putting things inside.
  • Transformation – mixing paint, show an interest in melting jelly or ice, dressing up.
  • Scattering – emptying baskets, tipping out toys like bricks, use arms and legs to scatter objects. Wipe objects or toys from tables and surfaces.

Professor Tina Bruce describes three levels of schema:

  • Sensorimotor – senses and movement.
  • Symbolic representation – pretend.
  • Functional dependency – exploring cause and effect.

You can read about schemas in Tina Bruce, Early Childhood Education, 1997 and Chris Athey, Extending Thought in Young Children, 1990.


Click on the links above to find out more about each individual schema or read more about schema in our Choochoos schema leaflet.