Learning Through Play – Understanding Schemas

One thing that children do best is play. Playing is one of those automatic functions that’s built into us from birth; allowing us to develop as individuals, and carve out our own identities.

Chase is almost 18months now, and since his 1st birthday it’s almost like a switch was flipped inside of him changing the way he plays and interacts with things. I’ve noticed more and more that he will always follow a certain pattern with his playing, no matter where or what he’s playing with. Even in an unfamiliar environment, he will still follow the same routine.

I recently came across the term “Schema”, and immediately set about to find out more about it, and how I could use it to further develop Chase’s learning opportunities.

What is a Schema?

A Schema is a word used to describe children’s patterns of play, and refers to the developmental urges that children have to do things such as climbing, building and moving things from one place to another.

They appear during playtime, and can usually be spotted through repeated behavior for certain activities. This important stage of their development is caused by specific needs or urges that emerge from their bodies, and in turn, forms connections with their brain for them to follow.

By recognising these urges, we can better understand why our children want to do certain things, particularly ones which we don’t understand ourselves. But it also enables us to support their learning and development by planning better playtime experiences that match their personal pattern of play.

More about specific Schemas…

In order to see which pattern of play your child follows, we need to understand more about the different Schemas. Sometimes these Schemas can appear one at a time throughout your child’s developmental stages, and other times they may go through more than one at a time. Usually they tend to become more noticeable shortly after your child’s first birthday, but as with anything relating to children, this is not an exact science!


The urge to transport things, or themselves from one place to another. Such as moving objects from place to place, and collecting lots of items at one time either in their hands, containers, or something with wheels that they can push around.

Play Idea: Trucks and trolleys such as this CAT Dump Truck that can be both pushed and filled encourage transporters to pick up, move along and put down objects during play.

A fascination with the path of a moving object. So throwing, dropping, pouring and other actions that cause movement of something in a diagonal, vertical or horizontal direction. Exploring this Schema involves experiencing space, and how movement occurs within it.

Play Idea: Running water is a fantastic way to explore this Schema. Try introducing Spillers Cups and other filtering toys such as this Fountain Rocket to bath time to offer lots of opportunities for water movement play.

The urge to cover and hide either themselves or other things, or getting into boxes and other small spaces. This Schema opens up a world of mystery, exploring how they or items can fit inside other objects.

Play Idea: Provide boxes, blankets and other build-able items such as these pop up Tunnels and Tents which can be used to make dens and forts. Hide and seek is also a great way to get involved with this Schema!

Anything that goes around something in a rotation, such as wheels, being spun or swung on an object, watching the washing machine go round or even drawing  circles and round scribbles.

Play Idea: Find items that spin or go around, Colourful Pinwheels are always a winner, as are Marble Run style toys that are suitable for younger children.

The idea of transforming something from one state to another; such as mixing different foods or substances together, squeezing berries to watch them turn to mush, or seeing changes in consistency when wet or dry.

Play Idea: Sand and Water Tables are a great way to discover how materials can change their shape and form as it offers both the ability to explore wet and dry consistencies, and also molding and shape creating using sand

Basically building and joining things. Whether it be building blocks, stacking cups, fixing train tracks together, or lining things up in a row. These are all signs of the Connecting Schema; as well as disconnecting or knocking down things they (or someone else) have just built.

Play Idea: Anything that allows your child to build or construct such as this Mega Bloks Build n Learn Table or these Toot Toot Drivers Sets is a perfect way to develop a Connecting Schema; and also aids in developing their hand-eye coordination.

The positioning of oneself or an object in a particular way or order. This can been seen in many ways; such as the need to separate food. e.g. keeping sauces on the side of their food, not on it. Having toys lined up in a particular order, or placing things in a specific place or position.

Play Idea: Find something that allows your child to move, position or stack in a certain way. My son loves helping to hang the laundry, or to unload the shopping bags into the cupboard.

The desire to get a view from a different angle – say on top or underneath something, or by hanging upside down. Seeing things from different perspectives like this encourages both cognitive and physical development.

Play Idea: This Schema is best utilised outside (unless you want to encourage them to climb on top of the kitchen table!) so head over to the park, or pick up some garden furniture that encourages climbing, such as this Activity Gym
How can knowing about schemas help me?

As a parent, knowing and understanding what these urges are can help us in supporting our children’s development.

By observing your child’s playtime, you can start to pick out patterns in what they’re doing, and subsequently establish their own methods of learning new skills. This in turn, allows you to further support your child’s learning by offering them the resources and experiences that will channel their urges, and motivate them to explore further at their own pace.

Remember, it’s not about the action itself, but the desire to fulfill the urge they have that drives children to do certain things. Sometimes these urges will come through in ways that we as adults may deem as inappropriate behavior – such as throwing something to the floor, or climbing on top of the dining table.

So by learning which Schemas your child tends to follow, you can recognise the urges as they’re playing and redirect them into a more suitable (or safer) outlet. For instance, throwing balls in the garden, climbing an activity frame, or playing with a water table rather than pouring their juice onto the floor!

Does your child follow a particular schema? Or perhaps a combination of a few? have you found any activities which help redirect an urge? leave me a comment below!


Disclaimer: The views and photos in this post are 100% my own. I am not a childcare professional, and therefore any advice on this page is solely for reference based on my own research and opinions. All external links are provided for your convenience, and do not mean that I endorse the page or product that I am linking to. I do not work for any of the brands referred to in my post, and at the time of writing this post, am not affiliated with them in any way. This page does however contain some affiliate links.

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15 thoughts on “Learning Through Play – Understanding Schemas

  1. This post fascinated me. My son is largely a transporter, although he does the others as well. I would love to learn more about this, as it might help me channel his urges better when he’s doing something undesirable! #KCACOLS

    1. My son is also mostly a transporter; We’ve literally bought out the toy shops in “transporting” themed toys for him, yet his favourite pastime is to push our family coolbox around the house, picking up a collection of “treasures” as he goes… There’s a common understanding in our house that if something has gone missing, it’s probably in the coolbox! Thanks for commenting!

  2. Great insight. Thanks for sharing. And I can totally relate to the climbing on the table schema but really agree it’s about getting them into a place where they can follow their urges without being in ‘trouble’ #KCACOLS

  3. This is really interesting! I think my son is a transporter and climber, he loves moving things around and turning them over and moving them from one side of the table to the other side. He climbs all over the place as well! I’ll have to use your suggestions for play, these are great! Thanks so much for sharing with #StayClassyMama!

  4. Wow this is fascinating and I’ve never heard of a schema so thank you for shedding light on this. Now that you’ve pointed out the different schemas, I can totally recognise my daughter’s play patterns. Or rather, I’ve noticed the patterns, but never really thought about the why etc, let alone giving it a name. She LOVES transporting things and hiding things and recovering them again. She literally spends her WHOLE days doing this and I embrace it. It’s very repetitive for me, but now I’m going to think about how I can do different variations on it. Literally, any time we get a new box or bag, she’ll swipe it and start moving objects from other boxes into it. Now I know why!

    Also, the best gift we’ve EVER had, since she was 1 (she’s now 25 months) is those cardboard stacking blocks. She’s used them every day for over a year but in different ways. Stacking (obviously) also transporting objects between them, now she uses them as holes for her animals to sleep in. She uses them to climb across like stepping stones to get to the sofa with my help. The list is endless. I’m going to bookmark this page and refer back to it as I think of new ways to manage her urges as they appear. THANK YOU! I think you’ve just transformed play time (for both of us), Ruth xx #BigPinkLink

    1. So glad you liked it! My son is also predominantly a transporter! You can really see it in everything they do! Recently he’s started moving his food from his plate to the highchair table, and then back again before he’ll eat it! Just another one on the list of things he “transports”! 🙂

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