This post may include affiliate links and I may earn commission if you make a purchase through these links.

Understanding Schema Play

Schemas are patterns of repeated behavior that allow children to develop an understanding of the world around them through play and exploration. Schemas are mental models or processes that we create by trial and error through experiences.

Kids are the perfect example of how we build schemas. They are constantly testing out concepts. You can easily notice these patterns of behavior in older infants and toddlers. Things like banging, pulling, pushing, and spinning are all examples of schema play.

Following the Child

The importance of early childhood education is well-established and reaches well beyond the preschool years. In fact, “early childhood” is considered birth to eight years old–so approximately 2nd or 3rd grade.

This time period is crucial for children. I’d even go so far as to say more crucial than post-secondary education. Why? Because how and what they learn during this time period will provide them with a foundation for the rest of their lives.

Education during these early years will help shape social, emotional, and physical health, as well as develop intrinsic motivation for lifelong learning–not just learning to get a grade.

With that in mind, the basis of any early childhood education philosophy should be to follow the child. So, what does this look like?

For more information about early childhood philosophies check out this article on Montessori.

Child Development and Schemas

It starts with newborns. From the time they are infants, we should be letting our children develop at their own pace, not forcing them into sitting or standing positions before they are ready, and observing what things make them feel safe and content–and providing those experiences.

When they are toddlers, it means encouraging their natural curiosity and providing them with a variety of opportunities to connect with people, places, and things around them.

As preschoolers, it means following their interests and not forcing them into learning concepts in order to “prepare them for school.”

As young children, it means allowing them ample free time to pursue their passions–not signing them up for activities because it will “look good” or because it’s something you always wanted for yourself.

In order to better understand your child’s development, it’s important to be aware of the concept of schema.

Sign up here to get our FREE Quick Guide to Schema Play

Common Schemas for Play

Connecting and Disconnecting

Children in this schema can be seen doing activities such as building train tracks, working with puzzles, joining things, lining toys up, or taking lids on and off. With this type of play, your child is trying to figure out how things fit together.

Ways to support this schema: Train tracks, roadway building, construction materials, building materials that “fit together” like LEGO® or blocks. Even things such as tape, string, and velcro can be used to support kids within this schema.


Playing in this schema involves things like swinging upside down, sitting in a chair the “wrong” way, and turning toys around to see things from different angles. This is children trying to figure out how the world looks through different points of view.

Ways to support this schema: Mirrors, magnifying glasses, binoculars, climbing structures that allow them to climb or hang upside down.


Kids who enjoy moving things from one place to another either use their hands or some sort of toy that can be filled, moved, and usually dumped. Children gain a sense of independence and responsibility when transporting items so you may find them eager to help you do chores that involve bringing something from point A to point B–like unloading groceries or moving clean laundry into the dryer.

Ways to support this schema: Stroller or grocery cart, small boxes that can be easily picked up by little hands, a little backpack or pretend purse. Loose parts are also great in this schema because they are perfect for being loaded, moved, and unloaded over and over. A few pots filled with water or sensory bins that allow for kids to move things from one pot or bin to another are also good ideas for encouraging play within this schema.


This is a common schema that is focused on how things move. Children in this schema are studying how objects (or their body) move through the air. Remember your little one who constantly threw food off their highchair? They were learning about trajectory! Other activities that are a part of this schema are playing with running water, running, playing tag, throwing a ball, sliding down a slide (or watching how different objects slide down a slide).

Ways to support this schema: Plenty of outdoor time and free space to run, throw things, pour water, send items down slides, or drop things from high places.


Children working in this schema enjoy things like making patterns, lining up toys, ordering things in sequences. They will often spend a good amount of time trying to make things just right.

Ways to support this schema: Loose parts that can be used to make patterns like the Grapat mandala pieces, small cars, or dolls.


This schema is all about wrapping things up. You may see them wrapping themselves in a blanket, wanting to put items in boxes, or swaddling their baby doll.

Ways to support this schema: Give them plenty of blankets, pillows, silks, boxes, and anything else that allows them to cover and uncover themselves or their toys. Things like nesting bowls are also good for this schema.


This is similar to enveloping but more about creating a boundary. So for example, children working in this schema will create forts or make a fence for their farm animals. This schema is about containment.

Ways to support this schema: Give children items to use to build forts (we love the Nugget®), large boxes, blocks that can be used to create a fence or boundary in some way.


This schema involves anything that goes in a circular motion and can rotate. Things like wheels, washing machines, merry-go-rounds, and spinning around in circles are all a part of the rotation schema.

Ways to support this schema: Provide your child with plenty of opportunities to play with streamers, spinning tops, and toys that have wheels. Household items like screwdrivers and nuts and bolts are also good for encouraging this schema.

Interested in getting your little one to play independently?

Check out my Purposeful Playspace e-course to learn how to create a space for your children that invites them to playin ways that are more engaging, purposeful and independent.

Want more information about how play impacts your child’s development?

Check out my e-book: Simply Play: Everything You Need To Know About The Most Important Part of Childhood

Love this post? Check out some of the articles below.

What are the stages of play? Jean Piaget’s Theory of Play!

This post may include affiliate links and I may earn commission if you make a purchase through these links. How can a theory published in 1936 still help you to understand your children and how to encourage them through their cognitive development?  While Jean Piaget’s Theory of Play is closing in on its hundred-year anniversary…

What are the ages and stages of child development? (Bonus chart!)

Get the ages and stages development chart here!! This post may include affiliate links and I may earn commission if you make a purchase through these links. During the first 3 years of life babies and toddlers are making 1-2 million neural connections a minute.  Mind blown! During those years they go through massive growth…

Are Pikler triangles worth it? abso-freakin-lutely

Are Pikler triangles worth it? abso-freakin-lutely This post may include affiliate links and I may earn commission if you make a purchase through these links. So what is this magic triangle that seems to be in every playroom on Instagram?  It’s a Pikler triangle and there are some great reasons why so many moms are…

Episode 5: The Psychological Importance of Play + How to Recover from Helicopter Parenting

This post may include affiliate links and I may earn commission if you make a purchase through these links. On this episode of Play. Learn. Thrive., clinical psychologist Sarah Mundy shares with Alanna insights about the importance of play in the development of confident, self-motivated, independent kids. In addition to being a core element of…

Risky Play: What Parents NEED to Know

Risky Play This post may include affiliate links and I may earn commission if you make a purchase through these links. Children have an innate need for risk-taking. In addition, children who are encouraged to take risks at a younger age are able to better manage risk once they have gained more independence. A lack…