Schemas in Play

We all experience moments like these; when your toddler has just tipped their whole bowl of cereal across the dining room table, or they are in the pantry covered in jam and tomato sauce they have been mixing in a bowl, or perhaps they have decided to move the entire contents of their wardrobe from the cupboard to their bedroom floor.

Now I am not going to say that your child is horrible or a menace, you can decide that for yourself. What I can confidently say is, “congratulations!” because this sort of behaviour signals your child has strong cognitive processes for exploring and expanding their world (and that’s a really good thing).

Children’s play is filled with urges. We call these urges Schemas in Play. These Schemas in children’s play cause neurological pathways to be created. They create cognitive processes and formulas that help children predict and hypothesis the rapidly changing world around them.
Sometimes Schemas in Play are wonderful and beautiful; sometimes they drive us completely crazy. Understanding that your child is behaving in this way can help us to see the learning that is happening within the action whilst helping us to be proactive in supporting children in ways that maximise cognitive development and minimise those moments that drive us crazy as parents and educators.

Let’s have a look at the nine most common schemas in children’s play, as well as some things that we do at First Steps to promote schema play, to help you implement them at home.


Orientation in play is the urge to hang upside down, climb things to get height, lay down under tables and so much more. To understand what these different perspectives are like you must physically go upside down, up high and under things. You probably do not hang upside down much as an adult, but you know what it is like because you were a child once.

Ways we promote orientation in play at First Steps:

  • Setting up climbing frames and obstacle courses
  • Using bars for children to hang upside down
  • Using cushions and mats for children to lie on
  • Hanging sheets for children to lay and play under
  • We have playground for older children to climb
  • Our Fairy garden is elevated to give perspective
  • Our climbing tree is great for orientation.


Positioning in play is the urge to line up toys, sort them into categories, stack them up and so much more. This schema helps children to make sense and find understanding in the multitude of toys at their disposal. This Schema is usually a delight to see and is something we all try to keep with us as we grow up.

Ways we promote positioning in play at First Steps:

  • We have all kinds of toy cars (Cars always seem to be at the centre of Positioning)
  • We use a variety of blocks for stacking and building
  • We have sorting activities using colours and shapes
  • Older children help with setting up and stacking away chairs and table decorations
  • Natural materials such as rocks create opportunities for positioning.


Connecting in play is the urge to click Lego together, tie things together with rope, hold hands with friends etc. As amazing as all these things are, connecting also has a dark side… disconnecting. This can mean the destruction of their artistic creations, sandcastles, and block towers. But when the connecting urge takes over nothing is safe.

Ways we promote connecting in play at First Steps:

  • By providing a variety of craft options; sticky tape, glue, slickers etc
  • By providing a variety of construction activities like Lego and Mobilo
  • Using hammers and screw drivers under high supervision
  • We have short lengths of rope that children use freely
  • Weaving activities with ribbons and shoes laces.


Trajectory in play is the urge to throw and kick balls, drop things from high places, swing on things and so on. Children start to learn about distance, action and reaction, limitations and what it feels like to fly. This schema left untamed can have some devastating effects, but a few creative ideas can help you and your child really enjoy exploring trajectory.

Ways we promote trajectory in play at First Steps:

  • Making paper planes with the children
  • Providing space for ball games
  • Experimenting with rockets
  • We have a swing set up in the back yard
  • Bubbles are a great way to explore trajectory.


Enclosing in play is the urge to place animals in a fence, draw a big circle around smaller pictures, play in spaces with defined boundaries (like boxes). Enclosing is not about hiding objects, but defining the boundaries for these objects. Enclosing helps children recognise and define spaces for objects and ideas by separating them from other objects and ideas.

Ways we promote enclosure in play at First Steps:

  • Long wooden blocks make great fences for animals
  • Small blankets in home corner for the babies
  • Painting and drawing activities
  • Definable play spaces inside and outside


Transporting in play is the urge to carry multiple objects, using a wheelbarrow or watering can, having a loaded bag on their back etc. In short, transporting is moving objects from A to B. Children learn to focus on tasks, set goals and objective and experience success as they transport anything and everything around.

Ways we promote transporting in play at First Steps:

  • We have Buckets, wheelbarrows, trucks, shovels, and an assortment of containers outside
  • Watering cans and jugs to carry water
  • Handbags and baskets in home corner
  • Hessian bags outside for children to carry


Enveloping in play is the urge to wrap up babies in blankets, hide things in cupboards and draws, create homes for toys in boxes. Children are questioning what happens when I cannot see something? Can I still feel it? Will it be there when I open it up again? Will it change? Enveloping even asks the question, what happens when I hide in a cupboard or under a blanket?

Ways we promote enveloping in play at First Steps:

  • We often use A4 envelopes for drawing then children play with them
  • Small blankets in home corner for the babies
  • Activities like wrapping presents or craft
  • Large blankets for children to hide under
  • Hiding spaces in the yard for children to play in


Rotation in play is the urge to roll balls and wheels, spin around in circles, sit in front of the washing machine as it spins and so much more. Rotation allows children to explore the endlessness inherent in a circle. How does it work? When will it stop? There is something about rotation that we find intriguing and entrancing even as adults.

Ways we promote rotation in play at First Steps:

  • We have pipes and ramps for balls and cars
  • We have a stack of Hola Hoops
  • We use batteries and motors to experiment with fans and wheels
  • We have a collection of cable wheels for children to play with.


Transforming in play is the urge to combine water and dirt in a bucket, mix all the colours in the paint pots, stir ingredients in a bowl and so on. Transforming helps children explore change. When two separate substances combine to make a completely different one, children can create cognitive processes for predicting change.

Ways we promote transforming in play at First Steps:

  • We have a kitchen in our sandpit with pots, pans, and utensils
  • Open painting activities with freedoms to mix colours
  • We do a lot of cooking with the children
  • We make water available during outside play
  • Bubble mixtures and colours.

Children explore all these schemas in play at different stages of childhood and in different ways. So, next time your child does something that drives you crazy, pause for a moment before reacting and think about which schema in play they are using. Then plan some strategies to allow them to outwork that schema in a way that promotes your sanity; and their learning.

By Samuel Wright

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