• Emma

Understanding your little one's play ...


Have you ever wondered why your baby or toddler plays as they do? Perhaps you've noticed they're obsessed with putting things into other things, lining toys up or even throwing objects over and over again. If that sounds familiar, there's a good chance that what you are observing is your child learning through specific 'Schemas' or patterns of play and exploration.


Schemas are recognised by Early Childhood theorists to be an instinctive way for children to make sense of all the new experiences they encounter. They are often to compelled to use certain repeated movements, actions and patterns in their play which enable them to create similarities in apparently unconnected objects and experiences.


When we, as adults, take time to really observe young children's play, we will be rewarded with valuable information to help us provide learning experiences which they are interested in. By giving your child toys, games and activities which follow their interests they are so much more likely to become deeply engaged in their play and therefore form increasingly complex cognitive connections.


So what should you be looking out for?


Rotational Schema

Children are fascinated with things that turn or spin such as the washing machine, wheels or taps.

If this is your child, try providing lots of wheeled toys, balls, spinning tops, wool to wind and unwind, clocks with moveable hands, cooking equipment such as whisks and rolling pins, ribbons and streamers to twirl, paint rollers, water wheels, roundabouts and any toys with knobs or cogs that turn.





Trajectory Schema

This one is all about space and movement. You will notice your little one throwing, jumping, kicking, climbing, building tall towers and often pointing things out to you which are a long way ahead or a long way above (such as cars in the distance or birds in the sky).

If this sounds familiar, try offering balls, frisbees, lots of trips to the park/soft play, building obstacle courses at home with sofa cushions etc, bubbles, balloons, planks or similar to make ramps with, trains and tracks, blocks, lots of physical outdoor play, wheeled toys, water play toys which involve squirting and movement.




Enclosing/Containing Schema

If your child spends hours putting toys and small objects into bags, boxes, drawers etc (and then getting them all out again!) they are probably driven by the idea of containment.

Try providing lots of unstructured opportunities and age-appropriate small parts play, water play with cups to fill and empty, bags, baskets and boxes of varying sizes, nesting toys, dens and tents, posting games and sensory play such as sand or rice with pots and lids.



Positioning Schema

Children interested in positioning are fascinated by making arrangements with objects and seeing the world from different positions. You may notice your child, for example, loves to line up their toy animals, arrange the food on their plate, is insistent on a particular chair at teatime or sorts out the books on the shelf in a particular order. Because they are so compelled to learn through a sense of order, they may become distressed or frustrated by things like messy activities, sharing their play with other children or even having the peas on their plate mixed with the sweetcorn.

If this sounds like your child, try activities like sorting, puzzles, stacking, play houses and small world toys and think about how you enable them to follow their interest by providing low shelves, storage baskets etc. By involving them in decisions such as what to wear/eat, their frustrations will be minimised and they can focus on learning positively.




Transporting Schema

Does your little one regularly bring you little presents? Are they forever moving toys from one place to another either by carrying them or using a truck or bag to move them from place to place? Almost every toddler does this!

To support this schema, provide lots of bags, buckets & boxes, wheeled toys such as brick trucks, toy shopping trolleys or little buggies, books with handles, dumper trucks in the sand pit and make sure they get to help at the supermarket by loading and unloading onto the conveyor belt, into bags and unpacking at home.


The Schemas described above are just a few of many but these are the ones most commonly seen in children under two.

Let me know in the comments below if you recognise your little one in any of the descriptions above!

As always, if you have any questions, get in touch.


Emma xx


Want to know more?

Here are some of my favourite books which go into Schemas in more detail. They are aimed at Early Years Practitioners but are just as useful for parents as professionals:

  • Understanding Schemas and Young Children by Frances Atherton and Cathy Nutbrown

  • Schemas: A Practical Handbook by Laura England

  • Understanding Schemas in Young Children: Again! Again! by Stella Louis, Clare Beswick, Liz Magraw and Lisa Hayes


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