What are Play Schemas? - Sticks & Stones Education

What are Play Schemas?

What are Play Schemas?

 What are play schemas in children’s play and why are they so important?


Some of the typical behaviours we observe in children are actually play schema! A child knocking over another child’s block tower, children hiding in cardboard boxes or the empty shelves of drawers, throwing toys across the room or dropping food from their high chair, lining up cars in a row or the infamous rock collecting that has peppered my career as an early childhood teacher! These are all examples of children’s development that are often misunderstood as destructive or “naughty”.  Behaviour is learning made visible just as it is communication of a need. 

A few years ago, I was the director of a child care centre and one of my amazing teachers was in the nursery room where she was blossoming. She really was amazing. A fresh graduate with years experience as a diploma educator, soaking everything up and driven to support her students and striving to be the best teacher she could be. 

There was a quirky 2 and a half year old in the nursery room and he was throwing cars. My teacher and I stood there and watched him flick and fling these cars across the room. We chatted about what he was doing and how we could support him to learn, but keep the other nursery room children safe from air-born  mustangs and police vehicles. 

Later that day, we were in the preschool room and there our little friend was at the light table in the corner with the magnetic blocks. He was flinging these tiles at the wall in front of him. His brain was telling him LEARN THIS NOW! And so he was.

He was flicking and flinging small objects because his brain wanted to learn how they moved through they air, what they did when they hit a surface, how the items responded when they hit something, what noises they made, did they stop moving? Did they break?

He was learning how they felt in his hand, their weight and then how they felt when they left his hand and flew. He was learning about the distance and time it took for a thrown object to hit a surface or stop moving. He was developing his hand and eye coordination, his fine motor control in releasing the object … He was learning.

And when we come along and say “Stop, that’s not how we play with the cars. Try this ... “ And look, those are the strategies I was taught both in my years of professional schooling but also my practical learning with mentors.

I argue now though that we are fighting this child’s drive to learn. This child’s brain has said we need to learn this thing now, and let’s go! And along comes the adult saying no, no, no. What we should be doing is offering the child the resources they need to learn the thing!

We should be planning for trajectory. We should be offering baskets of large pom-poms, balls of all sorts of shapes and sizes, bean bags, crumpled up paper … We should be planning for the learning the child is telling us they need. Schema is a way for children to learn, and planning for schematic play enables us to do this holistically.

What are the main play schemas? 

The term ‘schema’ or ‘schemata’ was used in 1923 by Jean Piaget, a renowned child development theorist. If you’ve studied early childhood education you will most likely have heard his name and learned about his theories along the way. I can certainly remember learning about him in my child development course at TAFE way back when. I don’t remember much emphasis being placed upon play schema though.

Schema played a large role in Piaget’s theory of cognitive development. His theory was divided into three main components: Symbolic , Operational and Behavioural. Play Schema actually falls under the Behavioural Schema.  When I was studying we placed a great deal more emphasis on the Symbolic and Operational, but I am fascinated by the Behavioural. This is often what we see demonstrated in children’s actions and while not always defined as play, it is! 

Over the almost century since Piaget coined Behavioural schemata, others have studied and explored the theory of play schema and how it relates to early childhood education. I won’t go into the details within this article, but just know that our understanding is growing and evolving. 

Some of the most common schema observed are:

  • Connection 
  • Enclosure 
  • Enveloping 
  • Rotation 
  • Trajectory 
  • Positioning 
  • Orientation 
  • Transforming
  • Transporting 

Why are Play Schema Important in Children's Development? 

Well, the brain drives the learning and children learn through play, therefore the brain is driving children’s learning through the vehicle of play and behaviour. 

Nurturing an understanding and respect for play schema enables educators and parents to be the strongest advocates for child driven learning. Put simply, let them play; resource their play, and children will thrive. They may need a bit of help along the way, or they may need some more time to learn, but children will certainly learn through their play. 

Through developing an understanding that children’s behaviours are a fundamental brain driven need to learn, we can design and adapt our teaching strategies, our resources and our interactions to support children’s learning.  We become better able to nurture children’s intrinsic drive to learn and develop. 

Yes, sometimes those behaviours may be seen as an undesirable behaviour.  We may become frustrated along the way, but once we shift our thinking and our responses to these play schema we can transform relationships, learning and indeed our mutual experiences in learning. 

Some of the common schemas that we may find challenging as an educator or parent of young children is the throwing of food, plates or cutlery from the table or high chair.  This child’s brain is saying ‘learn about trajectory now!’ and so this child is using what they have at hand to experience trajectory. 

This is just like my story of Alex where he was throwing cars and magnetic blocks. With every item dropped or throw or launched, the child is learning. This toddler is learning about cause and effect, gravity, time, how different items fall and land at different speeds and times. They are learning that the different landing items makes different sounds and therefore they are learning about the materials and how they perform differently. A wedge of apple sounds different to a melamine fork when it lands on the tiles. 

An older child will experience trajectory through playing with pretend cars and other vehicles, roads, ball runs and construct and roll. Different types of balls or marbles will also move differently. We can add in cardboard or recycled tubing from a plumber and learn how different angles change the way something moves … there is just so much learning that can occur through the provision of open-ended resources. 

By providing children with the resources for their learning, these “unwanted” behavours should abate as the need to learn is being supported in other rich and meaningful ways. An understanding of children’s interests beyond that of “dinosaurs” or “fairies”.

When do Play Schema appear?

Children start demonstrating play schemas around their first birthday and become more apparent as your child enters the traditional “toddler” stage of development.  For some children they are quite obvious while for others they may be more subtle. 

Schema will become more apparent in time.  Children are often practicing a few schema at the one time, so they can appear to overlap with one another or seem like they are combined. Also keep in mind they are forever changing and developing just as your child is growing and developing. 

Let's dive into the main Play Schemas and learn what they mean and how we can support children's learning along the way. 

What is Connection Schema in children's play?

Connection schema can be defined as connecting or joining things together. It can be tying items together or closing things such as doors or flaps. This can also include the un-doing of connections such as disconnection or destruction such as knocking over a block tower or taking spools off a string. We often forget that learning about how things work is often about taking them apart! 

Story Time: This reminds me of a discussion I had once upon a time in my career as a curriculum mentor and an Educational Leader coordinator. I was being told the story of an educator who was working hands on with student who was trying to thread beads onto a skewer standing in play-dough. They were just becoming more and more upset. 

This educator was inspired and she offered her own threading work to the child to un-thread. Think about it … by taking each bead in hand, and lifting it from the skewer, the child is actually going through the exact same motions as if they were threading - the only difference being they are not becoming frustrated and overwhelmed with trying to overcome a challenge of slightly more complicated hand-eye coordination. The child experienced success AND they developed the skills they would need to be able to thread themselves. How perfect is this? This my friends is intentional teaching and schema beautifully interwoven to provide children with positive learning experiences. 

What do children learn through connection schema?Through connection schema children are learning that things can come together and come apart. They are developing their physical fine motor skills as well as their hand to eye coordination. They also learn about cause and effect - if I do this, this happens. And connection schema is important for pre-science and pre-math skills such as making predictions, estimating, counting and learning the concepts of more and less. 

Experiences and Resources that support children's learning through Connection Schema:

  • Make paper chains using strips of paper … use plain, different colour and also patterned paper to explore patterning
  • Make your own weaving frames or weaving boards using repurposed materials such as sticks, branches, string, cardboard boxes 
  • Nesting box – Check out instructions
  • Train sets with tracks that interconnect 
  • Road sets that have pieces that interconnect like the cork roads. 
  • Make a nesting box for birds to collect nesting material in spring 
  • Connetix Tiles or other magnetic tiles
  • Magnetic wands with discs
  • Make a magnet discovery bottle with different types of metals inside, and a magnetic wand attached. 
  • Busy books such as the Curious Columbus fabric books. 
  • Magnetic fishing games
  • Dominoes
  • Locks and keys 
  • Nuts and bolts 
  • Lock box toys
  • Containers with lids
  • Stickers and tape collage
  • Legos and duplo
  • Lacing boards, either bought or make your own using cardboard!
  • Threading activities using thread, string, plastic cord or pipe cleaners.
  • Make necklaces using beads 
  • Junk construction and modelling with tape, string, glue, paperclips, ribbon etc 
  • Mixing cornflour and water to make goop/oobleck 
  • Connect plastic pipes, funnels and buckets etc to create a ‘maze’ and then use with sand and water
  • Build spiders webs with thread on tree branch frames
  • Use natural materials such as branches to make frames that you can then weave raffia, green grasses to create patterns. 
  • Use tree branches to make a mobile and then use a hole punch and thread small pieces of paper and cardstock  together to hang and sway in the breeze
  • Build a train track or road using cork roads or train sets that interconnect. 
  • Manipulative construction toys that connect in different ways e.g. blocks, mobilo, straws with connectors, stickle bricks  etc. 
  • Outside make chalk mazes or trails for children to follow. Inside use masking tape to join areas together 
  • Dress-up clothes: clothes from around the world, different sizes and styles as well as character costumes using different fastenings.

What is Enclosure Schema in children's play?

Enclosure schema is about exploring physical boundaries and creating order and making spaces. This type of play can be expressed both on a larger scale of say using chairs to make a jail or a smaller scale using wooden play fences when engaged in a farm small world play scene. 

It may be evident when you notice a child building fences or boundaries within their play areas such as with blocks, boxes or even chairs. They also may build enclosures within a block area using the wooden unit blocks to create spaces for animals and label it as a house, a zoo or a farm. They may also be exploring the idea of movement inside and outside of spaces or enclosures, such as animals moving around a farm they have created. 

You may also notice Enclosure Schema manifesting itself through a child sitting inside a box. Who doesn’t love a good box?

Enclosure schema is a wonderful way for children ot learn early mathematics skills about volume and measurement and predicting. Will this item fit inside this enclosure? Do I need to make the enclosure larger? Can I fit my body in this space? They are also learning about object permanence and good old fashioned motor skills of both the fine and gross variety. 

Experiences and Resources that support children's learning through Enclosure Schema:

  • Sheets, blankets or fabric to make forts and tents using pegs and string, and chairs or even play couches.
  • Wooden crates and woven laundry baskets.
  • Offer cardboard boxed to make houses for people or for dolls and small world play characters.
  • Colour the inside of a large cardboard box, such as the ones large white goodS are delivered in. They make great forts or cozy nooks for young children. 
  • Caves or small boxes with a hole cut out ot make a cave for some small animals in a pretend play scene. 
  • Shoe box dioramas
  • Traditional games such as hide and seek
  • Posting boxes which can be purchased or even made using a tissue box or otherwise recycled cardboard box.
  • Help around the house putting groceries away after a shopping trip, putting dishes and cutlery away in low shelves after the dishes have been washed or even putting away folded laundry.
  • Tunnels 
  • Wooden building blocks including wooden rainbow arches.
  • Touch and feel boxes 
  • Various containers and boxes with lids
  • Sand castle blocks

What is Enveloping Schema in children's play?

Children demonstrate an interest in enveloping schema when they cover objects or their bodies with materials or objects. Children love to cover and hide themselves or indeed hide objects. Caves and cubbies can be made using blankets, sheets or scarves, fabric and we cannot forget the good old fashioned cardboard box. 

Children also enjoy dressing up in hats and scarves and jewelry that they can put on their body or parts of their bodies through like necklaces, strings of beads, bangles and bracelets.  Reflecting back to my early childhood teaching days, the children would fill our second life hand bags with bits and pieces from around the room: home corner items, blocks, favoured animal figurines etc. I didn’t realise it at the time, but this was schematic learning in action!

Young children also love wrapping items up in paper or fabric. I remember the days where my preschool students would wrap everything in paper and sticky tape. While it may seem a pointless activity, they are actually doing so very much learning in the process! While we may not see the learning, it is certainly there and layering knowledge inside children’s brains along the way. 

Experiences and resources that support children's learning through Enveloping Schema:

  • Dress ups with repurposed clothing or costumes
  • Toys hidden in sensory sand
  • Nesting dolls and nesting bowls
  • Games such as hide and seek
  • Object permanence boxes
  • Toys or objects hidden inside repurposed tissue boxes
  • Peek-a-boo games for babies
  • Climbing frame or Pikler frame with blankets or sheets
  • Play couches with blankets or sheets
  • Tablecloths draped over tables
  • Dolls and dolls clothes for dressing and undressing
  • Dolls, doll beds or boxes with blankets or wraps
  • Parachute games 
  • Play silks 
  • Cooking: making pies, rolls, puff pastries, wontons, empanadas, samosas, arancini, dumplings 
  • Use pillow cases or cushion covers to stuff things into 
  • Mark making materials and envelopes of different sizes 
  • Wrapping paper, newspaper, coloured cellophane, wall paper, string, sellotape and paperclips could be used to make parcels 
  • Posting toys
  • Russian dolls, nesting toys and shape sorters Role play – wrapping parcels in the post office, blankets to wrap babies in etc 
  • Purses, wallets, coin purses, pouches 
  • boxes, tins, baskets, suitcases, glasses cases, wallets or bags with materials to fill them 
  • Small blankets to wrap objects 
  • Bandages, scarves, large pieces of fabric to wrap yourself up in Make pasta parcels or wraps as a cooking activity 
  • Cover balloons, boxes or tubes in wallpaper paste and decorate with string, wool, shiny paper etc
  • Play pass the parcel Large tubes to post things into 
  • Make treasure baskets full of fleece, suede, fur fabric etc for wrapping objects In the sensory trays use bottles, buckets or pots to be filled and emptied 

What is Rotation Schema in children's play?

Rotation schema is an interest in things that rotate or spin. Children might spin their bodies or they may spin objects. It can also involve twisting, turning things or even drawing circles or spirals. Toys or objects that include wheels, balls, spinning parts, spinning tops, bikes or trikes would be of interest to children who are demonstrating a leaning towards rotation schema.

Through rotation schema children are developing their fine motor skills and dexterity, their gross motor skills when they use their whole bodies as well as cause and effect. 

Experiences and resources that support children's learning through Rotation Schema:

  • Toy cars, trucks and other vehicles
  • Play dough that can be rolled and manipulated into sausages, worms or balls
  • Balls of different weights, sizes, textures and materials. 
  • Help around the house and load the washing machine! Is it a front loader? Watch it spin! Or watch it from above with an adult.
  • Locks and keys - such as lock boxes.
  • Gears and cogs
  • Kaleidoscopes
  • Vortex valves/Tornado tubes
  • Spirals in nature such as large shells
  • Cooking where children can mix the ingredients 
  • Spinning tops, including making your own using coloured cardboard and pencils or wooden skewers.
  • Rolling pins and rolling stamps with play dough.
  • Painting with paint rollers
  • Playing Ring Around the Rosey games 
  • Using a salad spinner to create art
  • Playing with hula hoops 
  • Ball mazes such as the Connetix rainbow ball run and the pastel ball run.

What is Trajectory Schema in children's play?

I have no doubt that you will be very familiar with a child demonstrating a trajectory schema. Trajectory is a pattern of movement that emerges when children move their arms, legs and bodies in both horizontal and vertical lines. For example pushing, kicking, dropping and throwing items. There is horizontal trajectory when things are thrown outwards and vertical trajectory when things dropped or thrown upwards. This further develops into an exploration of straight lines which run up and down (horizontal).

Babies for example can be observed reaching for objects or kicking when they are having some independent play time on a mat on the floor, or in a bouncer with a frame. OR when babies start tossing things from their high chairs! This is trajectory in action. This child’s brain is saying “learn this now!” with what you have at hand … ie food.

This is also why babies are seen cruising furniture or pushing child sized chairs across the nursery room floor, pulling pull-toys or using activity walkers. This is schema and this is the young child’s brain driving their bodies to learn.

When children make movements such as waving their arms up and down or even side to side, pulling and pushing as well as pointing, rocking, climbing or stepping up and down or throwing are all actions of schema.

Experiences and resources that support children's learning through Trajectory Schema: 

  • Paper planes
  • Throwing home-made large pom-poms into a basket
  • Throwing bean bags filled with different weighted fillings into a basket or a bucket
  • Yo-yos
  • Ramps/Tubes such as the Construct and Roll or the Rainbow Connetix ball runs or the Pastel ball runs
  • Percussion instruments either home made or purchased.
  • Play catch either one on one or in a circle
  • Hammering nails
  • Bowling
  • Making home-made catapults using paddle pop sticks and felt balls.
  • Trampoline
  • Chopping food
  • Pounding toys such as pound a ball or hammering toys.
  • blow feathers, chiffon scarves or tissue paper
  • Make paper planes and have contests to see who can throw the farthest.
  • You can make a target on the floor and then drop different objects of different sizes, weights or shapes.
  • Make a pendulum using string and a weighted paint brush and then swing the brush across a large sheet of paper to explore patterns and how paint can represent movement.
  • Marble painting in a tray using dollops of different coloured paint.
  • Make kites, flags and bunting to use in the garden
  • Chase and catch bubbles - sticky bubbles add a new level of fun in this traditional game!
  • Throw wet sponges at a wall or the ground or each other! Make sponge bombs!
  • Drip coloured water, glue from syringes or fingers down across a mirror or piece of plastic
  • Make a simple pulley system
  • Make treasure (heuristic play) baskets containing scarves, leaves, keys, lengths of fabric to flick, twirl and spin and explore how the different materials and items move in the air.
  • Water pumps, funnels and plastic piping to move water
  • Use different sized cardboard or plastic tubing to drop balls, cars etc down different lengths
  • Make your own skittles game using repurposed drink bottles to roll balls to knock them over. Make sure you don’t alter the bottles too much so they can still be recycled.

What is Positioning Schema in children's play?

Positioning schema involves positioning items into an order. It can look like lining up toys, cars, blocks or books. It can be turning things upside down or it could even be putting things in certain places.

Children can be seen in the home or early learning environment arranging items. Children may line the cars up across the floor, or even line them up end to end on a car mat following the roads. Children may even appear to be hyperfocused on positioning items in certain places such as on top of a shelf or another toy.

Children may be observed lining up items in a particular order according to their size, shape, colour. Positioning schema is all about order and it may even appear during a meal time where a child doesn’t want their foods to be mixed together or they may line up their nuggets or carrot slices.

By engaging in positioning schema children are learning to recognise differences and similarities between objects. This form of classifying is important for both mathematical and scientific thinking. Positional schema is the foundation of problem solving, supports the development of concentration, pattern exploration and planning.

To support and extend children’s learning in this schema, you could share with the child what you’ve noticed about their positioning. I’ve noticed that you’ve lined up all the cars according to their colours; I see red, then orange and then blue. The child knows what they are doing, but they may not be mindful of their choices and by drawing their attention to it, you’re making it a more cognitive experience for them. It’s also a great conversation starter.

Activities and resources that support the Positioning Schema:

  • Wooden unit blocks
  • Stacking toys
  • Balancing game like moon and stars
  • Nesting cups
  • Stacking blocksh
  • Waldorf-Steiner Rainbows
  • Balancing objects such as tumi-ishi balancing blocks
  • Peg boards (create patterns)
  • 3-dimentional transient art using loose parts such as buttons, beads, shells, seed pods, beans etc.
  • Making symmetrical patterns with natural materials such as magic sensory sand or cotton sand and stampers
  • Wooden geometry pattern blocks either on their own or using templates
  • Dominoes
  • Sorting experiences such as with woollen pom poms or lining up to create patterns, and repeated patterns.
  • Sorting activities using common attributes such as color, shape, size, category, material
  • Button or shell sorting experiences
  • Flower arranging
  • Matching games – like the Modern Monty memory games
  • Placing stickers free-form, or on lines that form shapes, or letters
  • Trace shapes of toys and have child match toys to shape
  • Lining up toys such as animal figurines on the edge of large piece of paper and tracing their shadows in the sun
  • Hide and seek games
  • Treasure hunts
  • Transporting involves moving objects from

What is a Transporting Schema?
Transporting schema is exactly like what it sounds - transporting things but also oneself. It can mean carrying objects in pockets, purses, handbags, hands, under arms, baskets or buckets.

Children are learning about object permanence and spacial awareness. They’re developing their fine and gross motor skills. They’re planning and learning about measurement such as volume e.g. Will all these pebbles fit in my bucket?

Toddlers will start to carry things around until they start to realise they can put those things into a basket and carry around that basket! This is why you’ll see toddlers in a babys’ room carrying things around the place and “making a mess” … Those little piles of “mess” are actually evidence of learning, and it’s actually 100% important learning.

At this stage, children will be focused on moving objects. They see an object and they want to move it. They like to move it, move it. Ok, now that song is in my head! Sorry. But it’s true. To support this schema, tools for transport and things to be transported.

intent on moving objects from place to place, the objects may be carried in their hands, pockets or through filling containers such as buckets, trolleys, wheelbarrows and bags, these collected objects are then placed in piles around the nursery.

Basically almost everything that we observe young children do is learning.


  • Toy diggers, tractors, and trucks with natural loose parts such as sand, bark, gravel, pebbles, stones, pine cones, seed pods etc.
  • Wheelbarrows
  • Shopping trolleys
  • Loose parts such as wool pom-poms
  • Animal figurines
  • Duplo bricks
  • Guttering, ramps and planks and PVC pipes, half bamboo pipes
  • A small world construction site, both small that fits in a play tray or even larger trucks in a graden mud patch.
  • Scoops, spoons, spades, shovels, bottles, jugs and pitchers in different sizes and volumes, measuring spoons and measuring cups.
  • Sensory trays with natural mixes such as rainbow rice
  • Go on a nature hunt in the garden and collect leaves, flowers, seed pods in paper bags with the children’s names on it.
  • Pails for collecting sand or natural loose parts.
  • Small suitcases, handbags and purses in homecorner or dressing up corner,
  • Boxes, because children love boxes.
  • Eye droppers and syringes and ice cube trays to fill and empty.
  • Tea set with a tea pot and tea cups with liquid or sensory rice.


This blog is still a work in progress and I need to edit and add in: 

The Last to be added:



References and further reading:


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