Guest blog: Understanding schemas - to support your child's play and learning (and preserve your sanity!)

Guest blog: Understanding schemas - to support your child's play and learning (and preserve your sanity!)

By Helen Stroudley, Peeple - @peeplecentre

Hello, I am Helen from a charity called Peeple – we share activity ideas and info with parents and carers about supporting their babies’ and young children’s development in everyday life. We work with families in south Oxford, and train practitioners nationally. We’re also the education consultants for The Baby Club on CBeebies.

Parents often have a lightbulb moment when we discuss the topic of schemas. Have you ever felt frustrated as your child throws toy cars across the room, or found the bathroom floor soaking as they splash around under the tap?  Understanding why they are behaving in this way can help you re-direct their behaviour and play in a more manageable (and less stressful!) way. For example, the car and tap examples are part of a trajectory schema (how things move) – and you could provide alternative objects to throw (beanbags or screwed-up paper, into an empty bin) or a watering can or empty yogurt pots to pour water, outside or in the bath.

What is a schema and how does it help children’s learning?

Schemas are repeated actions which we often see in babies and young children (and even us adults!). As well as seeing schemas in our children’s play, we can also see it in their day-to-day activities and routines.

Babies and young children need to explore and learn through their everyday experiences and play. They often repeat behaviours to help them understand and make sense of their world around them. For example, when they throw their cup off the high chair they may be thinking – ‘Where does it go? Does it make the same noise every time it hits the ground? If I throw it harder what happens? Why does my banana not make the same noise?’ These hands-on experiences allow babies and young children to problem solve, predict, question, and become independent learners.

Children’s schemas are an unconscious response to an aspect of their development, such as working out how different things move or fit into each other etc.  They are often seen in repeated behaviours that occur during different activities and in a variety of contexts.

Schemas can be different for every child, and some children may show no evidence of schematic play at all. Schemas develop, adapt, change and mature in response to children’s interests, experiences and interactions with their surroundings and other people.

Have you noticed any patterns in your child’s play?

Grab a cuppa and watch your child play.

It’s good to step back sometimes and just watch. Children often like us close by to able check in with us, but I am always fascinated how even small babies have preferences and can lead their own play. It can be amazing to watch.

If we can identify how our child likes to learn, we can offer more opportunities that they will enjoy. Learning is always better when it’s fun! It hasn’t got to be expensive toys you need to buy. Have a look in the recycling and even the washing basket. Collecting all the socks, lining them up, matching and even joining them together is great fun.

A simple box can be used in a number of ways - it could be something to climb in or a posting box or a bed for a soft toy. Your child will think of things that you wouldn’t have thought of! 

This little one loved putting things inside the box and then found the hole to post objects through. Then she worked out where they had all gone!

Here are some of the more common schemas, but the list is endless:

  • Connecting: joining and separating things.

There are lots of toys that join together, but you could also make your own. A homemade jigsaw can be made with any picture, cut it up into the number of pieces your child can manage. I knew a little boy that liked to do jigsaws upside down, without seeing the picture at all!



  • Enveloping and enclosing: covering things up or putting things inside something else

Save the envelopes from your junk mail, they are very handy for those that like to put things in envelopes. Also fabric bags, old handbags or shoeboxes are also ideal for putting things into. Another easy everyday idea is making a den. A simple blanket or sheet over some cushions and it’s a great snuggly place to play.


  • Rotation: things that go round and round

Wheels, circles, balls or even themselves! You can make your own balls with screwed-up paper and see if those will roll.


  • Trajectory: things that move in a line

When I worked in a nursery many years ago the favourite place to play sometimes was the bathroom, some children were fascinated by the taps with flowing water moving in straight lines, then if you put your hand underneath the water changes direction! If your child enjoys things that move in a line you could try water play with a bowl and some empty pots, pouring is great fun. Water the garden and even using the hose is the best fun ever J


  • Transporting: moving things from one place to another.

Do you find things get moved around the house? Try collecting things that can be moved like a basket of outdoor treasures. My little boy used to use the buggy to collect toys and move them from one place to another.


Maybe your child has a few of these play patterns at once - they may be collecting objects then transporting them to then tip them out and line them up!

Have a look at this chart for ideas of what sort of activities your child may enjoy that involves exploring their preferred play pattern(s).