Children and Schemas - Understanding Different Play Behaviours

Why does he keep taking the blocks and hiding them? Why is she always wrapping things in blankets? Why do our children do the things they do. This blog post explains schemas and why knowing about them can really help us to understand our children's behaviour and to provide play opportunities they'll engage with.

You can also read our other blog posts in this series: What is Play?, The Importance of Play, Barriers to play, The Play Cycle; My Sofa: Enabling Environments, Easy Rider: Risk and Play

A regular Thursday in my house, after being at work for a few days away from my two year old son, usually involves an internal battle between spending quality time with him and getting stuff done around the house. It also usually involves his external battles with me over just about everything. Putting trousers on, having nappies changed, eating breakfast and anything else related to trying to get out of the house! I think it’s his way of communicating that he just wants to be with me but as with all two year olds this doesn’t necessarily come out as sweetness and light! 

On a Thursday I am usually just about ready to drop by about 9.15am. Last Thursday I thought we’d had a break through. I was happily putting away some washing thinking to myself how remarkably well I had managed the morning; we were dressed, fed and I was actually managing to tidy up, all before 9.30am. It was during this moment of smug reflection that I became aware of the most unsettling of sounds… You know the one… Silence!

It’s that moment when you notice that it’s been a little bit too quiet up there for a little bit too long.

Could he just be quietly contemplating his book collection? No chance.

Emptying cupboards in the spare room? More likely but nope, not in there…

Oh no, the bathroom! The room of the house you least want to find your toddler ‘investigating’ - I slowly opened the door and there he was, with one of my brand new trainers perfectly lined up under the tap, poised and ready to fill it up with the next turn.

‘What are you doing?! That’s mummy’s shoe!’

‘Mummy not cross’

‘Yes I am cross, they cost a lot of money!’… Tears

What was he doing that for and why?

I probably could have dealt with that a bit better. I want him to have the freedom to roam around without me but so often he wants to explore the corners of the house that I want him to avoid! And I felt so mean for getting cross. I pondered this little interaction and the many others that have happened over the past month or so. I had made the assumption that he was trying to get my attention by filling up my shoe, but when I really thought about it, this time the signs pointed to something else:

·         He was engaged and concentrating pretty hard on what he was doing
·         He was genuinely startled when he noticed I was there
·         He got really upset when he saw how cross I was (unlike if he were filling my shoe to get my attention when he would most likely laugh hysterically at my attempts to stop him!)

Thankfully my work involves training adults and early years practitioners to support children’s play. Sometimes this means piecing together observations and reflections in order to support children to play in a way that they choose. I spent some time thinking about this little interaction.
  • What was he actually trying to do?
  • Has he displayed this type of behaviour elsewhere?
  • Could this provide a clue?
That was when it hit me…
  • Last week he spent an hour putting toy animals in and out of a ‘den’ that he’d made by propping a small cushion up against the sofa arm.
  • He gets very upset when bath time comes to an end as he is completely obsessed with moving water from container to container. He likes to get inside things, cupboards, boxes, small gaps.
  • He loves watering the plants, but mainly the bit where you fill up the watering can, he could take or leave the actual watering bit.
  • Last week he put his Dad’s favourite beanie hat down the loo.
  • He is constantly asking ‘what’s in there mummy’.
  • He loves just colouring in the eyes of people and animals in colouring books. I thought this was a bit odd but it was all beginning to make sense…

He was showing a containment schema.

What’s a schema?

A schema is a pattern of behaviour that a child demonstrates through their play.

This can be seen through their actions, language and interactions with their environment. It’s the way that young children make sense of the world around them and can show you how they are choosing to learn about the world in that particular moment.

There are around 41 different types of schema identified. A few of the most common ones are:

The key is to try and notice patterns across many different situations. If they just do something once, it’s probably not a schema. If you see it happening in different situations across a period of time it might well be one. In my son’s case his is around containment, so putting things inside other things and is being displayed in lots of different ways. But why is this information useful?
  • Children articulate their thinking expressively through their actions.
  • It could give me an insight into the ideas and concepts he is currently exploring.
  • It helps me to fathom out previously unfathomable behaviour!
  • It helps me support his play better and introduce resources.
Young children will explore the same concepts such as size, weight, gravity, movement, volume etc whether their schematic preference is putting things inside other things (containment), moving things around (transporting) or exploring the movement of objects and themselves (trajectory) to name a few.

Even if their behaviour seems to be focussed on one particular thing in one particular way they are still learning in a way that is relevant to them and critically, playing in a way that they choose. When we support this behaviour and follow their lead it means they are in control of their play and learning which is powerful stuff! That’s not to say it’s ok to empty Grandad’s wallet into the washing machine and pop it on a spin cycle, but if we try to understand the intention of children’s actions we can think about how we can support it in ways that are perhaps a bit more palatable.

Here is a good example of children demonstrating different schemas within their play using a Scrapstore PlayPod.

Scrapstore Play Services offers a range of Early Years Training courses if you would like to find out more about Schemas or playwork theory.
Phone us on 0117 9143002 


Observing your child(ren):

Sometimes children may display a cluster of different schemas, sometimes they may not show an obvious one at all (and that’s just fine) so they are not the answer to everything! However, they can just help a little bit to understand some of the unfathomable moments of parenting. 

So next time you are scratching your head as to why your 3 year old has covered your 3 month old’s hands and feet in paint, think to yourself:
  • Is this a schema – can you think of another time they did something similar?
  • Is this so bad?
  • Can I reframe this situation so they can paint all over something, just not my precious daughter?!’

Things for you to consider:
  • Try to understand the intention of the action in order to make sense of it and support it in a way that is more acceptable to you
  • Do the benefits outweigh our annoyance/fear/frustration to just let it happen?
  • Could you step back a little, observe and reflect on what you see?
  • Be a little calmer when discovering the cat has been wrapped in cling film… again!
Could you provide any resources to support the play?
  • sheets and cushions
  • move the furniture around to make dens
  • go out with a bucket to collect stones and sticks?
  • get out the pots, pans and containers that you didn’t mind being played with.
  • save tubs from recycling for ‘collectables’.
  • Roll up lots of little balls of play dough that could be move from container to container. 
Most importantly try to follow their lead. Play a little bit when you're wanted and, who knows, some of your ideas may spark theirs and some may spark yours!

Good luck!


There are some great leaflets about Schemas that have been produced for parents that help understand this topic a bit better.


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