In the first two years of life and early childhood, children develop repeated patterns of behavior called schemas. These patterns help them explore and learn about the world. They learn best by doing things themselves and learning from those experiences.
Understanding schemas in early childhood
When children repeat certain behaviors, they start to understand how objects work and how they can use them. By playing in a repeating way, they can figure out what things mean. They can also solve problems, ask questions, make predictions, imagine things, guess, and make choices in areas they know.
Schemas are really important for children because they help them understand what they’re experiencing and build a foundation for future learning.
It is important to understand that children use play to develop a methodical, systematic, and logical collection of information through their senses and movements as they interact with each other, objects, and materials within the environment.
A basic knowledge and understanding of schemas can support parents and teachers in understanding their observations of children, which can, in turn, support assessing and planning for the children’s next steps in development.
Schemas in Play and Activities to Support Them
1. Transportation schema
Children who enjoy moving objects from one place to another can be supported by giving them toys that are easy to move, like balls or toy cars. They may carry objects in their hands or pockets, or put them in containers like buckets, trolleys, wheelbarrows, or bags, and then place them in piles around the nursery. We can support this schema by providing materials that are easy to move, like balls or toy cars.
Activities to support the transportation schema
- Build pulleys for transporting things up and down or from side to side.
- Create a small world construction site to move materials.
- Explore outdoors by going on a hunt with buckets, bags, etc., to collect things.
- Fill ice cube trays, teapots, and cups with rice or beans, using small spoons
- In role play, make a makeshift van to move packed boxes like when moving house
- Make twig boats to sail down pipes.
- Practice emptying and filling clothes baskets or drawstring bags, and stack and sort toys.
- Provide a collection of purses, suitcases, rucksacks, and bags for transporting things inside.
- Transport small animals and Duplo blocks in boats or foil trays in the water tray, or down large pieces of guttering.
- Use diggers, tractors, wheelbarrows, trolleys, and dumpers to transport sand, bark, pebbles, balls, cones, and natural objects.
- Use droppers and syringes in the water tray to fill and empty.
- Use large boxes that can be filled and emptied with other objects.
- Use scoops, spades, spoons, bottles, and jugs of different sizes in the sensory trays.
Vocabulary words to support the transportation schema
- Move, Lift, Carry, Pour, Place, Put
- Here, There, In, On, Under
- Empty, Full, Half full, Overflowing, All gone, Open, Closed
2. Enveloping schema
Children who enjoy this schema like to cover or hide things. They may dress up in hats, scarves, necklaces, and bangles, or create a den under a blanket or piece of furniture. They might put little things they find around the room in a bag, paint or glue their hands, and then peel it off, or paint over a picture with a single color. They might also wrap things in paper or other materials. We can help children explore this schema by providing materials like fabric scraps or boxes that can be used for wrapping and hiding.
Activities to support the enveloping schema
- Cook pasta parcels (ravioli) or wraps.
- Create treasure baskets full of fleece, suede, fur fabric, etc. for wrapping objects.
- Decorate balloons, boxes, or tubes with wallpaper paste, string, wool, shiny paper, etc.
- Fill purses, boxes, tins, baskets, suitcases, glasses cases, wallets, or bags with different materials.
- In sensory trays, fill and empty bottles, buckets, or pots.
- Make puppets out of socks or gloves.
- Play pass the parcel.
- Play with toys such as Russian dolls, nesting toys, and shape sorters.
- Post things into large tubes.
- Role-play different scenarios like wrapping parcels in a post office or using blankets to wrap babies.
- Stuff things into old socks, pillowcases, or cushion covers.
- Use different materials to make parcels: wrapping paper, newspaper, colored cellophane, wallpaper, string, sellotape, and paperclips.
- Use small blankets to wrap objects.
- Wrap yourself up in tissue rolls, scarves, or large pieces of fabric.
Vocabulary words to support the enveloping schema
- Cover, Hide, Wrap, Unwrap, Put, Stuff, Fill, Envelop
- Under, Over, Inside, Outside, Within, Without
- Visible, Invisible, Transparent, Hidden, Full, Empty
3. Rotation schema
Children who enjoy this schema often like to spin objects or themselves around. They may turn or rotate objects or themselves, and they may spin, twist, roll, and turn objects or their own bodies. Children with a rotational schema are often full of energy, playing games such as running and spinning in circles, riding bikes around and around, and twisting ribbons, scarves, and ropes. We can support this schema by providing materials such as tops or swings that can be used for spinning.
Activities to support the rotation schema
- Connect and disconnect construction toys like stacking gears
- Create bubbles with rotary whisks in bubbly water
- Draw, paint, and chalk circles and spirals to finger trace or run around outside
- Handle different sizes of wheels
- Hang old vinyl or CD mobiles from the ceiling or tree branches
- Lock and unlock locks and keys
- Look through and turn kaleidoscopes
- Make and fly windmills or spiral windsocks
- Make Swiss roll, spiral biscuits
- Observe spirals (snail shells, coils, springs)
- Paint large-scale pictures with paint rollers
- Pour water into water wheels in sensory trays
- Roll small objects like marbles, shells, rice, beans in a tube and listen to them spin
- Shape different textured dough to make spirals
- Spin hand-spun objects from the trees outside
- Spin salad spinner to paint pictures
- Toss and catch small and large hoops, and roll them
- Twist spaghetti to make spiral patterns
- Wind and listen to music boxes
- Make and wave windmills or ribbon sticks
Vocabulary words to support the rotation schema
- Roll, Spin, Twirl, Twist, Turn, Rotate
- Round, Circle, Spiral, Dizzy
4. Trajectory schema
Children develop patterns of movement where they move their arms, legs, and bodies in straight lines, either up and down or side to side. Examples include pushing and kicking objects (going horizontally) and dropping objects or putting them in and out of containers (going vertically). Later, they explore straight lines (up, down, or side to side). Babies can be seen reaching out for objects, kicking their legs, and opening and closing their hands. Children who are exploring this schema often enjoy throwing or watching objects move through space. We can support this schema by providing materials such as balls, Frisbees, or paper airplanes that can be thrown or launched.
Activities to support the trajectory schema
- Assemble tracks for wheeled toys to move around on.
- Chase and catch bubbles.
- Create obstacle courses where children have to jump over or crawl under obstacles. Build with soft furnitures such as this couch for kids.
- Create a ramp for children to roll cars down, experimenting with different angles and speeds.
- Create a simple pulley system.
- Create a target area for children to throw variety of balls into.
- Use a variety of balls, soft and hard, to throw, catch and roll.
- Drip colored water or glue down a mirror or plastic using syringes or your fingers.
- Drip paint down onto paper using a funnel.
- Drop balls or cars, down different lengths & sizes of tubing.
- Drop objects of varying sizes, weights, and shapes onto a target and observe their behavior.
- Play with frisbees, boomerangs and paper airplanes.
- Provide cups for children to stack and knock down.
- Play with parachutes or scarves, tossing them up into the air and watching them float down.
- Play with yo-yos.
- Roll marbles in paint to create patterns.
- Set up a water table and provide cups, funnels and other materials for children to pour and splash with.
- Throw wet sponges at a target.
- Tie a paintbrush to a string and use it like a pendulum to paint.
- Use lightweight materials like feathers, chiffon scarves, or tissue paper to make them blow in the wind.
- Use water pumps, funnels, and plastic dropper to move water.
Vocabulary words to support the trajectory schema
- Throw, Fly, Spin, Twirl, Glide, Float, Drop, Bounce, Swing, Launch, Go, Push, Kick
- Up, Down, Over, Above, Below, Forward, Backward, Left, Right
- Fast, Slow, Far, Near, High, Low
5. Positioning schema
Children who explore this schema often like to arrange objects in a certain way or line them up. They can be seen putting objects or themselves in order and in specific positions (such as on top, next to, in front of, around the edge, beside, or behind). They may also line up objects by size, color, or shape. Some children may not want their food mixed together on the same plate. We can help this schema by providing materials like blocks or small toys that can be arranged in different ways.
Activities to support the positioning schema
- Arrange dolls or action figures in different positions.
- Balance objects.
- Build towers, houses, and other structures using different types of blocks or Legos.
- Clip items onto a line or cardboard box using clothespins.
- Create a treasure hunt and have children search for hidden objects in specific locations.
- Create different scenes and move felt pieces around to explore different positions using a felt board.
- Create patterns with different colored blocks or shapes.
- Create shapes on the floor using tape for children to stand in or jump to.
- Explore balance and positioning by playing with a balance beam or see-saw.
- Explore how magnets stick and move.
- Line up toys or materials.
- Play hide and seek.
- Play with a tent or tunnel and explore different positions.
- Sort objects by size or color.
- Stack and unstack objects.
- Use a balance board or wobble board to explore balance and positioning.
- Use peg boards to create patterns.
Vocabulary words to support the positioning schema
- Place, Align, Arrange, Order, Organize, Line up, Sort
- Inside, On top, Under, Beside, Behind, Between, Next to, In front
6. Connecting schema
Children who enjoy exploring this schema like to connect objects in different ways. They may tie toys together using ribbon, build chains out of objects, or fasten fabrics together to suspend things in the garden. (This can lead to a disconnecting schema where the child builds something that they can demolish through untying knots, etc.) To support this schema, we can provide materials such as blocks, Legos, or puzzles that can be used to build and connect structures.
Activities to support the connecting schema
- Build spider webs with yarn or thread.
- Build a train track or road.
- Create paper chains.
- Connect blocks together to create different structures.
- Create a string art project by weaving different colored strings through a wooden board or pegboard.
- Create jewelry using beads, strings, and wires.
- Create structures using pipe cleaners or straws and connectors.
- Design and build a marble run using different materials like cardboard tubes or pool noodles.
- Experiment with magnets and see how they connect to different materials.
- Engage in junk modelling using tape, string, glue, paperclips, ribbon, and other materials.
- Make a chain using paper clips or other materials.
- Make a collage using different materials like paper, fabric, and foam, and connecting them together.
- Make chalk trails to follow outside or use masking tape to join areas together indoors.
- Make a mobile using different materials like feathers, beads, and string.
- Mix cornflour and water to make gloop.
- Play with connect-the-dot puzzles.
- Play with different types of building materials, like wooden blocks, Lincoln Logs, or magnatiles.
- Play with construction toys that connect in different ways, such as popping blocks, mobiles, and art straws.
- Thread ribbon, beads, or pasta shapes to make necklaces.
- Use dressing up clothes with different fastenings.
- Use a hole punch to thread small pieces of paper together to make mobiles. You can also add bun cases and straws.
- Use a loom to weave fabric or yarn.
- Use different types of connectors to build structures, like Tinkertoys or Zoob.
- Use pipe cleaners or twist ties to connect different objects together.
- Weave patterns using natural materials such as twigs, willow, and grasses.
Vocabulary words to support the connecting schema
- Build, Construct, Join, Separate, Knot, Thread, Stack, Unstack
- Together, Apart
- Flexible, Rigid, Bendy, Stretchy, Strong, Fragile, Long, Tall, Big
7. Orientation schema
Children exploring this schema like to explore their surroundings from different angles and orientations. They might look at things from unusual viewpoints, like upside down, through their legs, or in a mirrored reflection. Children may build ramps, climb, or stand on a ledge to see things from a higher position. They might also move objects or themselves into different positions. To support this schema, we can provide materials like mirrors, kaleidoscopes, or binoculars that let children see their surroundings in new and different ways.
Activities to support the orientation schema
- Build a tower with blocks and view it from different angles and perspectives.
- Build pendulums.
- Create a treasure hunt where children have to find objects from a specific point of view, such as upside down or through a mirror.
- Explore shadows and how they change depending on the position of the light source.
- Freeze small objects in ice cubes and watch them melt from different angles.
- Look at objects through different lenses and filters, such as magnifying glasses or colored plastic sheets.
- Make peepholes in paper, fabric, or boxes.
- Place mirrors on the floor, ceiling, etc. to explore different perspectives and angles of materials.
- Play with kaleidoscopes, binoculars, telescopes, or periscopes.
- Set up obstacle courses that require crawling, climbing, and looking at things from different angles.
- Use a large ball or globe to explore different continents and countries from different angles and perspectives.
- Use a variety of mirrors, including convex and concave shapes, to distort or magnify reflections.
- Use cardboard tubes and other materials to create periscopes and view objects from different angles.
- Use outdoors for spinning, twisting, or rolling.
- Use posting boxes.
- Use magnifying glasses to observe objects and materials.
Vocabulary words to support the orientation schema
- Climb, Elevate, Hang, Magnify, Zoom, Turn, Twist, Roll, Reflect
- Above, Below, Backwards, Forwards, Upside down, Inside out
- Slanted, Diagonal, Deep, Shallow, Close, Blurry, Clear, Convex, Concave
8. Enclosing schema
Children with this schema enjoy surrounding themselves or objects in spaces, like hiding under a blanket or inside a box. They may join lines or build structures with different materials to form an enclosure, which can be round, square, or rectangular. They may build fences or walls around objects, or fill in an enclosure they have drawn or built. They can also outline their art creations or arrange food around the edge of their plate. They might ride a bike around an enclosed space they have constructed. We can support this schema by providing materials like tunnels or tents that can be used for hiding and enclosing.
Activities to support the enclosing schema
- Build a tent with blankets and netting
- Create burrows and tunnels in wet sand, soil, etc. in the sensory trays
- Create treasure baskets to include bracelets, bangles, necklaces, bandages, scarves, lengths of ribbon, saris, or tinsel.
- Drape a sheet over a frame to create a den.
- Set up washing lines to drape fabric over to make a den (can be secured with pegs).
- Make borders out of paper and twigs for creative projects.
- Make clay or playdough caves.
- Make cloaks, scarves, and bandages for wrapping things in role playing.
- Play parachute games that create domes.
- Put fabric or paper doors onto tunnels.
- Set up tunnels, hollow cubes, or pop-up tents (put cushions and blankets inside).
- Use construction materials to make fences, bridges, arcs, and walls to enclose toy animals.
- Use large cardboard boxes for children to hide in.
- Use shoe boxes to build homes for small world toys.
- Use sticks or twigs to frame objects.
Vocabulary words to support the enclosing schema
- Enclose, Wrap, Hide, Close, Open, Cover Protect
- Inside, Outside, Top, Underneath, Beside, Within
- Big, Small, Long, Short, Fully closed, Semi-closed, Border, Corner, Side, Entrance, Exit
9. Transformation schema
Children who like to change the way things look or feel by mixing, cutting or shaping different materials, may have this schema. They may mix paint to make new colors or shape clay or play dough into different objects. To support this schema, we can provide materials like modeling clay, play dough, or building blocks. We can also encourage children to mix different materials together, like adding water to flour to make a paste or mixing paint colors to create new shades.
Activities to support the transformation schema
- Create glitter jars.
- Create handmade slime.
- Create a clay plaque from a nature scavenger hunt.
- Enjoy deconstructing blocks and other built or gathered objects.
- Find ways to reduce puddles by diverting or sweeping them.
- Grind different things in the environment like leaves, petals, and nuts.
- Make homemade playdough and play with it.
- Make potions in puddles.
- Make smoothies, whether edible or disgusting (using mud, water, or whatever).
- Mix colors using paint or food color.
- Mix ingredients for cooking or try a new recipe.
- Observe and play with ice and snow.
- Paint the face like an animal or a new character.
- Paint with hands and feet outdoors.
- Press flowers or leaves and observe it dry over the next days and weeks.
- Rub color on paper over different textured surfaces like barks, rocks.
- Stomp on mud.
- Play dress-up as different characters.
- Use puddles for brush art.
- Mark the playdough or slime with loose parts or stamps.
Vocabulary words to support the transformation schema
- Mix, Change, Observe, Mark, Create, Transform, Become, Process, Wait
- Result, Outcome, Mixture, Experiment, Artwork, Recipe
- From, To, Before, After, Then, Now
- New, Different, Unusual, Wonderful
It’s important to remember that not all children will explore all of the schemas, and that each child may have a unique way of engaging with a particular schema. Understanding schemas can help us to better understand a child’s interests and needs and to provide them with the materials and experiences that will support their development.
Here are other activities for future projects that your children might be also be interested in.
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