Schemas in Play | A Parents Guide To Behaviour.

Bad behaviour or Schemas in play? It can be hard to know the difference and it can be even harder to remain calm when your child has just dropped something from their high chair for the millionth time for you to retrieve. When we understand the schema behind their behaviour we can start to show our children how they can explore the world around them without having to throw their dinner on the floor!

What Are Schemas In Play?

Schemas are like little folders in our brain, they essentially let us make short cuts so we can lead a productive day!

In order to build these schemas we need to learn about the world around us, so when your little one points at a cat and call it a dog that’s because they already have the dog schema. They have seen the cat and their brain has gone “Fluffy, four legs, tail…. it’s a dog!” When you correct them they create a different folder for cat; Fluffy, four legs, tail, says meow. And so the cat schema is made, you may need to go over this several times to strengthen the schema but you get the general idea.

Schemas can be seen in our children’s play and behavior too like; throwing their food on the floor, lining their toys up, climbing in boxes and hanging upside-down! They are natural urges that allow your child to explore the world around them at their own pace, in a way that suits their needs.

Although some of the behaviour can be incredible frustrating, think of it as a science experiment. When the dinner you have just cooked plummets to the floor your child is learning that mashed potato splats as it hits the floor while the peas bounce away. They are learning that some things fall faster than others and many other things.

Now I’m not saying you should let them throw their dinner to the dog. I’m just offering you their perspective, below I have listed the behaviour that come’s with each common schema and how we can set up activities that allow them to explore that schema in a socially acceptable way.

Can My Child Be In More Than One Schema And How Long Does Each One Last?

Children be in a certain schema for weeks or they may only explore it for half an hour, it depends what that are aiming to learn from their experiment. Children aren’t just limited to one schema either, they can be in multiple schema’s at any one time.

Trajectory Schemas In Play

The trajectory schema is all about movement.

Movement of themselves as they jump, making movement happen as they hurl a toy across the room and interacting with things that are already moving like running water.

Trajectory Schema Examples

If your child repeatedly does any of the following they are likely to be in the trajectory schema at that moment in time.

  • Throwing
  • Dropping
  • Jumping
  • Climbing
  • Playing With Running Water
  • Rolling Balls
Trajectory Schemas In Play Activities

Toys to support the trajectory schema;

  • Feathers,
  • scarfs or play silks,
  • soft balls for indoors,
  • ramps,
  • stacking cups,
  • bowling,
  • bean bags,
  • mark making materials.
Schemas in play - Trajectory
Easter Egg Roll
Schemas in play - Trajectory
Pompom Push
Schemas in play - Trajectory
Making Marks With Cars

Positioning Schemas In Play

Children in this schema like to sort their toys, they may just be lining them up or them might have a system.

They may become frustrated if someone moves something they are sorting like we would if we were trying to organise an area in our home!

Positioning Schema Examples

If your child repeatedly does any of the following they are likely to be in the positioning schema at that moment in time.

  • Lining Up Toys
  • Building Towers
  • Creating Displays
  • Sorting Toys Into Categories

Positioning Schema Activities

Toys to support the positioning schema;

  • Stacking Cups,
  • Threading Beads,
  • Building Blocks,
  • Loose Parts,
  • Russian Dolls,
  • Puzzles.
Schemas in play - positioning
Rangoli Pattern With Dyed Salt
Schemas in play - positioning
Follow The Lines
Schemas in play - positioning
Colour Matching

Rotation Schemas In Play

The rotation schema is all about things turning.

Sitting and spinning the wheels on their cars, twirling and running in circles and asking you to spin them are all behaviours that can be seen in this schema.

Rotation Schema Examples

If your child repeatedly does any of the following they are likely to be in the rotation schema at that moment in time.

  • Spinning wheels
  • Watching the washing machine
  • Twirls in circles or asks you to spin them
  • Enjoys mixing things together
  • Undoing and doing back up lids

Rotation Schema Activities

Toys to support the rotation schema;

  • Trains on tracks,
  • Toy vehicles,
  • Spinning tops,
  • Cogs and water walls,
  • Hula hoops,
  • Play silks and ribbons.
  • There is also a lot of rotation involved in cooking so you cold even bake some cakes!
Schemas In Play - Rotation
Mable Effect Biscuits
Schemas In Play - Rotation
Pinecone Bird Feeder
Schemas In Play - Rotation
Cardboard Tracing Board

 Enveloping Schemas In Play

Wrapping and/or covering items or themselves all fall under the enveloping schema. Sitting under blankets, wrapping items up, dressing up costumes and even covering themselves in paint are all behaviours we see in the enveloping schema

Enveloping Schema Examples

If your child repeatedly does any of the following they are likely to be in the enveloping schema at that moment in time.

  • Hiding under blankets
  • Wrapping item in clothes, paper or bags
  • Loves dressing up costumes
  • Painting themselves

Enveloping Schema Activities

Toys to support the enveloping schema;

  • Play silks,
  • Stuffed animals or dolls,
  • Loose parts to wrap up,
  • Playing peek a boo,
  • Tunnels, forts and tents
  • Paints and paint brushes
Painting and allowing freedom
Exploring Play Silks

Containment Schemas In Play

The containment schema is all about enclosing items in an area or container. Spending time filling and emptying containers, putting themselves in boxes and building fences around their toy animals are all part of the containment schema. It may seem pretty repetative to us but they are working out volume, weight as well as developing physical skills.

Containment Schema Examples

If your child repeatedly does any of the following they are likely to be in the containment schema at that moment in time.

  • Filling and emptying containers
  • Posting items into a box
  • Putting themselves into small spaces
  • Fencing in small world animals and people

Containment Schema Activities

Toys to support the containment schema;

  • cardboard boxes of different sizes,
  • containers
  • loose parts,
  • shape sorters,
  • tunnels and forts
  • As well as dry sensory play such as; pasta, rice, sand with containers and jugs,
  • Jugs and containers during bath time.
Schemas in play - Containment
Strawberry Letter Game
Schemas in play - Containment
Sensory Small World Set Ups
Schemas in play - Containment
Fake Snow

Transporting Schema In Play

The Transporting Schema is all about moving items, sometimes they fill bags, trucks or boxes, other times you can see them with an armful of toys carrying them from one area to another.

Transporting Schema Examples

If your child repeatedly does any of the following they are likely to be in the transporting schema at that moment in time.

  • Piling toys into a bag and them emptying the bag only to fill it again
  • Placing toys into a car pushing it and then taking them all off
  • Loves helping to unpack shopping

Transporting Schema Activities

Toys to support the transporting schema;

  • Bags,
  • Containers,
  • Prams,
  • Wheel barrow

Anything they can use to carry items, of course they also need items to transport so

  • Any loose parts; blocks, pompoms, rocks, baby pouch lids.
  • Jugs in the bath for pouring

Orienteering Schema In Play

The Orienteering schemas is all about seeing the world from different angles during play your child might love to climb, hang upside down or lay underneath furniture. 

Orienteering Schema Examples

If your child repeatedly does any of the following they are likely to be in the orienteering schema at that moment in time.

  • Climbing on furniture
  • Hanging upside down
  • Doing funny yoga poses
  • loves being on your shoulders
  • Crawling under furniture

Orienteering Schema Activities

Toys to support this;

  • Climbing frames,
  • pikler triangle,
  • Laying underneath tables 
  • Yoga for kids

Action Steps For Parents

How can I stop unwanted behaviour?

Now I said at the very start I’m not saying that we should let our children lob all of their dinner on the floor in the name of experimenting, and this goes for any other behaviours that could be related to a schema.

The easiest way to deal with schema behaviour we don’t want to encourage is to discourage and divert. In the example below I will talk you through a real life example.


Ayla is throwing her toys across the room, it isn’t out of anger. I need her to stop throwing hard toys before she hurts someone or something gets broken.
“Ayla, we only throw soft toys. That one looks hard, lets find one you can throw.”


Ayla learns (eventually) we don’t throw hard objects. I am still allowing her to explore her natural urge by helping her find a soft toy she can throw.

How do I know what schema my child is in?

Sit back and observe what your toddler does as they play, write it down if you need to. Then look at the list above and name what schema or schemas your child is currently exploring.

How can I set up my home for success?

I find toy rotations are a life saver, and many other parents find the same. (toy rotation post is coming soon) These allow us to put away the majority of toys and simply rotate them around every few weeks. I always aim to have out resources that cover all of the schemas but if I find I’m missing something I will get it out if I feel it’s needed.

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