Schemas in Children’s Play

“Children learn through play.” Everybody knows that, but do the parents really know the way in which this kind of “learning” occurs?

Jean Piaget defined several stages of cognitive development: sensimotor (0-2), preoperational (2-7), concrete operational (7-11), formal operational. According to this, preschool children are in the preoperational stage, a stage where learning takes place through play. There are several types of play, which are called “schemas”. Their names are rather suggestive.

In my work, identifying schema has always been helpful: you make sense of a situation and you can understand better why some children would do certain actions. Let’s have a look at them:

Enclosure -Building fences around the small world animals, sitting in boxes or pretending to be an animal in a cage. This schema is very popular. I had a little girl in my class who loved to pretend that she is a gorilla trapped in a cage. She used to put boxes or toys around herself particularly the big abacus which resembled the bars of the cage, and she spent most of her free play in there. One day she was enjoying herself so much, she forgot to go to the toilet and she wet herself.

“Enclosing” the car

Another example of enclosure is building. There was a boy in my class whose play revolved around this schema all year round. He spent most of his free play time building structures. He loved to build a  “garage” for his car and he used to literally close it between the walls of Lego. He even “enclosed” himself!

“Enclosing” himself between the “walls” of Lego

Enveloping– wrapping toys, layering paper or fabric.

Dressing up, Dressing and undressing dolls, making clothes for the dolls , all of these are also examples of enveloping. These activities are very popular with the girls. In the pictures below the girl is showing that she is in the enveloping schema. She also liked to dress up and to help her friend to do the same. The children with common schema often play very nicely together.

Enveloping expressed through layering fabric (wrapping it around a tree)

Making clothes for the baby, or “enveloping” the baby

Connection– play with jigsaws, tie knots, join things together (like cars, trains, plastic links). Lots of children love jigsaw but when you’ll notice your child trying to make knots with his little hands he might be exploring this schema.

Core and radial schema– drawing circles, or circle with lines resembling the sun. I have seen lots of children doing this kind of drawing to stand for “writing”, people or simply the sun.

Rotation– spinning around, doing rolly polly, running or walking in circles, playing with toys that have wheels.Trajectory– climbing, pouring, throwing different things, kicking. In this category we may include some children who might be seen as misbehaving (sometimes children are, but sometimes they are just exploring this schema): climbing up the table, throwing toys or food, kicking not only balls but also other toys that aren’t made with this purpose.

Positioning– lining up toys, having a preference in plating their food or just sitting under the table. Most commonly way of putting this into practice is by lining up toys and the most unusual way is placing things to  in a specific way. I had a little boy in my class last year who always requested his croutons on a tissue next to his soup (and not in it) or the mashed potatoes on one side of the plate and the sauce on the other, with some space between them. As fussy as this sounds, I could relate to him because I also have my preferences when plating. They say some schemas, although faded, may continue through adulthood. I guess I has a positioning schema as a child which continues today.

Positioning-lining up cars on top of pieces of Lego

Another example of positioning is this one, where the boy specifically placed the card behind the “walls”:

Specific positions: the plastic cars behind the “walls” and the wooden cars behind the plastic ones.

Transporting– moving objects from one place to another. The children who are showing this schema are called “transporters” and if you have one of these in your class, you’ll be spending a lot of time to tidy up. This is very popular  especially with 2 to 3 year old children.

There are some more schema , which I didn’t notice so often in children’s play, like orientation( which means being interested in different points of view).

Identifying children’s schema is important in order to help them extend their play by offering more chances to play in the same schema. We can  do this by planning  the activities according to children’s  schema.

The parents can do this by providing them the toys that they need for a specific schema. A child who is interested in making clothes for the dolls may also be interested in fancy dress, in playing with fabric to wrap himself in it (or others), in wrapping boxes, decorating, painting, going shopping, dress up Barbies and so on.  Eventually, the child will slide into another schema, and we must be there for him to understand, encourage and support him.

If you want to read more about this, I found these articles useful and maybe you’ll want to take a look:’s_Stages

2 thoughts on “Schemas in Children’s Play

  1. I have found this information on schema and the examples given, very useful in supporting my learning and understanding of schema and a great aid when ensuring that my planning provides opportunity for children to use this, not only in ‘free play’ but in adult initiated activities too (whilst we say ‘adult initiated’ there are lots of ways to ensure children make their own choices, have their own views and opinions and opportunity to bring in their schema) This site helped me keep track of the schema aspect. Thankyou.
    (The views I express are my personal views and not necessarily that of my employer)

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s