FREE 30-day trial and added value package, supporting your transition to digital

Click here

Your guide to schematic play, roots and all!

date March 2, 2023Tamsin Grimmer


Have you ever thought about how learning actually happens?  In this enlightening article, Tamsin Grimmer explores the roots of schematic play and highlights the schemas and actions that you might observe in your early years setting.

Jean Piaget famously wrote about schemas of thought and action and he suggested that when we are learning about a concept we are creating a mental image or model, building blocks if you like, in our brain. These building blocks help us to understand about the world. For example, when a child is learning what a dog is, they will be building up an idea of the dog-ness of dogs, a pattern about dogs, such as, all dogs have 4 legs, dogs are furry and dogs bark. We could describe this as a schema, or mental representation of a dog.  In terms of neuroscience, the child has built synapses, neurons with shared connections about dogs, which help them to easily identify a dog in the future. Through the repetition of experiencing ‘dogs’ the child has learned the concept of ‘dog’.

toddler playing with dog

Children are also learning through their senses and actions as they interact with objects, their environment and other people. Piaget’s theory links cognition and learning and explains how children are using schemas to organise their knowledge and understand the world as they play. He noted that sometimes children will repeat actions or movements or show patterns of behaviour in their play. When playing in this way they are learning through repeated experiences and adding information to their schema about how the world works.

Many other early childhood theorists have built on Piaget’s work and further studied schematic play. Chris Athey defines schemas as, “patterns of repeatable actions that lead to early categories and then to logical classifications” (2007:49).  She explains that through interacting with objects and repeating their actions, a child is working out which objects are ‘throwable’ or ‘bangable’.  As learning is about making connections in our brains, children can be adding information to many schemas at once and we may see several repeated patterns in their play.

Let’s think about what this means in terms of young children.  It’s that moment when 18-month-old Charlie, drops his cup again and again. He plays the game of throwing the cup, then when the adult picks up the cup and gives it back he immediately throws it to the floor again!  This play can be very frustrating for parents, but this repeated behaviour, this trajectory schema, is all about learning.  He is learning through repeated experiences.

In my book Observing and Developing Schematic Behaviour in Young Children I explore 12 common schemas of action and think about them in terms of;  What? So What? What next?

  • What – what does this schematic play look like?
  • So what – how can we interpret this play and what are children learning and exploring through playing in this way?
  • What next – how can we support and further extend this play through our provision?

I also consider how sometimes children’s repetitive play patterns are misinterpreted as poor behaviour.  Using schemas to reinterpret children’s challenging behaviour gives us, as practitioners, another tool for our toolbox.

Listed here with some examples are, in my view, some of the most common types of schematic play we might observe in our settings:

  • Connecting – joining and connecting resources together or disconnecting things
  • Containing – filling and emptying boxes and bags
  • Core and radial – creating shapes which involve circles and lines
  • Enclosing – climbing into boxes or fencing in their toys
  • Enveloping – hiding under blankets and covering themselves up
  • Going through a boundary – playing with doors, windows, posting or going through play tunnels (be aware of safety if a child has a fascination with doors or windows!)
  • Orientation – exploring the world from different angles such as lying upside down or looking through their legs
  • Positioning – lining up resources or sorting objects by size, colour or shape
  • Rotation – spinning and rolling objects or themselves
  • Trajectory – movements such as kicking or throwing things or dropping resources, playing with running water
  • Transforming – an interest in changes, mixing food together or mixing sand and water
  • Transporting – moving toys and resources around in buggies, trolleys or pushchairs.

When we notice our children playing in repetitive ways remember that it is through these repeated experiences that learning takes place.

Don’t miss Tamsin’s live webinar and Q&A session.  Click HERE to book.

Schematic play webinar advert

About the author

Tamsin Grimmer is an experienced consultant and trainer, the early years director of Linden Learning and a part-time lecturer at Bath Spa University and Norland College. She is the author of several books in early years practice including: Developing a Loving Pedagogy, Supporting Behaviour and Emotions in the Early Years and Nurturing Self-regulation in Early Childhood.

Tamsin is also our content manager here at Kinderly!


Piaget, J. (1962) Play, Dreams and Imitation in Childhood. London: Routledge and Kegan Paul.

Athey, C. (2007) Extending Thought in Young Children: A Parent–Teacher Partnership (2nd ed.). London: Sage.