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Schemas – How To Understand And Extend Your Child’s Behaviour

Updated on September 29, 2013

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What are schemas?

Schemas are patterns of repeatable behaviour which can often be noticed in young children's play.By exploring and practising their schemas in different situations, children become more knowledgeable about the world around them.

An example of a schema would be a child who carries bricks from one place to another in a bag or pushes a friend around in a toy pram. This would be the Transporting Schema.

Please note that I am talking about Schematic Behaviour, not to be confused with the more popular understanding of the word Schema by Piaget.

In brief, Piaget’s definition of a schema is firstly a way of categorising knowledge and the process of obtaining and modifying that knowledge. For instance, a child may have a schema about dogs, whereby he categorises dogs as anything with four legs and a tail. Then a cat comes along, and he calls it a dog, to which his mother says no, it’s a cat, see? Meow. So he will then modify his schema of dogs to be animals with four legs and a tail that do not meow, and cats as animals with four legs and a tail that do meow.

How are schemas useful?

Understanding schemas are useful for helping to understand a child’s motivation for doing something. From there, we can extend their learning by matching learning opportunities based on their individual interests

For example, take a child who’s interested in transporting and exhibits the Transporting Schema. During sand play, you’d have greater success at engaging his interest by having him move sand in buckets and trucks, as opposed to asking him to dig or bury objects.

Do all children follow schemas?

Although children often show particular schemas in their play, not all children will follow schemas. In addition, some will show one particular schema particularly strongly and others will show several at once. Sometimes one schema which has been particularly strong will even seem to fade, possibly to be replaced by another.

I think my child is exhibiting a schema! He’s obsessively repeating his behaviour! Should I be worried?

Calm down, there’s nothing to worry about. Your child is not abnormal, and his behaviour is not a result of any wrong-doing or neglect on your part.

What should I do? Should I ignore it, or discourage it?

There is no need to try to remove schematic behaviour from your child. Schematic behaviour is not something negative. In fact, think of it as a way of better understanding and predicting your child’s behaviour. Use this knowledge and understanding to connect with your child and drive his learning.

If he likes transporting things, get him a container to collect his toys off the floor and transport them to be tidied after play. If he likes enveloping, get him different materials she could use to cover things with, and ask him what he understands about the materials and what he’s doing.

My boy likes rotating things. Shouldn’t boys be more interested in connecting and constructing things?

I’m not going to get into an argument on gender neutrality and male/female rights. In my personal opinion, every child is a unique individual, and should be cherished as such. If a boy wants to play with dolls, or a girl likes pretending to be Ben 10, I say as long as nobody is being harmed and the child is happy, GREAT! The other children will not say things like ‘Boys shouldn’t play with dolls’ unless they pick it up from an adult.

I don't know how to attach files here (please teach me if you know!), so please click here if you'd like a printable document of the information here, including tables showing:

  • some easily identifiable schemas
  • child's possible preferences according to schema
  • activities according to schema

Do you notice any schematic behaviour in your children? Please share your thoughts in the comments section!

Table 1: Some Easily Identifiable Schemas

Possible Behaviours
A child may carry all the bricks from one place to another in a bag, the sand from the tray to the home corner in a bucket, push a friend around in a toy pram.
A child may cover themselves in a flannel when washing, wrap dolls and toys up in blankets and fabric, cover their painting with one colour.
A child may put their thumb in and out of their mouth, fill up and empty containers of all kinds, climb into large cartons, sit in the tunnel, build 'cages' with blocks.
Trajectory (diagonal/vertical/horizontal)
A child may gaze at your face, drop things from their cot, make arcs in their spilt food with their hand, play with the running water in the bathroom, climb up and jump off furniture, line up the cars, bounce and kick balls, throw. Rotation A child may be fascinated by the
A child may be fascinated by the spinning washing machine, love anything with wheels, roll down a hill, enjoy spinning round or being swung around.
A child may distribute and collect objects to and from a practitioner, spend time joining the train tracks together, stick the masking tape form across form the table to the chair.
A child may put things on their head, prefer their custard next to their sponge not over it, lie on the floor or under the table.
A child may add juice to their mashed potato, sand to the water tray, enjoy adding colour to cornflour or making dough.

Table 2: Child's Possible Preferences According to Schema

Child's Preferences
Connection (joining)
Train track, construction, string, sellotape
Enveloping (covering, surrounding)
Dens, things in boxes, envelopes, dressing up, wrapping 'presents'
Rotation (circles)
Circle games, wheels, roundabouts, spinning tops, kaleidoscopes
Trajectory (straight lines)
Throwing games, woodwork, percussion, football, playing with running water
Transporting (moving things)
Shopping bags, buggies, trailers


Schemas by Juliet Mickelburgh, The Foundation Stage Forum (unfortunately no longer available online)

Schemas by Dorset County Council


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    • MarkLim81 profile image

      MarkLim81 5 years ago from Malaysia

      Thanks Ardie! :)

    • Ardie profile image

      Sondra 5 years ago from Neverland

      I haven't actually paid attention to see if my children exhibit schematic behaviors - only because I wasn't aware of them! Now that I know and understand schemas I will pay more attention to see if I can pick out my childrens' learning/playing tactics. Thank you for explaining this :) Welcome to HubPages - please feel free to contact me if you have any questions. I look forward to reading more Hubs from you.