The schema conundrum!

The schema conundrum!

Have your ever noticed a child lining up their toys or spinning around in circles?  Or that a child is often more interested in a cardboard box, rather 

than the gift that was in it?  Perhaps you are perplexed by the toddler who repeatedly throws their cup from their high chair? 

Children do many puzzling things and will often repeat these behaviours.  It is highly likely that these behaviours are schematic.  In my new book, Observing and Developing Schematic Behaviour in Young Children, I unpick the most common schemas and provide ideas of how to extend children’s learning based on their schematic interests.  I also consider children whose behaviour may be misinterpreted as challenging when it could simply be schematic.

When looking at schema theory, I have stripped back the technical language that is often used to describe schemas, and instead focus on interpreting observations of children who are engaged in schematic play. 

I consider the following 12 common schemas, listed here with some examples:

  • Connecting – joining and connecting toys together
  • 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 or going through play tunnels
  • Orientation – lying upside down or looking through their legs
  • Positioning – lining up toys or sorting objects by size, colour or shape
  • Rotation – spinning and rolling toys or themselves
  • Trajectory – throwing things or dropping toys
  • Transforming – mixing food together or mixing sand and water
  • Transporting – moving toys around in buggies, trolleys or pushchairs

For each of these schemas, I include case studies, interpret the observations and share practical ideas for how to use this information to extend each schema and aid children’s learning, development and play.

Three year old Katie loaded up the pushchair with several bags at once and moved around the nursery.  She was containing and enjoyed the process of putting things in the various bags that she hung on the pushchair. Katie was investigating concepts relating to volume and capacity. How much will fit in this bag? Will this toy squeeze into that backpack? These ideas will also support her in her developing understanding of spatial awareness and size.

Carlos lined up the cars side by side on the car mat.  He was very purposeful and methodical about where he placed each car and showed little interest in ‘driving’ the cars around.  This is evidence of a positioning schema.  Each car needed its own space and Carlos was paying attention to detail in his play.  A practitioner working with Carlos extended his interest in positioning cars by building a garage with him out of a shoe box, so that Carlos could place each car in a parking space.

In my chapter about reinterpreting behaviour in the light of schemas, we meet several children whose behaviour could be viewed as challenging.  For 

example, Jack, who likes to knock down other children’s towers.  I suggest that schemas provide a new lens with which to view these children and in doing so, redirect them into more worthwhile endeavours.

It would be easy to become concerned about the destructive nature of Jack’s play, however, Jack could be investigating disconnecting, which links with the connection schema, and also enjoying the trajectory movement involved with knocking down the towers.  With this is mind, we can play alongside Jack building towers specifically for him to knock down and encourage him to play stacking games such as Jenga.  We could redirect Jack’s attention into activities involving trajectory movement or connecting and disconnecting which might capture his attention. We can also work alongside Jack to help him to understand how the action of knocking down a tower impacts on the other children.   Using schemas to reinterpret children’s challenging behaviour gives us, as practitioners, another tool for our toolbox.

About the author

Tamsin GTamsin Grimmer photo2rimmer is an experienced early years consultant and trainer and parent who is passionate about young children’s learning and development. She believes that all children deserve practitioners who are inspiring, dynamic, reflective and committed to improving on their current best. Tamsin particularly enjoys planning and delivering training and supporting early years practitioners and teachers to improve outcomes for young children.

Tamsin’s book, Observing and Developing Schematic Behaviour in Young Children, was released in July 2017.

You can contact Tamsin via Twitter @tamsingrimmer, her Facebook pagewebsite or email info@tamsingrimmer.co.uk


Dear Sympathetic Sue – Discussing schemas with parents!

Dear Sympathetic Sue – Discussing schemas with parents!

During their play, children regularly behave in interesting and unusual ways that are sometimes confusing or even frustrating, such as lining up the toy animals, climbing inside boxes or repeatedly playing with the taps. As early childhood educators, we recognise these play patterns as children learning through schematic play, but the families of our children might not know anything about schemas. We are regularly asked by parents and carers why their child is doing these things and part of our role is reassuring them that schematic play is a common occurrence in early childhood and nothing to be concerned about. The other day, I was considering how parents feel about schematic behaviour and this led me to wonder what they would write if they asked an agony aunt about patterns they have observed in children’s play and how Sympathetic Sue might respond:


Dear Sympathetic Sue,

My son is driving me crazy! Johnnie is 18 months old now and keeps dropping his beaker from his highchair, again and again! As soon as he drops it, he looks at me to pick it up for him. When I do and place it on his tray, he immediately drops it again! He will repeat this until I get fed up and stop giving it back to him. Please help!

From Frustrated in Ferryport

Dear Frustrated in Ferryport,

I can understand your frustration with this, Johnnie has turned this into a turn-taking game and it can feel very annoying when all you want him to do is sip his beaker! Don’t worry, this sort of behaviour is perfectly normal for a child of his age. Johnnie is working out how the world works in terms of both his relationship with you and also what happens when you throw things off a highchair. Educators would say that Johnnie is engaging in schematic play and has a fascination with trajectory, or the movement of things. The word trajectory comes from the Latin ‘trajectoria’ and literally translated means ‘throw across’ so Johnnie is exploring the movement of his cup when he drops it from his highchair. In a basic way, he is learning about gravity and forces as well as engaging in play that involves turn-taking with an adult, which is essential for social interaction and conversation. If you are worried about the mess when he throws things, then you can take practical steps like placing a splash-mat under his highchair or sitting him in a small chair at ground level. Alternatively you could accept that he will throw things and only give him things that you are happy for him to throw. You may like to play other games with him like throwing some soft balls or beanbags into a waste-paper basket or share with him some cause-and-effect-toys like shape-sorters and pop-up toys.

Sympathetic Sue


Dear Sympathetic Sue,

I am worried about my daughter Sarah’s behaviour. She is a lovely little three-year-old who happily plays with her friends, but when she is on her own, she spends hours lining up her teddies or carefully arranging her unicorns in rows, often in a colour order. If I try to touch them, she gets very upset and I’m running out of floor space! I am worried that she might be autistic. Please help!

From Panicking Pamela 

Dear Panicking Pamela,

Please do not panic! Although I do not know Sarah, no one has ever been diagnosed as autistic on the basis that they line up their toys alone! She sounds like a sociable little girl who is engaging in a positioning schema. This type of play is very common and is helping Sarah to make sense of the world. Through lining up her toys, she is learning important organisational skills and working out how to order and sequence her unicorns. Her ability to focus for long periods of time is great and will be a huge asset when she begins school. You could talk to Sarah about creating her lines in the space in which you would prefer her to create them, which still enables people to walk past, explaining that you love her lines of toys and are worried that you might step on them. Sarah might want the opportunity to order and line up other toys so perhaps you could introduce some unicorns of different sizes? She might enjoy positioning her toys on an old flattened box to create a magical background scene and you could invite Sarah to introduce a narrative to run alongside her lines of toys, explaining to you why she has placed each toy in that specific place. You will probably find that she has carefully thought this through and has a great brain for planning things, which will prove very useful in years to come!

Sympathetic Sue


Dear Sympathetic Sue,

My son, Xavier, enjoys painting but has been coming home from nursery school lately with black pictures. His key person said that he spent ages painting a lovely picture and then covered it all with black paint! Why would he want to cover up his lovely work? Oh, and he’s also been hiding a lot recently, under duvets, blankets and even putting my dressing gown over his head! Please help!

From Confused in Creeton

Dear Confused in Creeton,

Firstly, do not worry about Xavier’s confusing behaviour. He is interested in enveloping, which is a common schema of play. Covering himself or his paintings links with the idea that things can appear and disappear and he is playing with the concept. While hiding, he is exploring and thinking about when he can and can’t be seen – which you can play along with. You might like to offer him some large pieces of material, a clothes horse and some clothes pegs with which he can make a den or offer him wrapping paper to ‘hide’ his toys inside. He will love playing hide and seek with you and may want to cover some toys and play a treasure hunt game to find them. Some children who enjoy enveloping also like to explore this concept when cooking, so making pies, pasties, filling pitta bread or samosas will be a great hit!

Sympathetic Sue

We can share information about schemas with parents and carers, offering them practical ideas of how they can support their children’s development at home in ways that link into the schema they are interested in. You may be interested in reading my book “Observing and Developing Schematic Behaviour in Young Children” which looks at 12 different schemas, what they are, interpreting this behaviour and it also offers ideas of how to further extend the schema. It also considers how occasionally-schematic-play can be misinterpreted as poor behaviour.

Here are some ideas of how to support parents to better understand schemas:

  • Help them to recognise and identify schemas and play patterns
  • Talk about behaviours that could be described as schematic
  • Reassure them that schemas are a common way that many children learn and develop
  • Explain that children repeatedly behaving in unusual, odd or frustrating ways is how they are learning about the world around them
  • Display photos of children engaging in specific play relating to schemas, for example, rotation – with pictures of children spinning wheels, playing with balls, drawing circles etc.
  • Share how repeating actions helps children’s brains to develop
  • Provide ideas of how to extend children’s play including simple games or activities that they can play together at home
  • Plan a workshop to share ideas about schematic behaviour
  • Set up your room with lots of schematic activities and add posters stating what children are learning through this repetitive play
  • Create a series of little information leaflets, each focusing on one schema at a time.

When it comes to schemas, you may need to be ‘Sympathetic Sue’ for your parents and carers, reassuring them that schemas are a common way in which children investigate and explore the world around them.

About the author

Tamsin GTamsin Grimmer photo2rimmer is an experienced early years consultant and trainer and parent who is passionate about young children’s learning and development. She believes that all children deserve practitioners who are inspiring, dynamic, reflective and committed to improving on their current best. Tamsin particularly enjoys planning and delivering training and supporting early years practitioners and teachers to improve outcomes for young children.

Tamsin has written two books – Observing and Developing Schematic Behaviour in Young Children and School Readiness and the Characteristics of Effective Learning.

You can contact Tamsin via Twitter @tamsingrimmer, her Facebook pagewebsite or email info@tamsingrimmer.co.uk

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