What Is A Play Schema?

Do you know what play schemas your child is most into? Montessori Educator, Christina Clemer, talks about what they are and how to incorporate them in play.

girl engaging in a play schema

Toddler play is fascinating to watch. When you observe a toddler at play, they will often seem like a little scientist where everything they do is an experiment — a way of learning more about their world.

How full can I fill my bucket and still manage to carry it?

Will this rock sink or float if I throw it into the pond?

What sound will it make if I bang on the deck with this stick?

It’s so interesting, and often surprising, to see what objects and types of play ignite a child’s interest. However, when the things that spark their creativity and hold their attention can seem so random, it can also be difficult to know how to best support their play, and what type of environment to set up for them. 

How do you provide an engaging environment when repeatedly filling up and dumping out a friend’s water bottle is apparently more interesting than the new toy you got them? 

This is where the concept of play schemas becomes incredibly useful.


What is a play schema?

Jean Piaget originally developed the idea of play schema and they’re explored in great detail in Laura England’s book, Schemas – A Practical Handbook.


A play schema is a type of repetitive play a child uses to construct a model in their mind of how the world works. It is a method children use to identify patterns and organize the many things they take in and learn each day.

For example, a young toddler might notice that they can pick some things up easily but others are impossible for them to lift. In this instance, they might become interested in the transporting schema. They might repeatedly move objects from one place to another, exploring how movement works and in what instances they can move things on their own.

So why is it useful to know this?

If you recognize what schema your child is interested in, you can provide additional ways for them to practice. For example, if they love transporting things, you might stock their room with a basket that has a handle, a toy stroller or walker wagon to push things in, or a small backpack they can fill and carry. 

When you observe a schema like this and adjust the environment accordingly, you will notice deeply focused play. It solves a little piece of the mystery about why your tot is interested in certain, seemingly random, objects.


What are the different schemas?


  1. Transporting

The fascination with moving things from one location to another is an easy one to spot! In addition to baskets and carts, toy cars and trucks can be a fun way for children to explore this type of play.


Olli Ella Piki Basket Medium

Ollia Ella Piki Basket – Medium






PlanToys Shopping Cart

PlanToys Shopping Cart







Guidecraft Big Dump Truck

Guidecraft Big Dump Truck






  1. Connecting

If your child loves to build, they may be engrossed in the connecting schema. You can support this by providing lots of different types of blocks, train tracks and art projects using tape and glue.


Wooden block set from Guidecraft

Guidecraft Wooden Unit Blocks – Set A







Q Toys Rainbow Blocks

Q-Toys Rainbow Blocks






Guidecraft Foundation Train Set – A






  1. Orientation

Children interested in orientation love to explore things from different perspectives. You might notice them climbing on furniture or laying on a chair on their belly to see the world from upside down.

Give these kids plenty of opportunities for climbing, swinging, and hanging upside down.


Babai Swing Beige

Babai Swing



$36.99 – $39.99

Available in more colors




Swurfer Spider Swing FW19

Swurfer Spider Rider






  1. Enveloping

Does your child hide tiny objects? Do they hide behind curtains or completely wrap themselves in a blanket. They may be exploring what happens to something when it’s hidden, also known as the enveloping schema. 

You can support this curiosity through playing with shape sorters and coin banks, as well as through providing materials for them to build forts, cubby houses or build little homes for their stuffed animals.


Asweets Dream House

Asweets Dream House






Babai Play Tent Khaki

Babai Play Tent



Avaikable in more colors



  1. Enclosing

The enclosing schema focuses on forming boundaries. This might look like drawing spirals or concentric spirals or it might manifest through building fences, or perhaps a zoo with many enclosures, out of blocks. A farm set where your tot can build a fence would be a fun way to support this schema.



Guidecraft Unit Block Set D

Guidecraft Wooden Unit Blocks – Set D






  1. Rotation

The fascination with understanding how things go round and round may appear as an interest in toy cars and vehicles, but it can also be seen through many children’s love for spinning in circles or rolling down a big hill. 

Support your child’s interest by supplying a variety of vehicles and things with wheels, including things they can ride on like a balance bike.


Amboss Toys PRIMO Special in White

Ambosstoys Primo Special Ride On Toy






Green Toys School Bus

GreenToys School Bus





  1. Trajectory

The trajectory schema is easily misunderstood as misbehavior as it’s often expressed through activities like throwing toys or throwing food. Try redirecting this unwanted behavior through providing plenty of opportunities to safely explore trajectory. 

Play with balls together, practicing kicking, throwing, and dropping from up high. Cars and trucks are also an excellent way to explore this schema. Build ramps in the backyard and watch how different types of vehicles go down the ramp.


PlanToys Ramp Racer

PlanToys Ramp Racer






Guidecraft Mini Wooden Trucks

Guidecraft Mini Wooden Trucks






  1. Positioning

If your child loves precisely lining up their toys, or even the food on their plates, the positioning schema is likely of interest. 

A fun way to extend this schema is to explore collections, sorting, and patterns. You might provide a beautiful box in which your child can store their leaf collection and practice lining up the rocks whenever they please. You might show your child how to sort their blocks by color and, later, how to make a pattern with those colors.


Q Toys Counting and Math Set

Q Toys Natural Counting Board






Grapat Nins Cups and Coins Stack and Sort Game

Grapat Nins Cups and Coins Stack and Sort Game






Toddlers and young kids are experts at finding outlets for the schematic play on which they’re focused. They are nothing if not determined when it comes to finding ways to gain understanding of the world around them! Knowing the underlying schemas influencing their play simply makes it a little easier for you as the parent to support them and understand their urges. It also provides a fascinating glimpse into the universal patterns in how children learn.


Continue exploring


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