Schemas in child development

When we watch the behaviour of babies and children, we might find that it is quite repetitive (and, on the onset, perhaps quite annoying if we don’t understand the meaning behind it!) Take, for example, the child who throws a toy off his highchair again and again and again. Is he doing this to test us? Is he purposefully being cheeky? Or is he exploring and starting to understand the laws of physics? (Will the plate fall if I drop it? Will it fall again? Does the spoon fall too? What about the broccoli? Oh look, the glass shatters when it falls!)


These types of behaviours are not random. They exhibit certain patterns and by repeating these patterns, children are able to create links between their world and the things in them.

John Piaget, a well known psychiatrist who extensively studied and observed early childhood development, used the word “schemas” to describe these repeated patterns of behaviour intrinsic in a child’s learning and understanding of the world. If we understand, or at least know about these schemas, we can better understand why our children are doing certain things.



Giving children ample opportunity to practice whichever schema they are in is an important part of their development. The repetition of these small achievable tasks, over and over again, not only builds up the children’s skills and capabilities, which in turn builds their confidence up, it also builds synapses and pathways in their brain. You loose what you don’t use, so we want to make sure the synapses and pathways aren’t getting grown over and lost. We want to let them explore these trajectories for as long as they need to, and give them not only time but plenty of opportunity to do so.

The child throwing the toy off their highchair is an example of a child in an vertical trajectory. Other schemas include:

Vertical Trajectory
A child who is interested in vertical trajectories (up and down movement) might:

  • Jump up and down
  • Be fascinated with running water
  • Like stacking things on top of eachother
  • Bounce balls
  • Go up and down: ladders, hills, slides, stairs, etc
  • Throw objects up high, or down/off of things

Horizontal Trajectory
A child who is interested in horizontal trajectories (side to side movement) might:

  • Place objects in a line or row
  • Enjoy pushing prams and trolleys
  • Constantly walk on lines
  • Like sweeping or mopping the floor
  • Ride a bike in straight lines

Children fascinated by transporting/carrying objects or themselves from place to place might:

  • Carry bags containing various objects
  • Push prams or trolleys or objects with people/other objects in them
  • Move objects/water from one container to another
  • Carry objects around
  • Pack and unpack drawers/cupboards

Connecting objects together or themselves to other people or objects. A child interested in joining things might:

  • Glue, tie or fasten objects together
  • Drawings and paintings may show a series of linked parts
  • Enjoy toys with linking pieces
  • Enjoy putting lids on objects
  • Enjoy magnets, or sticking things together
  • Be fascinated by things that “go together”, like an acorn and its hat

A child who enjoys rotating objects or themselves might:

  • Love swivel chairs
  • Watch the washing machine
  • Be fascinated with wheels, cogs, keys turning in a door, a window opener, a steering wheel
  • Love spinning
  • Experiment placing toys/things/household objects upside down and right-side up
  • Enjoy using the salad spinner, the cookie roller, an antique coffee grinder with a rotating handle, an apple peeler, or a whisk

Covering themselves or objects, children interested in enveloping might:

  • Completely cover objects, space, or themselves, with pillows, blankets, rugs
  • Like to dress up using hats, scarves, sheets
  • Wraps dolls or stuffed animals up in blankets
  • Wrap things in paper or enclose them in pots or boxes with covers
  • Wrap themselves up in blankets or lie under sofa cushions or carpets

A child in an enclosure schema will be interested in enclosing objects or themselves, and might:

  • Build enclosures using blocks, Lego, cushions, rocks
  • Place their toys, or themselves, in enclosures
  • Draw an enclosing line on their artwork/painting

A child in a filling schema might:

  • Fill containers, buckets, or cups with sand, water, rocks,
  • Place objects in bags
  • Love to watch as things overflow, such as intentionally pouring too much water in a cup

An outdoor setting provides the widest array of opportunities for children to explore their schema, from the very small to the large, without the implications that indoor play has, such as mess or noise. From an observational perspective, it might also be easier to identify schemas in action when children play outside in a free, unstructured way with little to no toys that dictate how they are meant to be used.

Here are some ideas that incorporate schemas into outdoor play:

Painting with rollers
Using a squeeqee to wash windows
Using sticks to write in mud
Building rock or log towers
Building/using levers, pulleys, ropes
Watching streams
Walking across logs
Walking on ledges
Lining up: rocks, sticks, branches, leaves, by size, color, length, or in no way at all
Moving and planting plants
Floating things down a stream
Bringing baskets/bags to collect and carry nature “treasures”
Building a fishing rod from sticks and long grass
Fastening a crown from flower stems together
Rolling logs
Rolling down hills
Counting tree rings
Dropping stones in water to make ripples
Stirring “mud soup”
Playing with bubbles
Making mandalas from leaves, flowers, grass and rocks
Playing with hula hoops
Using a parachute
Building forts–rolling logs, collecting materials, sitting inside
Building fairy or animal houses out of sticks
Using tarps and rope to build shelters
Covering themselves with grass, mud, sand, water, clay, paint or other materials

It’s important to remember that children are the best candidate for knowing which schema they need to work on at any given moment. We cannot -and should not-try to force our children to work on something they have no interest in. This is not true, spontaneous play and as a result does little to help their learning. Our role is to provide the opportunity/environment, and then step back and let their learning unfold however it may. Making time for, and valuing, this type of explorative play is instrumental in the child’s understanding of the world.